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Even one instance of domestic violence can shatter lives, not only that of the immediate victim but those of the individuals who stood by and saw or ran and hid – but still heard. Some victims may call 911 or have a friend or neighbor summon the police, while others may feel too trapped by circumstances to reach out for help.  

Part two in a series

In 2015 – the most recent year for which statistics are available – the Evanston Police Department reported 347 domestic batteries, 113 domestic-related assaults or criminal trespasses, and 111 cases in which orders of protection were entered. There were also 991 domestic conflicts that did not rise to the level of criminal conduct, according to the EPD.

Those victims who do call the Evanston Police will find at every level – from the 911 dispatchers to the detectives who pursue the evidence – officers trained in handling domestic violence calls.

EPD dispatchers, for example, are trained to deal with the potential uncertainties behind the calls.

“The skill of the call-taker is an integral part of getting the right information to the officer and collecting what they need to ensure that the officer is prepared,” said Evanston Police Detective Tanya Noble.

Responding to these calls can be dangerous for the officers as well as for the victims. Det. Noble described the process designed to safeguard officers and victims: The 911 dispatch team is trained to ask questions to elicit pertinent information and pass that information to the responding officers as soon as possible. The 911 dispatcher will also alert the responding officer if there have been repeated calls from the same household or the same person.

Det. Noble added, “There is no typical [domestic violence] call. Sometimes it is the victim, the child, the neighbor – or all of the above. …. Regardless of how [an incident] is reported, it is all investigated in the same manner. … All domestic violence reports are considered high priority by the Evanston Police Department.”

If the calls are “high priority” for the police, they may also be “high terror” for a victim of domestic abuse. There are so many reasons not to call, such as the risk of reprisal by the abuser, the undocumented status of the victim or the abuser, or the fear of facing the future alone.

Wendy Dickson, Director of Domestic Violence Training and Outreach at YWCA-Evanston/North Shore (YWCA-ENS), said, “Sometimes criminal charges are filed against the victim – for example, a kidnapping charge against a woman who is trying to flee, or a charge of failure to protect children from an abusive situation.”

After the Call

The police response to a situation of domestic violence has at least three different foci: 1) the officers who arrive first on the scene, 2) the detectives who work the case, and 3) the team that helps the victim.

The on-scene police officers calm the situation, make an arrest if needed or possible, and collect evidence and statements if the situation warrants it. The Detectives and Victims Service officers work in tandem with the victim to develop a case against the alleged abuser and to get support for the victim or victims. 

Victims Services helps link the victims to local resources and offers safety planning and education about the warning signs of domestic violence.

Safety First: The immediate goal, though, said social worker Kelli Nelson, said, is “to get the victim out of the situation and to somewhere safe to calm down.” Questioning the victim in a safe, neutral place gives a police officer a chance to learn more about the history of the relationship and what is going on. It also helps the victim understand what the options are. “We can help with orders of protection. We ask, ‘Do you need help getting into a shelter?’” Ms. Nelson said.

The police will look at the criminal history of the abuser and try to give information and options to the victim, so she will be prepared if or when she decides to leave, Det. Noble said.

Det. Noble and Ms. Nelson also provide education about domestic violence, such as the warning signs and how domestic violence is often an escalating crime.

Dt. Noble said, “There is typically an arc: a honeymoon period, when everything seems good; then tension builds up; and then there is a battery. There could be yelling, then hitting, then strangulation. While some incidents of domestic violence are misdemeanors, strangulation is aggravated domestic violence, a felony. Sometimes a victim will say, ‘It wasn’t so bad this time,’ but we point out, ‘You could have been killed.’”

“Domestic violence is very much a power-and-control type of crime,” Det. Noble added.

The Police Department conducts a threat/lethality assessment with victims they encounter when the police have been called and also with walk-ins who ask for help. The threat assessment will help educate the victim about risk factors for homicide and connect her with support and safety planning services. The questions Det. Noble and Ms. Nelson ask the victim focus on the action of the abuser.   “We ask, ‘What do you attribute his behavior to?’ It might be financial pressure, substance abuse, a mental illness, or something else,” said Det. Noble.

Ms. Nelson added, “Something has led the offender to this. The lethality assessment starts with ‘What’s going on? … Why do you think he does that? Does he have a drinking problem, a substance-abuse problem, a mental-health problem?’

“It’s my way of opening the door to see what the victim’s understanding of the problem is. She might say, ‘He was upset because I was looking at his phone,’ when actually the problem is much deeper. Her answer gives us some insight: ‘He has a mental illness, [or], it’s due to drinking.’”

As part of the threat assessment, Ms. Nelson says, she will try to help victims understand the impact of domestic violence on children. They might say, ‘He would never hit the kids. He just hits me.’ And we would say, ‘If he would hit you, he would probably hit the kids.’”

 A Monstrous Decision: Stay or Leave?

Complex and conflicting emotions often complicate or delay a victim’s decision to leave an abusive situation – or even to call the police.

“The victims want the hitting to stop, but they don’t necessarily want the abuser to be arrested,” said Ms. Dickson.

The prospect of a future without the abuser can seem overwhelming. In many cases, the victim has no outside means of financial support, no immediate prospects of a job, no real skill in running a household as a single parent. “Ninety-five percent of women who are victims of domestic violence also are victims of financial abuse,” said Kristen White, Chief Operating Officer of YWCA-ENS.

Even more, a woman who has been beaten may fear – not unreasonably – for her life and safety should she decide to leave.

“It takes about nine times of going back before a woman leaves,” Ms. White said. “Sometimes women prioritize some factors over their own safety. There are alternatives to an abusive situation, and there are supports to help victims understand this.”

When there are children in the picture, making the decision to leave may be more imperative.

“We tell them that the Department of Children and Family Services will be notified about the incident,” Ms. Nelson said, “and we say, ‘You need to take some action.’”

Exposure to a violent environment is one of the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) identified by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that have immediate and long-term negative effects on children. These children have difficulty concentrating in school, they engage in risky health behaviors, they often have chronic health conditions and shorter than average life expectancy. As the number of ACEs increases, so does the risk for these outcomes, according to the CDC.

Ms. Nelson said the police do encourage the victims to go through with prosecution as a way to get help for the abuser. “A victim will say, ‘I don’t want him to be arrested.’ We explain that the way to get them [counseling or help] is to go to domestic violence court. The victims have to cooperate, to go forward with the case. They have to be convicted [in order to get counseling, treatment, etc.],” she said.

If the victim decides she does not wish to pursue prosecution or is not ready to leave, Ms. Nelson and Det. Noble still try to help her. “Even if they do not want to leave yet, we offer them support,” said Ms. Nelson. “We’re not there to force our agenda but to give the person options so maybe the next time she will do something different. … These are baby steps.”

The YWCA-Evanston/North Shore (YWCA-ENS) maintains an office on the second floor of the Skokie courthouse, where Susan Stump and Jennifer Allen dispense advice, connections, and resource-referrals to victims of domestic abuse who are now negotiating the legal system. Other non-profit organizations offer similar services in the other Cook County municipal courts.

“We try to operate from the empowerment model – have victims understand their rights under the Illinois Domestic Violence law,” said Ms. Allen.  For example, she said, “The law empowers [victims] to go forward with orders of protection – there does not have to be an arrest.

 “We walk them through what to expect in court, and we help with safety plans. …  An order of protection may be a part of a safety plan. We also give them information and referrals,” 

“As a result of multiple traumas, the victims can have multiple legal needs,” said Ms. Stump. “We don’t turn away anyone. We can tell the deputy or the clerk that a woman may need an order of protection – if anyone has a problem, we try to find a solution,” she added.

Diversion or court-mandated counseling for such things as substance abuse, anger management, or mental health problems – can be part of the sentence for an abuser. Ms. Allen said, “If there’s a choice between jail and a program, the perpetrator might be likely to choose the program. We call it going into treatment on borrowed belief. …, It’s been my experience that it is not successful, but one can never predict what’s going to happen next.”

Asked whether they had seen women who were victims of abuse also become victims of the criminal justice system, Ms. Stump and Ms. Allen said some abusers have learned to manipulate the system by pre-empting a call to the police or by threatening the victim with some form of legal action.

An abuser who calls the police after or during an episode of domestic violence may be able to present a calm and rational façade to the responding officers, while the victim may seem incoherent, teary, and shaken, Ms. Allen said. Or he may file an order of protection against her. Another strategy an abuser will use to keep the victim from leaving is to threaten to call the department of Children and Family Services or Immigration and Customs Officials and “turn in” the victim.

How these manipulations will affect the situation is a matter for each victim to decide. She may choose not to go forward with prosecution or an order of protection.

As with social workers in the Evanston Police Department’s Victim Services division, Ms. Allen says, “We support the decision not to go forward.”

Both Ms. Stump and Ms. Allen said the relationship between the YWCA-ENS and the  Evanston Police Department is very positive.

Ms. Stump said, “In my experience, the Evanston Police Department has consistently been open to having conversation about how do we support each other and get support to families in Evanston.”

“It is really helpful when there are police social workers,” Ms. Allen said. “Without police social worker, victims are often unclear on their rights.

Ms. Stump said, “My experience is that every community really is invested in having a safe and healthy community. …Understanding  what domestic violence is and how to support [victims] is important in sustaining the health and safety of a community. All of us want to live in a safe community. The question is, ‘How do we sustain strategic intervention to support safety and community at all levels?’”