‘Stories change because their hearts change:’ Law enforcement, victim advocates discuss difficulty of pursuing domestic violence cases
Deputy District Attorney Casey Ayer has seen the pattern too many times.
In her four-plus years serving as a Nevada County prosecutor, Ayer has prosecuted probably hundreds of domestic violence cases as head of the office’s family violence unit. But in far more cases than she would like, Ayer said that she has had to drop charges against accused abusers — most often because of a lack of cooperation by the victim.
“Victims’ stories change because their hearts change, and sometimes that ends up sinking the case entirely,” Ayer said. “Oftentimes, even when we believe we have a strong case to start with, it doesn’t end up a strong case.”
Andrew Trygg, a spokesperson for the Nevada County Sheriff’s Office, said deputies often see repeat offenders they’ve arrested avoid consequences, usually because a victim decides not to testify.
“There is frustration throughout the community about whether or not these cases are prosecuted,” he said. “Frankly, sometimes our hands are tied as a department. We write the best report that we can, but we aren’t the ones prosecuting the case.”
Even as domestic violence cases rose substantially in Nevada County last year, county prosecutors have consistently had a lower conviction rate in prosecuting domestic violence as compared to other criminal cases, which is also true nationally, according to the District Attorney’s Office.
Experts agree that these cases are particularly difficult to prosecute because of the emotional, psychological, and familial factors that are unique to these cases.
In order to convict the perpetrator, prosecutors often need the victim to testify. But victims of abuse in domestic partnerships, for instance, often decline to cooperate with law enforcement because they want to continue a romantic relationship with their abuser, according to Danielle Slakoff, a criminal justice professor at Sacramento State University.
“The first thing to consider is that these are usually people who are intimately involved and therefore love each other,” Slakoff said. “What usually gets prosecuted is physical violence, and by the time physical violence occurs in a relationship, these two people often already have strong feelings for each other.”
Female victims with children often protect their abusive partner also out of a fear of economic hardship for their family, particularly in situations where the abuser is the family’s sole breadwinner, the professor added.
“Kids are a complicating factor in violent relationships…often if there’s no clear signs of progress in the case against the abuser, the victim will decide to revert to living with the person with the stable income and the stable home, which can be the abuser,” she said.
Even when victims of domestic violence are not trying to protect their abuser, they may still decline to testify, as the process of testifying in itself can be traumatizing, forcing the victim to relive their abuse.
“In the criminal justice process, the victim’s self-esteem and their feelings are involved, and what they might want to do is move on and never think about it again,” Slakoff added.
Domestic violence prosecutions are more successful when local police are formally trained on how to handle such cases, according to Allie Kephart, a spokesperson for WEAVE, a Sacramento advocacy network for victims of domestic abuse.
Police should be trained on how to identify physical abuse when it may not be clearly observable, such as in cases of strangulation, which does not always leave visible marks on the victim’s neck, but is a statistically common precursor to lethal violence in domestic relationships, Kephart said.
In other cases, police may need to evaluate a victim for a concussion when they respond to a residence where abuse has transpired, she said, emphasizing that such on-scene evaluations can make the difference in giving prosecutors direct evidence that can lead to a conviction.
“In framing the question of why law enforcement has such a hard time getting convictions in these cases, it certainly has to do a lot with just the dynamics of police working with victims of domestic violence,” Kephart said.
She also stressed the importance of showing empathy and understanding when it comes to questioning abuse victims about what happened. Officers need to separate the victim from the perpetrator before questioning them, and should listen carefully while giving the individual space to tell their story, Kephart said. Most importantly, she emphasized that police need to demonstrate a willingness to believe the survivors of abuse when they tell their stories.
“One of the biggest hurdles in these cases is that oftentimes when victims report violence they feel like it’s their word against their abuser’s word…that is also often a deterrent to survivors reporting in the first place or reporting their story fully,” Kephart said. “You have to come onto the scene with a trauma-informed approach, and understand the psychological dynamics going on.”
In Nevada County, law enforcement officers do receive training when it comes to handling domestic violence reports, but that training varies by department.
Nevada County sheriff’s deputies are formally instructed in identifying physical forms of violence such as strangulation marks, and deputies also receive training when it comes to showing empathy and understanding to victims, according to Trygg.
“We really give the victim an opportunity to communicate to us openly and freely…we want to help that victim be confident when they give their testimony, and we want them to have as good an experience with us as possible,” he said.
Grass Valley Police Department officers are trained to quickly separate the alleged abuser from the victim when responding to a scene, and are told to look for clear signs of physical abuse, such as scratches, bruising, and cuts, according to Sgt. Clint Bates.
The police department does not, however, prioritize training for officers when it comes to identifying less obvious signs of abuse at the scene, such as strangulation or concussions, but instead relies largely on referring victims to outside medical experts for such diagnoses, Bates said.
Grass Valley police and the Sheriff’s Office both offer victims a host of resources aimed at offering both short-term safety for victims as well as long-term escape from abusive situations.
Both departments connect victims to the Domestic Violence Sexual Assault Coalition, a program that works closely with the District Attorney’s Office in identifying and assisting survivors.
The DVSAC, also known as Community Beyond Violence, can give victims emergency hotel rooms if they need to leave their residence, provide food vouchers, and can help individuals obtain restraining orders, according to Ayer.
Other organizations that work closely with county law enforcement in assisting abuse victims include the Northern California Abuse Center, Spirit House Therapy, and the Conflict Resolution Center of Nevada County, Bates said.
Showing empathy, compassion, and understanding, combined with connecting people to victim advocacy resources, are vital elements to ending often cyclical patterns of abuse, and can mean the difference between life and death, Slakoff said.
“What a person says when they come to you, as a police officer or even as a civilian — the very first reaction someone gets, if it’s, ‘I support you, I see you, I believe you,’ that can really be the difference between a long-term pattern of an abusive relationship, and that person leaving much quicker and starting a better life,” she said.
Stephen Wyer is a staff writer with The Union. He can be reached at email@example.com
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