February 7, 2013 | Vol. 116 -- No. 42

Helping overcome fear

Cheney court advocate seeks to provide victims of domestic violence with a ‘clear voice’ and resources

For victims of domestic violence, the biggest factor in overcoming trauma and returning to – or even beginning – a normal life can be fear.

Fear of retaliation by their abuser, fear of a daunting, confusing court system that must remain impartial and fear of the unknown – not knowing where to turn for help.

Many courts provide resources, advocates, for victims of domestic violence. Under a contract approved by the City Council at their Jan. 8 meeting, Cheney Municipal Court now joins those ranks.

The court is collaborating with ARMS, Abuse Recovery Ministry & Services, to provide resources for victims of misdemeanor and gross misdemeanor domestic violence. ARMS was founded in 1997 in Hillsboro, Ore. out of the personal experiences of executive director Stacey Womack, and has grown into an organization that has helped over 12,000 people in nine states.

The organization has had a Spokane chapter for seven years, working mainly with area shelters and domestic violence organizations. The relationship with Cheney is a somewhat new direction.

“This is more broad work than we’ve put together,” Spokane associate director Ginger Johnson said.

Cheney Municipal Court Administrator Terri Cooper said they’ve been looking for a domestic violence advocate program for about four years, but it’s been cost prohibitive and attempts at grant funding have failed. The agreement with ARMS involves no city expenditures, and helps address recent state requirements to provide victim resources.

“The problem we have is we rarely see the victims,” Cooper said. “We see the defendants, but the victims stay away for various reasons. We’ve sent information through the mail, but we’re never sure if they got it or if it was helpful or more harmful.”

Records covering 2008-2012 indicate Cheney’s court processes on average about 56 domestic violence cases each year. Those can involve multiple charges and multiple aggressors, and range from disorderly conduct to protection order violations to fourth-degree assaults, and include a 2008 case of stalking and cyber stalking where the victim’s own email account was used to send threatening messages.

“It was more strange than usual,” Cooper said. “Pretty scary for her.”

In many of these cases the greatest danger for the victim is at the point of separation where the aggressor is removed from the household or from contact. Cooper said victims are the safest in the first 24-48 hours after the incidents, and that’s where ARMS trained volunteers come in.

Information about the incident – a police report – is sent to the prosecuting attorney and the victim’s advocate. Johnson said they make every available effort to contact victims to help them understand many things about the process.

According to the contract information, ARMS will provide victims information about their rights, legal proceedings, evaluate safety needs and provide service referrals and support. Johnson said the five advocates at ARMS help victims with safety and planning, understanding the ins and outs of the court system and how to fill out legal documents.

“That’s where we come in, in the middle and say ‘what would you like to see here? What can we do to help?” Johnson said. “It’s important to let the victims have a loud, clear voice in this.”

ARMS can also provide information about shelter options if needed, food and clothing resources and support and/or recovery groups. But both Johnson and Cooper said one of the biggest services is being a vocal advocate for the victim in the courtroom.

While not legal counsel, ARMS advocates can represent victims in the courtroom by recording and reading the victim’s statement as part of legal proceedings.

“That’s huge,” Cooper said. “When you have someone who’s fearful, to have someone stand up and do the talking for you is important.”

Johnson said ARMS volunteers go through training that includes a seven-hour state course on domestic violence, a full day in court observing procedures, talking with police officers as well as hours of familiarity with the Washington Administrative Codes, confidentiality issues and one-on-one training.

And while ARMS is a faith-based organization, Johnson said their mission in domestic violence advocacy isn’t about proselytizing. Faith-based organizations such as the YWCA, Lutheran Services and Catholic Charities have assisted courts with these issues for years while remaining neutral, and while there is a component for further faith exploration with ARMS, Johnson said that’s not an issue.

“That’s not a piece of what goes on in the advocacy program,” she said. “It’s more centered on victims and their needs.”

John McCallum can be reached at jmac@cheneyfreepress.com.

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