Inweekly 2009: The Domestic Violence Epidemic

Sue Hand, director of the Northwest Florida Favor House, shared with me in early 2009 that one in four women in Escambia and Santa Rosa Counties would be domestically abused at some point. Inweekly took on the story.

The cover — artwork by our art director Samantha Crooke — created a controversy for its depiction of Rihanna’s face after she was beaten by her former boyfriend Chris Brown.


The Domestic Violence Epidemic
By Sean Boone, published March 4, 2009

Less than a month ago, reports surfaced that 21-year-old pop vocalist Rihanna Fenty was beaten by her then-boyfriend, R&B singer Chris Brown.

The altercation has once again brought national attention to an issue that has more prominent examples and superstar poster children surrounding it than a Hollywood red carpet event.

But for every Whitney Houston, Nicole Simpson and Rihanna, there are thousands more faces of domestic violence that are brushed over and buried within a statistical chart.

In June 2008, Kendall Rogers, 22, of Pensacola, was beaten to death by her boyfriend and buried in a swamp not far from where the couple was living. The young woman left behind a 22-month-old daughter and a devastated group of friends and family.

“But for the strong ones we don’t always show it,” says a comment on Rogers’ MySpace page. “I bottle it up till it eats me away or the pain passes and I see another day.”

Less than a month after Rogers was murdered, the third domestic homicide of the year in Escambia County was traced to a .357 Magnum. Rebecca Jewett, 50, was shot by her husband after a verbal altercation broke out between the two in their home.

Sadly, cases like these are far too common-particularly in Escambia County.

“Our average (Escambia County) exceeds the national average of 18 percent in domestic violence-related homicides,” says Sue Hand, director of the Northwest Florida Favor House.

Favor House is one of several domestic abuse shelters in the area but is the only one in Escambia and Santa Rosa counties that counsels both the victim and the abuser.

Hand says since Favor House opened its doors in 1976, only one woman who received help from the center ever became a victim of domestic violence homicide.

According to Hand, because instances of domestic violence are often treated lightly by law enforcement or never handled correctly in the judicial system, the victim often endures abuse for a long period of time without getting help.

“There are still a lot of people who call and nothing is done,” she says. “If there is a bank robbery they don’t drag the suspect back down to the teller and say Hey lady, do you want to press charges?’ But they do that in domestic violence cases.

“Unfortunately, as much as we at Favor House preach getting help, a lot of the victims never make contact with us,” she says. “It is a serious issue that is a matter of life and death.”

The Staggering Stats

In Escambia County, domestic violence was at the root of 25 percent of all homicides in 2007 and 40 percent of homicides in 2006.

Although the county is home to just over 300,000 residents, it ranks fourth in the state in domestic violence frequency with approximately 848 cases of domestic violence per 100,000 people.

For comparison, Miami-Dade County, with a population of more than two million, has a frequency of 539 cases per 100,000 people.

“One in four women in Escambia and Santa Rosa Counties will be domestically abused at some point,” says Hand. “These are living, breathing people who have children in the home.”

From July 1, 2007-June 30, 2008, there were 497 people who stayed in the Favor House shelter. Since July 1, 2008, that number has jumped to 300 victimsa 20-percent increase.

While local officials are more aware of the domestic abuse problem, the number of incidents has actually increased since the start of the decade. Public awareness campaigns have not stemmed the increase in cases either.

In October 2005, Escambia County Sheriff Ron McNesby and State Attorney Bill Eddins appeared in television commercials that focused on domestic violence. Their message, “Domestic violence offenders go to jail,” was placed on a heavy rotation on local television and radio stations.

A News Journal article on the public service campaign stated the State Attorney’s Office was to provide law enforcement officers with additional training to gather evidence and statements from victims and other witnesses at the time of the complaint. Eddins’ staff was charged to pursue evidence-based cases that could be prosecuted, even if the victim dropped the charges.

Based on the latest statistics, the campaign was more sizzle than reality. In 2007 there were 2,641 total domestic violence-related crimes in Escambia County, an increase of 29 percent since 2002. That number is expected to increase from 2007 to 2008 when FDLE statistics are released in April.

A New Transition

Since taking office in January, Sheriff David Morgan has put domestic violence at the forefront of his administration in hopes of turning things around.

“We’re going to incorporate recent changes in Florida law and make sure our programs are up to speed and standards,” he says.

During the campaign, one of the major complaints that he often heard about his predecessor was that Sheriff Ron McNesby’s administration was not taking appropriate action with domestic abuse cases.

“Gosh, the one case in 2004 where there were over 100 calls made (to the Sheriff’s Office) and the woman was eventually killed is just mind boggling,” says Morgan. “At what point do we say, Time out, someone is going to get killed here?'”

Morgan says the Escambia Sheriff’s Office is currently working with domestic abuse experts such as Nancy Newland, Pensacola Junior College police chief, and University of West Florida professor Kimberly Tatum, a former assistant state attorney, to better educate deputy responders.

“The worst thing you can have in law enforcement is to be tagged with ignoring a particular problem,” he says. “We have a domestic violence problem, and we have to improve it.

“While arrests and incarcerations are part of it, we have to get them into the appropriate counseling. It’s not fully my responsibility or the state attorney’s responsibility. We all have to work together on this.”

Tatum, who is the chairperson of the Escambia County Domestic Violence Coalition, says she’s happy with the Sheriff’s proactive approach so far and hopes he can take on a bigger role in combating the problem than the previous administration.

“Some sheriff’s offices have cut victim advocates so they won’t have to cut patrol officers, but this administration said they won’t,” she says. “The time it takes from the arrest until it ends up on the prosecutor’s desk can be a month, and during that time the victim can be in touch with the victim advocate.”

Victim advocates provide counseling and other services such as rides, food and medical appointment scheduling, for abuse victims and their families. It is a requirement for most law enforcement agencies across the country.

Officer Training

Captain Joe Weber of the ECSO says that in addition to following the traditional Florida Statute 741.28, which describes the definition of a domestic abuse incident and procedure, officers are now going through a more detailed program during their training to better understand certain situations such as domestic violence.

“We have revamped our field training,” he says. “We have also extended our term to five weeks in the classroom. We are trying to get them involved with Florida law and our paperwork.

“They now have 11 weeks of being in field with a supervising officer and roughly 16-17 weeks of training in all.”

According to Tatum, Sheriff Morgan promised her in January that all deputies would soon have access to digital cameras that can be used to document evidence at the crime scene.

“In domestic violence cases they are essential,” she says. “If they don’t have cameras, they can’t do their jobs.

Dr. Richard Hough, who is the president of the Favor House Board of Directors, says his group has been working for years to get cameras to responders.

“I was a deputy in Manatee County in 1993, and every officer had a camera then,” he says. “You’ve got to look at it as an investigation.”

The ECSO is expected to have cut $11 million from its budget by April, but according to Morgan, the necessary programs will stay intact.

“We’re going to get lean and mean and get down to the essentials,” he says. “So far we haven’t had to eliminate any programs except helicopters.

“I think because domestic violence is at the top of the list at the Sheriff’s office, you’ll find that there will be a drop in incidents.”

Economic Factors

In a recent six-week study, The National Domestic Violence Hotline found that 54 percent of those who called the center were experiencing some type of change in the household financial situation.

“Hotline calls in the third quarter of 2008 were up significantly over 2007, with September up 21 percent,” NDVH CEO Sheryl Cates said in the report. “From what we were hearing on the calls, we believed that there was a link but needed data to be sure.”

But like alcohol, drugs and other inhibitors that domestic abusers are associated with, the economy is not the root of the problem, says Tatum.

“Most researchers will say it’s not because of bad economic times,” she says. “We may see more DV reported in bad economic times because of stress or whatever.

“They are seeing more people in the shelter during the rough economic times, but is it because there are more cases or is it because more people don’t have anywhere to go?”

According to Kathleen Augustus of the ECSO Victim Services, the poor economy has forced many who would have never asked for help before to reluctantly seek assistance.

“We have had more calls lately,” she says. “But once they realize someone is going to be arrested they don’t want anything to be done, and I think it is because of the economy.

“If that person is caring for the household, then you don’t want them to go to jail.”

Under Florida law, an officer who responds to the scene of a report must take someone into custody, which often prevents children in the home from reporting the abuse.

“With teenage children in the home, they are less likely to report the violence because they don’t want to go to a shelter,” says Augustus. “One of the requirements of being in a shelter is that it is anonymous.”

An Attitude Adjustment

The United States has the sad distinction of being number one in the world in domestic violence cases, with one in three women being abused in their lifetime. In fact, some national statistics say that a woman is battered every nine seconds. Not surprisingly, a majority of those murdered this year will be killed by a spouse or domestic partner.

On Feb. 24 the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a decision to keep guns out of the hands of convicted domestic abusers.

But is the problem really fueled by guns?

Tatum says the only way society is going to change is if we have more support from men who are against it.

“Until men step up and talk to other men about this, it’s going to continue,” says Tatum. “We need to call for men to step up and say it’s not funny to joke about domestic violence.”

Some vendors, particularly in the United Kingdom, have reached out to denounce violence against women by using such things as drink cozies and signs at sporting events to display messages, but Tatum warns that such public service advertising falls short.

“I like (the vendor idea), but it’s not something you see a lot of,” she says. “Whenever you have a strong man step and say something it’s powerful. It really is.”

A more responsive judicial system might also help combat the problem.

“What we need is a very proactive judiciary that takes domestic violence seriously and remembers the statutes required,” says Hand.

Hand says many judges are handing out anger management counseling instead of batterers counseling, which goes against a law enacted in 1993 that requires the specific program.

“There is a level in society where they can hold judges accountable,” she says. “But a lot of society doesn’t understand there are some (judges) that don’t understand the circumstances and are refusing to realize how important the situation is.

“It’s great for us to come together, but if we send people in front of those who don’t understand, then we don’t always get the sentencing that we need.”

Moving Ahead in Escambia County

Although Santa Rosa County is much smaller than Escambia and has on average half of the domestic violence cases, it has a specialized court for the issue.

Advocates of creating one in this county say it would finally hold abusers accountable and create more familiarization between judges and public defenders that try the cases.

“You pick your day, pick your time and pick your judge that understands the case,” says Hough. “A lot of judges don’t want to work domestic violence, and they have to make difficult decisions often on not a lot of evidence.”

Hand agrees, and says the cost of creating the court should not be assessed in terms of money.

“We always say we don’t have the money and the time, but when someone dies, it should be worth the time.”

One way of acquiring money for a new court system could come through federal grants.

Groups like the National Coalition Against Domestic Abuse work with local groups to advocate legislative bills, but according to Tatum, there has not been an aggressive push to acquire money in this area.

“(The ECDVC) is actually going to look into victim’s advocate grant money,” she says. “That money is there, but we haven’t always pursued grants as actively as we should.”

In terms of moving forward domestic violence education in the county, Tatum says there are two things her group would like to implement soon.

“Besides the domestic violence court system, we’d also like to have more public service announcements and training in schools,” she says. “You really have to educate young people and relay the message that it’s not okay for Allen Iverson or Chris Brown to punch his girlfriend.”