As a survivor of domestic violence, magistrate Elaine Evans says her experience adds a deeper, more compassionate perspective to her work, even as she handles her cases objectively.
At the first-ever Durham County Domestic Violence Summit last month, Evans joined others in discussing how the county can better serve those affected by domestic violence. The Oct. 23 summit, “Humanizing the Victim’s Experience,” was held by the Durham Crisis Response Center (DCRC) and Legal Aid of North Carolina.
The summit featured 18 panelists, including two survivors also spoke. It focused on the challenges that victims face from the first response and investigation to the judicial process and its aftermath.
“Our various agencies and organizations are scattered,” said Sherry Everett, a Legal Aid attorney. “We are each doing our own little piece, but we are not able to collaborate and communicate the way we should be.”
The local domestic violence statistics are sobering.
• With six deaths in 2013, Durham County ranked fourth in the state for domestic violence murders, according to N.C. Department of Justice reports
• From June 2013 to July 2014, the DCRC Crisis Line received 1,726 calls reporting domestic violence.
• Durham police respond to an average of 350 domestic violence calls per month, said panelist James Soukup, director of emergency communications in Durham. In September, the police responded to 30 calls about domestic violence involving a weapon, he said.
Meanwhile, tight resources and funding cuts have limited groups’ abilities to help. The DCRC temporary emergency shelter has only 14 beds. While the shelter housed 279 women and children last year, it turned away 100 people, said DCRC board member Ingram Hedgepath.
The Durham County Domestic Violence Court, had to cut its two retired judges from four days a week to three, due to reduced funding from the city, county, and state. Other District Court judges are rotating through to make up for the extra day, but they do not specialize in domestic violence cases, Everett said.
A random seven-day sampling by Legal Aid found that out of 90 protective orders issued for domestic violence victims, 40 orders had not been served.
Survivors’ personal testimonies underscored the challenges victims face, including unserved protective orders, a complex bureaucratic process, and unsympathetic agencies.
Confronting these challenges is critical, said Nana Asante, coordinator of the DCRC’s Domestic Violence Response Team.
“In addition to awareness … it’s also accountability, and establishing that accountability to continue to make domestic violence (response) a priority,” Asante said. “Part of that is also realizing the shortcomings in the county’s response to domestic violence.”
One-stop shop needed
Maj. Paul Martin of the Durham County Sheriff’s Office described his own frustration with the bureaucratic maze that domestic violence victims confront.
“There is no way right now, other than a very fragmented process, to help the victims navigate the bureaucracy that is involved in a domestic violence instance…there’s no clear-cut flow chart,” he said.
A “one-stop shop” model already exists in Forsyth County: a domestic violence command center called “Safe on Seven” where victims can find all the resources and responders they need on one floor of the courthouse. Everett described a command center as a long-term dream for Durham County.
Judges and lawyers alike pointed to Durham’s overcrowded courts. Elizabeth Ingram, assistant public defender with the Durham County Public Defender’s Office, said she often has 50 to 60 cases in the docket for one morning.
“We don’t have enough time to handle the cases properly,” she said.
Deria Hayes, assistant professor of law at N.C. Central University, also emphasized the need to train lawyers on the delicate dynamics of domestic violence cases, so that lawyers don’t discourage or misinform victims. Hayes directs NCCU School of Law’s Domestic Violence Clinic.
“It goes beyond just merely knowing the law…sometimes we miss (the fact that) there is a person who has a story to share,” she said.
Durham County Commissioner Michael Page said the county is struggling with funding issues across the board. He called on community collaboration to help pick up the slack from funding cuts.
“We believe in what you’re doing,” he said. “But government cannot do it alone. It’s going to take help from the entire community.”
The DCRC and Legal Aid called on agencies to join the Domestic Violence Response Team of Durham. The team meets monthly to share challenges and explore chances to work together.
Simple collaborations have already led to changes. When Cpl. Daniel Leeder, of the Police Department’s Domestic Violence Unit, attended, he learned how officers sometimes unintentionally allow perpetrators to violate protective orders. Leeder then spent a month training all of his officers to prevent the problem. Since then, Everett said, she has received no more complaints from clients about the issue.
Evans, the magistrate, wrote a book about her own experience,“Sleeping with ‘The Enemy’: This Ain’t Right.” As a public official, she said, she can put a face on the struggles of victims, and inspire victims and the community as a whole to confront domestic violence. “Magistrate is kind of my unofficial platform,” she said.
The summit reinforced the importance of collaboration.
“Before we’re going to be able to take care of this cancer we clearly have in this society…we’re going to need to make an effort to work better together,” she said.