High-Profile Cases Put Spotlight On Domestic Abuse

Domestic violence training is an integral part of instruction at the Connecticut Police Academy in Meriden. (JOHN WOIKE)

In 1985, Gov. William A. O'Neill appointed a 13-member panel of experts to change the way Connecticut responds to family violence. The panel's report, in January 1986, led to Public Act 86-337, known by victim advocates, judges and law enforcers across the country as the "Tracey Thurman Law."

Aside from mandating an arrest when there's evidence of a crime, the Connecticut law requires that domestic violence suspects go before a judge on the next available court date. It added another dimension to the court system: the Family Relations Division, which directs offenders into counseling and offers services to victims. The law required the monitoring of protection and restraining orders, and created centralized reporting for family violence cases.

Arrests skyrocketed, jumping from an estimated 9,000 in 1985, to about 28,000 in 1990. About 82 percent of the victims were women.

Before the law, most of the family violence cases that came to court were not prosecuted, and the alleged abusers walked away after their initial court appearance with little or no counseling.

Today, with the growth of pretrial offender counseling programs, the majority of cases move beyond that first appearance, and defendants, even if they are not convicted, usually receive some level of counseling. They also must satisfy court orders, such as restitution and orders of protection, Dunn said.

In 1997, domestic violence dockets were created in some courts, where specially assigned prosecutors handle nothing but family violence cases.

"The DV docket allows the judge to give these cases special attention," said Superior Court Judge Lawrence L. Hauser, who sits in Bridgeport. He was one of the pioneers of the special dockets. "And it allows for vertical prosecution — where you have the same judge, the same prosecutor, the same bail commissioner, the same victim advocate all the way through.

"You're never going to be right all the time," Hauser said. "Sometimes we listen to the victim when we shouldn't have, and sometimes we don't listen to the victim when we should have. All you can do with this criminal justice continuum is to try to come up with the best solution, one that protects the victim, stops the violence and brings accountability to the abuser."

But of the 20 geographical courts in the state, only eight — Waterbury, New Britain, Hartford, Norwalk, Stamford, Bridgeport, New Haven and New London — have special family violence dockets. In the other courts, the cases go into the mainstream.

Kane, the chief state's attorney, said there isn't enough money in the system to put a special docket in every courthouse. Even among the eight, the resources vary. In Bridgeport, one of the first to have a special domestic violence docket, three prosecutors are assigned. In New Britain, with an extremely busy docket, one prosecutor, Elizabeth Moseley, handles the load.

And the work isn't for everyone.

Dunn said some prosecutors describe their role in domestic violence cases as more social worker than law enforcer.

"These cases can emotionally rack the heck out of you," Dunn said. "You get advocates telling you he's going to kill her. When you hear that day in and day out, your nervous system gets a little twitchy."

Public Awareness

The problem is bigger than the courts or the cops.

The solutions have as much to do with public education, housing, job training, day care, affordable health care, and drug and alcohol rehabilitation, as with law enforcement.

"When you're talking domestic violence, you're talking social issues more so than criminal justice," said state Rep. Mike Lawlor, D- East Haven, a former prosecutor and co-chairman of the legislature's judiciary committee. "We can try to prevent further victimization, to protect women and children and help pull them out of violent relationships, but the criminal justice system is a backstop — it won't touch the root causes."

Stan Konesky, a retired Branford lieutenant who has been training recruits for 10 years at the Connecticut Police Academy in Meriden, says public awareness is key.

"We need to do something iconic, like the way the public now recognizes that drunken driving is not acceptable. And we have to get to children earlier, with things like anti-bullying programs, so they don't grow up to repeat the cycle. We're not there yet."