October 9, 2016 — In the words a Delta emergency room physician said to police, the victim’s story was “typical” — she initially denied domestic abuse. According to her assailant’s arrest affidavit, her case was horrific: The beating she endured put her into renal failure.
“We see very serious domestic violence cases. We take them seriously,” District Attorney Dan Hotsenpiller said Oct. 6. In terms of the above case, which occurred in 2014 in Delta County, that meant requesting a special prosecutor from another jurisdiction, who just recently obtained a guilty plea from defendant Melvin D. Randall.
Randall pleaded guilty to second-degree assault as an act of domestic violence, according to court records. Sentencing is pending, with terms open to the court.
Hotsenpiller said that before the offense, Randall had stalked the woman from Virginia to Colorado.
The Randall case is one of many domestic violence cases Hotsenpiller and other officials see, although the majority of their caseloads involve misdemeanor offenses.
Numbers vary, depending on the agency to which incidents are reported, and also in terms of what state statistics categorize as domestic violence.
At the Montrose Police Department, domestic violence cases have “rocketed,” Cmdr. Gene Lillard said. Year-to-date, the MPD had 384 reports of domestic violence; by the same time last year, it had received 146.
“They’re up 163 percent in the City of Montrose,” Lillard said.
“It’s a major concern. When officers go to the scene, we investigate the incident and we also talk to as many witnesses as we possibly can, and weigh the evidence to see who was the primary aggressor.”
Domestic violence is a mandatory arrest in Colorado.
“We do not give warnings for domestic violence,” Lillard said.
Domestic violence incidents reported to the Montrose County Sheriff’s Office are lower — 49 this year, compared to 62 reports by this time last year, Sheriff Rick Dunlap said.
“I think it’s unnecessary,” he said of the crime.
“People need to have an avenue that they can release their anger and anxiety before it turns into something that is going to cause a serious problem.”
For state Fiscal Year 2015 (July 2015 – June 2016), there were 380 misdemeanor cases filed in the 7th Judicial District that were categorized as domestic violence.
“That’s not a small number for this judicial district,” Hotsenpiller said.
The 7th Judicial District encompasses Montrose, Delta, Hinsdale, Gunnison, San Miguel and Ouray counties.
Again, state categorization of offenses differs from the way other agencies categorize domestic violence. If underlying issues point to domestic violence, but there is no charge of domestic violence, the state does not count it in that category.
The state figures are based on fiscal year data, but Hotsenpiller’s in-house counts are by calendar year. According to these, in 2015, the DA’s office handled 432 domestic violence cases — these numbers include felony cases. Since January of this year, it has received 305.
Not every report made to law enforcement necessarily leads to prosecution — and domestic violence is underreported, said Chip Meneley, the domestic violence program supervisor for Hilltop Community Resources.
“(Nationally), the stats tell us that it’s about 20 percent of all domestic violence gets reported,” he said.
“It’s a pretty prevalent problem in our service area. It’s really underreported. A lot of people either don’t realize services are available or they’re kind of embarrassed or ashamed to come forward. For some folks, it’s not safe, or they feel it is not safe.”
Hilltop serves Montrose, Delta, Ouray and Mesa counties, providing services for domestic violence. Since January, it has provided emergency safe house shelter to 68 women, men and children; responded to 832 crisis calls on its 24-hour domestic violence and sexual assault hotline, and assisted 89 people through support services provided by trained volunteers.
“We’ve always got somebody on that line people can reach out to. … There’s help. We just need to get them to reach out,” Meneley said.
The services are available regardless whether the victim makes a police report.
Tackling relationship violence
Domestic violence involves control and coercion between intimate partners or former intimate partners, whether of the opposite sex or the same sex.
“It is where one partner engages in behavior to intimidate, threaten, coerce or physically hurt the other person for the purpose of power and control,” Meneley said.
Many factors drive domestic violence — among them, economic straits, alcohol abuse and substance abuse.
“Ultimately, I wish I had an answer to that,” Meneley said.
“What drives domestic violence is, it’s a choice for the offender. I believe they do it because they get what they want, whether it’s a sense of power, their way, or they just want to make all the decisions.
“There’s a lot of different reasons, but that’s kind of it in a nutshell.”
Offenders may have anger management deficiencies, but not necessarily, because that problem tends to show up in their dealings with other people, Meneley said. Domestic violence is largely reserved for the intimate partner, and perpetrators are usually functioning members of society, he said.
“They’re very manipulative. They don’t generally engage in this behavior in front of other people. It’s sort of a premeditated, planned out behavior.”
Domestic violence doesn’t always result in injury. It can entail shoving, kicking, property damage and phone obstruction, when an abuser interferes with telecommunication services in an attempt to prevent the victim from calling for help.
Violence in the home harms children, even when they are not subjected to abuse, Hotsenpiller said.
Prosecutors and victim advocates try to communicate with victims early on to see how best to help and what to focus on in the case, especially to protect children, he said.
“We know kids in domestic violence households are aware of the violence and experience trauma due to the presence of that violence in their family,” Hotsenpiller said.
“They’re often witnesses, which is sad,” said Lane Thomasson, one of Hotsenpiller’s deputy prosecutors.
Childhood trauma is the No. 1 common experience of adults who become entangled in the criminal justice system, the prosecutors said.
“If we can make a difference in childhood trauma, we can really make a difference,” Hotsenpiller said.
Reframing the perceptions
Hotsenpiller’s office takes all criminal cases seriously and, when prosecuting a case involving domestic violence, acts early to determine which need extra focus.
The DA’s Office is also providing an updated reporting form for officers who respond to domestic violence calls. The revamp is the result of task force recommendations to replace the previous “archaic” form, victim advocate Aimee English said.
The form is designed to incorporate risk factor assessments, though it still depends on a victim volunteering the information, and a lot of times, they are fearful to do so, she said.
“It’s a very good form and it will be very useful for the police department and for the prosecution,” Lillard said. “It’s more in-depth.”
The MCSO has also begun using the updated form, Dunlap said.
Like English, he sees reluctance among some victims. Initially, the man or woman who has been abused might be cooperative, but then recant.
“That creates a problem for prosecution of these cases,” the sheriff said.
Domestic violence impacts the entire family and outside pressures can cause a victim to back off his or her complaint.
“A lot of victims will look at that and say they’re not willing at this time to put the family through it,” Dunlap said.
“The perpetrator may be the only person who is an income source. When you take that away, that creates more problems financially, but at the same time, you have to look at the whole thing. If somebody’s being abused in the home, is that really good for the children?” he said.
Hilltop through its free and confidential services works with domestic violence victims to help them understand the power dynamics at play, the cycle of violence and how it differs from mere situational violence, Meneley said.
While people do still wonder why an abuse victim “stays” with her or his abuser, that is the wrong thing on which to focus, he said.
“We’re trying to reframe it as a community. The focus needs to be on the offender. The question needs to be ‘Why doesn’t he stop’? That needs to be the focus,” Meneley said.
“We want to support the survivors, but turn the focus onto the offender and say, you need to stop. We’re not going to tolerate this.”