Restraining orders, education programs don't always prevent domestic violence deaths
Restraining orders: Court actions are not always effective
Published 4:15 pm, Tuesday, November 22, 2011
State judges imposed more than 28,000 family violence protective and restraining orders so far this year.
But the paper document prohibiting him from stepping into the family home on Branca Court in Milford, didn't stop Kenneth Fox from murdering his estranged wife, Catherine, there Sept. 23. Fox, you see, already had been charged with violating the order on two prior occasions.
Nor did a May 2010 arrest for violating a restraining order convince Nurija Mahovic that angrily confronting his ex-wife, Saudina in her Southington home was not a good idea. Saudina even warned authorities in applying for the order on Oct. 30, 2009 that "I believe, at some point, he will kill me."
On June 11, he did -- shooting and stabbing her in front of their two teenage boys during an angry confrontation. He then fled into the woods and killed himself.
"There are 30,000 protective and restraining orders issued by Connecticut courts every year," said Karen Jarmoc, a former state senator from Enfield and now interim executive director of the Connecticut Coalition Against Domestic Violence. "But it's just a piece of paper. A woman doesn't feel protected by it if there is a breakdown of accountability."
This year 12 women were killed in domestic violence incidents.
Three other victims considered seeking some kind of protection order, according to published reports.
But even if these woman obtained a restraining order, that might not have saved their lives.
"A piece of paper can't stop a knife or bullet and one bent on violence," said Richard Meehan Jr., a criminal defense lawyer.
Rarely does someone go to jail for violating one of these orders; a conviction carries a maximum five-year prison term.
The state's Task Force on Domestic Violence claims 80 percent of protective order violations end up being nolled -- expunged from the defendant's record if nothing criminal happens during the next 13 months. Often, violations are rolled into a plea bargain with several other charges stemming from the incident. And state statutes require that offenders who attend a nine-week family violence education program have their charges dropped if they complete the programs. Other education programs allow offenders to avoid jail or reduce sentences if they complete a program.
"Two men who get into a bar fight over their favorite baseball teams face tougher penalties than someone who assaults his spouse," said Jarmoc.
JUST A PIECE
Roman allegedly killed Susan Mazzarella, his girlfriend, on July 4 -- just two weeks after being released from a year-long jail stint for beating her and violating a protective order. Police found Mazzarella's decomposing body in her apartment. An autopsy determined she was strangled. Roman, who has a lengthy criminal record, faces a murder charge.
Jocelyn Rodriguez, of New Haven, swore out an arrest warrant against Isidero Carmona, her estranged husband, for raping her last December. Despite the warrant, Carmona eluded police until Valentine's Day. They found him in their home lying atop Rodriguez's lifeless body, bloodied from multiple stab wounds.
Wojtanowski had a 2009 conviction for disorderly conduct and threatening following an argument with Jaclyn Fitzgerald, his ex-girlfriend.
But none of that stopped him from attempting to see her on Feb. 24.
That day, Wojtanowski entered Fitzgerald's East Hampton home, killed her and a few days later killed himself by jumping off a Mohegan Sun casino parking garage.
"No man goes to prison for domestic violence," said Jarmoc, the coalition director. "For murder? Yes. For assault and battery? Yes. But not for spousal abuse."
HIT A PARTNER,
GO TO CLASS
Often, a first-time offender is diverted from the criminal courtroom to a counseling classroom where conflict resolution and anger management are among the lessons taught.
"It's been the practice to send the batterer to a program ... instead of jail," said Jarmoc.
Family Violence Education requires attendance at nine weekly sessions. During the fiscal year that ended June 30, there were 5,338 enrollees, of which 4,537 completed it, resulting in their records being erased.
A judge could order those convicted of a domestic violence crime to enter a longer, more intensive program. The 26-week Explore Program, which meets once a week for 90 minutes, is available locally from the Danbury, Derby, New Haven, Norwalk and Stamford courts. It had 1,626 participants in the last fiscal year. Of those, 1,024 successfully completed it.
There is also the 52-week Evolve Program, available only from the Bridgeport, New Haven, New London and Waterbury courts. It had 563 enrollees, and 372 completed it.
Approximately 85 percent of those who complete the three programs are not rearrested during the first year following the classes, according to Stephen Grant, director of the Judicial Department's Family Support Services program.
A National Institute of Justice study showed similar success rates over five years.
But attendance at the nine-week program can make it more difficult to invoke a harsher penalty for a second offense because an offender's record is erased after he completes the diversionary program.
That happened in a recent murder-suicide in Milford. There, Kenneth Fox was able to post a lowered bond after twice being charged with violating a protective order to stay away from the couple's home.
A transcript of Fox's Sept. 13 bail reduction hearing shows prosecutor Maria Sous and Superior Court Judge Richard Arnold were aware Fox had a 2001 domestic violence arrest, but because he had attended the Family Violence education program and the charges were wiped clean, the arrest couldn't be a factor in whether to reduce his bond for the recent violation of the protective order. His bond was lowered from $2,500 to $1,000. Ten days later, he fatally stabbed and choked his estranged wife, Cathy, in their home, then hanged himself.
Arnold declined requests to discuss his decision, deferring comment to Superior Court Judge Robert Devlin.
State law directs that domestic violence charges be dismissed after someone completes a program and if the victim consents, said Devlin, a former federal prosecutor and now the state's administrative judge for criminal matters.
Devlin said the law was written with the intent of giving people a fresh start. He said many people never come before the court again.
"In our court system, people are presumed innocent," he said. "We don't have preventive incarceration in Connecticut and a judge has to respect a person's Constitutional rights. It's a balancing act."
When the Legislature reconvenes next year, the Connecticut Coalition Against Domestic Violence is expected to urge that only non-violent, first-time offenders enter the Family Violence Education program, as well as reduce the 53-day wait for a seat. They also suggest the program last longer than nine weeks.
TO BE DONE
They also maintain more needs to be done beyond diversionary programs.
Some have suggested that the state set up specialized domestic violence courts to review such cases.
Devlin said most large courthouses do have a domestic violence docket handled by judges who receive additional training.
"You can do that where there is a large enough volume of cases, like Bridgeport and New Haven,'' he said. "But whether there should be a special court for these cases, the way housing matters have been centralized, is a matter for the Legislature to consider.
Jarmoc applauded the pilot First Alert Notification/ Global Positioning program tried last year in Bridgeport, Danielson and Hartford for high-risk re-offenders. The six month test program imposed a buffer zone around the victim. Some victims were given cellphones. The offender wore an ankle device that was monitored 24 hours, seven days a week. As soon as the zone was encroached, both the victim and police were notified.
"This can serve as a deterrent," added Meehan, the defense lawyer. He explained that if a defendant knows he is going to be arrested and possible sent to jail, many will think twice before attempting to contact the victim.
Only 10 of the 172 defendants ordered to participate were rearrested for violations or had their bonds increased. Of the 10, only one was charged with violating a protective order by verbally confronting the victim. The other nine had their bonds increased for technical violations like not charging the bracelet's battery.
"It proved to be a really effective program and the tool shows great promise," said Grant, the Family Program supervisor.
But the state, facing tough budget choices, did not authorize spending $909,000 this fiscal year to cover the costs of equipment, salaries and training.
Despite this, Connecticut is considered to be at the forefront of domestic violence protection, mostly as a result of the near-fatal beating inflicted on Tracey Thurman, a Torrington mother. Thurman, through the efforts of Burton Weinstein, a Bridgeport civil rights lawyer, received a $1.9 million settlement from Torrington after suing the city for violating her constitutional rights because police continually failed to arrest her husband in spite of several assaults. This led to the state passing the Thurman law, which requires mandatory arrests in domestic assault cases.
"We've moved miles beyond that case," said Devlin. "But it is not a perfect system and even one death is too many."
In 2001, the state created a Domestic Violence Fatality Review Committee. Eight years later it commissioned a Task Force Against Domestic Violence, chaired by State Rep. Mae Flexer, of Plainfield.
The task force, with assistance from the Connecticut Coalition Against Domestic Violence, pushed through a series of laws and amendments that took effect Oct. 1. These included requiring a person who is subject to a restraining order to surrender all firearms to the State Police or a licensed gun dealer instead of family members. Another change forces a defendant to post some cash with bail bondsmen before securing release. The changes also extend arrests for violence to dating situations and it directs law enforcement to supply information on programs providing help and shelter for victims of family violence.
But Jarmoc believes even more can be done.
Her coalition, made up of 18 member groups, recommends increasing penalties for violating a protective order. The coalition is asking that the length of restraining orders be extended to a year, without requiring the victim to seek an extension after six months. And they advocate a standardized training program for law enforcement.
On Dec. 7, the coalition will conduct a public hearing in Hartford on its recommendations before submitting its initial recommendations to the Judiciary's Committee on Dec. 16.
"We're not going to end domestic violence," Jarmoc said. "Our goal is to keep the victim safe."