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Palm Coast Friday, Oct. 20, 2017 8 months ago

Sheriff's Office starts domestic violence intervention program, plans steps to curb abuse and protect victims

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The Sheriff's Office will also assign a full-time detective to handle domestic violence cases.
by: Jonathan Simmons News Editor

After months of study and discussion with community leaders, the Flagler County Sheriff's Office has rolled out a series of proposals to curb domestic violence, and has already made some changes — including creating a domestic violence intervention program and alerting school resource officers when parents of children in their schools have been arrested on a domestic violence charge. 

The Sheriff's Office convened a task force to study domestic violence intervention in late June, and developed subcommittees to study the issue. They presented their findings during a summit Oct. 20 at the Hilton Garden Inn attended by about 60 people.

The initiative began because of a problem: Domestic violence cases in the county had been rising, and arrests, though they can help, aren't a solution: Offenders who are arrested often get out of jail and then reoffend. Meanwhile, a series of barriers prevents many victims from reporting abusers.

"The facts are that since we met in late June, we’ve had one more domestic-related murder where a son killed his mother, and another domestic-related murder between cousins which was over a drug deal that went bad," Sheriff Rick Staly said at the summit. "Aggravated or felony domestic violence is down 14%, but misdemeanor domestic violence is up 6%. So as you can see, we have a long way to go to solve this problem in our community."

The process that began in June studied domestic violence through five subcommittees — criminal justice, social services, mental health and medical services, faith-based services and education — to identify strategies to reduce domestic violence. 

Criminal Justice

The criminal justice subcommittee's findings were presented at the summit by Undersheriff Jack Bisland. Among its proposals: assigning a full-time detective to follow up on domestic violence cases deputies encounter on patrol; creating a domestic violence offender intervention program for violent repeat offenders (funded by offenders); researching and collaborating with the court system on an ankle-monitoring system that could alert law enforcement and victims if an offender breaches a restricted zone; and creating a batterer’s intervention program paid for by offenders.

The batterer's intervention program has already been created as a 29-week program taught by Family Resource Connection at the Flagler County Emergency Operations Center, and began operations on Oct. 2.

A detective will be assigned in January, after new Sheriff's Office recruits have completed training. 

"They can go out the next day, do follow-up, talk to witnesses, and make the case better for the State Attorney's Office," Bisland said.

The Sheriff's Office has also started informing school resource officers when a child in their school had a parent arrested on a domestic violence charge the previous night, so the deputies can provide better support to the student.

Social Services

Social service providers in the county could better aid domestic violence victims if they receive training that helps them recognize signs of domestic violence, said social services subcommittee chairwoman Carrie Baird, of Flagler Cares. Training could be provided to employers, teachers, first responders and other community figures through online webinars.

The subcommittee proposed providing "burner phones" for domestic abuse victims and increasing efforts to provide information on domestic violence, as well as a hotline number, through fliers posted in grocery stores, libraries and other locations. 

Resources for services such as emergency housing and childcare subsidies could also be fast-tracked for domestic violence victims, Baird said.

"Really, there's a gap in our community, and it impacts victims of domestic violence," she said. "Our shelter is busting at the seams; we need more capacity there. ... We have a need for transitional housing, so that women can gain financial independence and move on from their situation, and affordable rental housing is really a problem across the board in our social services environment."

Medical and Mental Health

Mental health initiatives concerning domestic violence tend to focus exclusively on victims. But that's a problem, said medical and mental health subcommittee chairman Jonathan Tanenbaum, a spokesman and caseworker at Stewart-Marchman Act Behavioral Health: When offenders are simply locked up without any mental health intervention, he said, once they're released, "they haven't learned anything, and the pattern can continue."

Offenders should undergo court-ordered mental health assessments, he said, and interventions should consider that many offenders are re-enacting behavior that they witnessed between their own parents growing up. 

"As we treat the source of domestic violence, we’re going to be much lore likely to prevent it from reoccurring," he said. "In many cases of domestic violence — not all of them, but many — this behavior is not one that just appears out of anger, but is a learned behavior, many times from growing up in a similar environment during childhood."

The subcommittee also supported the creation of a domestic violence intervention program and public education to debunk myths about domestic violence.

Faith Based

Faith leaders often have a unique opportunity to engage both the victim and the perpetrator in a domestic violence situation, but they often don't have the training to do so effectively, said faith-based subcommittee chairman the Rev. Ed Reistetter, a Sheriff's Office chaplain.

The subcommittee has proposed targeted domestic violence training for clergy, based on a 14-hour curriculum called "Pastoral Care for Domestic Violence," produced by the Faith Trust Institute. 

The Family Life Center and an Army National Guard chaplain have volunteered to assist, Reistetter said. 

The subcommittee also hopes to promote the distribution of domestic violence information at places of worship.

Education

Although Flagler County public schools already have domestic violence education programs in place at the middle school and high school levels, those programs could be improved and expanded to elementary schools, said Sheriff's Office Sgt. Christopher Ragazzo, who chaired the education subcommittee. 

Teachers and school administrators could also be offered awareness training so they're more able to recognize signs of domestic violence and respond appropriately.

"Unfortunately, a lot of the teachers are seeing signs, a lot of the administrators are seeing the signs, but they don’t know exactly what to look for," Ragazzo said. "They don't have the training that law enforcement officers have, that detectives have. So we want to get that so they're not missing the signs."

Businesses could also provide educational information to employees, and informational kiosks could be set up in areas with heavy traffic, he said. 

Staly warned that domestic violence numbers in the county might rise — as victims have more support and resources and are therefore more likely to report cases of abuse — before they drop.

"We’ll probably never get it completely out of our community," Staly said. "But I believe we have a good foundation to move forward."

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