Empowerhouse

Thanks to a grant-funded partnership, Empowerhouse court advocate Susan Sigmon (right) works with Detective Kurt McBride and Pamela Garrett with the Stafford County Sheriff’s Office’s domestic violence unit.

The Stafford County Sheriff’s Office hopes to broadcast the message that domestic violence perpetrators will be held accountable and survivors will be believed.

“Our goal is to make sure we provide the best compassionate care and hold abusers accountable,” Sheriff David Decatur said. “You have to have a heart.”

The office has hired a full-time civilian domestic violence and child advocate and has also formed a partnership with Empowerhouse, the local nonprofit domestic violence shelter.

The grant-funded partnership enables one of the organization’s court advocates to maintain a presence at the Sheriff’s Office.

“Now, instead of giving [survivors] a pamphlet, we can give them a person,” said Chris Cameron, assistant division commander for criminal investigations at the Sheriff’s Office.

Stafford will also soon be the first locality in the Fredericksburg area to implement the Lethality Assessment Protocol, an evidence-based assessment tool officers will use to determine whether a domestic violence survivor is at risk of becoming a homicide victim.

And the Sheriff’s Office has channeled funding into purchasing improved technology for photographing domestic violence-inflicted injuries—many of which are not immediately visible to officers who first respond to an incident.

“The best results [in a domestic violence case] come when there is a quick response, a sensitive, informed follow-up investigation and connection with community resources,” said Stafford Commonwealth’s Attorney Eric Olsen. “We are hitting all the marks, doing as much as we can.”

Olsen said that 30 years ago, when he first started working as a prosecutor in Stafford for then-Commonwealth’s Attorney Daniel Chichester, it was difficult to prosecute domestic violence cases. An arrest was made only if the victim wanted it—otherwise, the incident was handled as a “family dispute,” Olsen said.

“Advocates around the country were realizing that these cases were not being handled as they should be,” Olsen said.

“The criminal justice system not being involved was causing harm. There has to be some degree of accountability for the perpetrator. If there is no accountability, you’ve done nothing.”

The Sheriff’s Office began taking steps to change this culture, Olsen said, by instigating a mandatory arrest policy for domestic violence situations and hiring victim–witness coordinators to educate survivors about the legal system and connect them with resources.

In 2017, Olsen said, Sheriff Decatur approached Empowerhouse with more ideas of how domestic violence investigations could be improved in the county.

“He offered us a seat in the office and we wanted to be able to fulfill the invitation,” said Kathy Anderson, Empowerhouse executive director.

The $450,000, three-year grant that supports Empowerhouse’s staff presence at the Sheriff’s Office was awarded by the Department of Justice’s Office of Violence Against Women in October 2018 and implementation began in January.

The Improving Criminal Justice Responses grant is designed to encourage partnerships among governments, courts, victim service providers, coalitions and rape crisis centers, to ensure that intimate partner violence is treated seriously.

The grant also funds a full-time forensic nurse at Mary Washington Hospital.

Empowerhouse Court Advocate Susan Sigmond is the staff member who is available for survivors to connect with at the Sheriff’s Office. Survivors are referred to her by deputies, detectives and front-desk staff at the office and she is also available to meet with anyone on a walk-in basis.

“The Sheriff’s Office has been phenomenally welcoming,” Sigmond said. “Empowerhouse’s services are free and 100 percent confidential, and they have respected that. [Survivors] can have time and space to breathe and have conversations about safety.”

She will also coordinate free training for Stafford’s law enforcement officers on strangulation and on the Lethality Assessment Protocol, which she said will be introduced in March.

The protocol involves a set of questions that officers investigating an incident of domestic violence must ask the survivor. Answers are scored and the higher the score, the higher the survivor’s risk of being a victim of homicide.

Survivors at high risk will be immediately connected with a domestic violence advocate, who will explain the risk and work with the survivor to develop a safety plan.

“Anecdotally, I’d say a significant percent of [Stafford’s] homicides are domestic violence-related,” Olsen said. “Often, we know the victim is at risk for homicide, but the victim doesn’t understand the risk.”

Stafford’s domestic violence detectives said advocates such as Sigmond and Pam Garrett—Stafford’s new full-time domestic violence and child abuse advocate, who was hired in October—help by making the criminal justice system less intimidating for survivors.

Garrett, who comes to the Sheriff’s Office from the position of executive director of the Safe Harbor Child Advocacy Center, said she tries to follow up with survivors within 24 hours of receiving their case paperwork.

She sees her job as being “an ear for [the survivor] to talk to.”

“I’m just trying to make it easier for them,” she said. “They’re scared—their world has just turned upside down.”

J.R. Fouts, one of the domestic violence detectives who lobbied for Garrett’s position, said she “bridges a gap between the call and the court.”

And often, further evidence—such as bruises that were not visible to officers on the scene—can be collected and documented in the aftermath of an incident that would be lost without Garrett’s follow-up work.

Domestic violence detective Kurt McBride said the work of victim advocates is important in keeping survivors involved in their cases.

“Maintaining the cooperation of the survivor is a big challenge,” he said.

Survivors may stop cooperating with law enforcement and prosecutors because of threats or fear of reprisal from their abuser, fear of hurting their abuser, pressure from extended family, financial worries and other reasons.

But, “the key to success in court is the cooperation of the victim,” Olsen said.

“All that work done ahead of time [by victim advocates] really helps us be able to talk with the victim in a positive way,” he said. “The way a case is responded to and handled is crucial. There is a unique opportunity to actually impact what happens in the future.”

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Adele Uphaus–Conner:

540/735-1973

auphaus@freelancestar.com

@flsadele