Havre Daily News
Local victims of domestic violence will soon have someone who can walk them through the legal system, officers will have better equipment to document violence, and the Hill County Attorney's Office will have better software to track and prosecute offenders, all due to a U.S. Department of Justice grant.
The county received a grant for $247,000 over two years to accomplish each of those objectives, Hill County Commission chair Kathy Bessette said Monday.
"We have a goal to do more prosecution," Bessette said. There are too many instances of domestic violence in the county, and this would be a countywide effort to enforce the law and reduce numbers, she added.
The grant comes at a time when the Hill County Attorney's Office is handling more and more criminal cases of all kinds, including domestic violence cases. Officials attribute the increase of domestic violence cases to a methamphetamine epidemic as well as to increased reporting of domestic violence.
The city of Havre has received similar grants in the past and put them to good use, said Roxanne Ross, Domestic Violence Program director at the District IV Human Resources Development Council. A countywide effort, however, is important.
"When the county goes out on a call, they often have a half-hour response time," Ross said. "With domestic violence, that means when they get on the scene they have a whole different thing to deal with. Sometimes it's over with, sometimes it's cleaned up. They have a whole different investigation to do."
The grant will pay for a part-time deputy to free up time for one deputy to specialize in domestic violence cases, Hill County Undersheriff Don Brostrom said. That deputy will have time to do follow-up, such as visiting a victim to document injuries, that may help get a conviction when a case goes to court, he said. The grant will allow the Sheriff's Office to purchase digital cameras to document evidence of abuse.
The grant will pay for about $40,000 in equipment for the Hill County Attorney's Office as well, CountyAttorney Cyndee Peterson said. New software will allow the office to access computer systems already shared by the Sheriff's Office and Havre Police Department. That will save time and allow prosecutors to know if there is a protection order in place against an offender, Peterson said.
That information may be used in setting conditions of release once an arrest is made, she said. It's an important piece of information that sometimes the County Attorney's Office doesn't know. It can also be used to alert victims when somebody is being released, she said.
The grant will fund a victim advocate who will work with law enforcement and prosecutors. The advocate, Ross said, is the most important piece of the grant.
The advocate will work at HRDC and with the County Attorney's Office, coordinating law enforcement and prosecution efforts while keeping the victim in mind first.
"We will make sure the priority is victim safety and offender accountability," Ross said.
A victim advocate will be hired in the next few weeks, Peterson said.
The final aspect of the grant is training. Prosecutors and Sheriff's Office personnel will receive training specific to domestic violence.
"Domestic violence crimes are the most dangerous crimes law enforcement responds to," Ross said. "When they receive this training they are safer, they understand it better."
For Peterson, the grant is a godsend.
"We need the advocate, we need the training and we need the equipment," she said.
The number of criminal cases the Hill County Attorney's Office is handling is skyrocketing, she said. In all of 2004, the county opened about 150 new felony cases. By Aug. 1 of this year, it had opened 115 new felony cases.
Domestic violence is increasing proportionally with everything else. The reason for the increase, Peterson said, is methamphetamine.
"With the drug addictions come the violence, come the money struggles that families face. It's just they are elevated because of the drug and alcohol use and abuse and we end up with domestic violence," Peterson said.
Brostrom agreed that the number of domestic violence cases the county sees is up. He said that also might be due to the fact that people are more willing to report domestic violence.
In many ways, Peterson said, the county is seeing progress in dealing with domestic violence.
"I think we are changing thought process in children, I think we're changing people's understanding in adults," Peterson said. "Our jurors that come in are much more educated in domestic violence and the cycle of violence. Before, we ran into this concept that that's behind closed doors and that's their issue."
The grant the county received is not methamphetamine-specific, but collaboration allows the entities the flexibility to respond better, no matter the cause, Ross said.
Ross saw the need for the grant in the immediacy of everybody's response when she suggested the county apply in January.
"(Kathy Bessette) was amazing in supporting me and making sure I had what I need. I went to Cyndee Peterson," Ross said. "She said, 'This is my need too.' ... Then Don Brostrom ... We pulled together all our needs to the table and just busted this grant. The community can come together when they really need to address a problem."