When home is where the hurt is

Domestic violence is epidemic, and police are increasingly hiring civilian specialists to follow cases from the day after the incident to the court date


Herald Writer

MOUNTLAKE TERRACE — The woman calling 911 was crying. Send the police right away, she said, "my husband is boiling water."

A follow-up investigation revealed that during a previous argument, the woman’s husband had boiled water and thrown it on her.

What might seem an insignificant event — boiling a pot of water — may be terrifying to a victim of domestic violence.

Decades ago, investigators might not have recognized the gravity of the call thinking: Be happy your husband knows his way around the kitchen.

Domestic violence is epidemic. And curtailing the violence often requires that police do more than answer the 911 call and make an arrest.

Increasingly, police are hiring civilians whose sole function is to follow domestic violence cases from the day after the incident to the court date.

Tammy McElyea’s job with the Mountlake Terrace Police Department is to piece together victims’ stories, help them find needed social services and to aid the prosecution.

More than a year ago, the department received a $181,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Justice, which allowed the hiring of McElyea, a full-time civilian domestic violence coordinator.

McElyea’s hiring has resulted in savings in terms of money and worker hours. Because McElyea investigates only domestic violence cases, police aren’t pulled off the street to pursue the follow-up investigation.

Victims, instead of trying to puzzle their way through the legal system or locate victim services, can make one call to McElyea.

"I’m a one-stop shop," she said.

To aid the prosecution, McElyea collects 911 tapes, examines medical records, takes victims’ photographs, interviews victims and witnesses and encourages those who are hesitant to submit a written statement to the prosecutor.

McElyea provides victims with an extensive list of services: counseling, housing, child care, medical aid and legal aid.

While many police departments contract with victim-advocacy agencies, those groups tend to focus on victim services rather than aiding the prosecution, McElyea said.

With an in-house coordinator the turn around time for connecting victims with services is faster, Police Chief Scott Smith said, adding that his department was one of the first to have an in-house advocate.

Many police departments are exploring the possibility of hiring "one-stop" civilian coordinators, especially considering domestic violence calls are the bread and butter of police work, accounting for up to 60 percent of all calls.

The Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office has kicked off its own program similar to Mountlake Terrace’s, except two detectives handle cases, instead of civilians, detective Dusty Sane said.c

The sheriff’s program has been in place since June.

While patrol officers respond to the emergency call, and perform the initial investigation, Sane and Dave Coleman attend exclusively to the follow-up investigation.

"I also act as a conduit to route these victims to services such as the Center for Battered Women," Sane said.

He normally investigates about 35 cases a week, sometimes receiving as many as 20 new cases after a two-day weekend.

Everett has employed civilian coordinators for years, while Bothell, Edmonds and Lynnwood contract with outside agencies.

In Sultan, police will learn whether their grant request to fund a civilian police support officer has been approved, Police Chief Fred Walsersaid.

One of the support officer’s duties would be working with domestic violence victims.

"It frees up the police officer to do his investigation rather than focusing on social functions … such as counseling, obtaining a restraining order, explaining court procedures," Walser said.

A month into her job, McElyea already had investigated 37 domestic abuse cases, including one felony.

Domestic violence cuts across social, ethnic and economic lines.

"I know women whose husbands are doctors," McElyea said.

In McElyea’s line of work, simple explanations aren’t sufficient.

"People will ask: ‘Why doesn’t the woman leave?’ "

"The better question is: ‘Why doesn’t he stop hitting?’ "

When big cases like Linda David or Nicole Simpson grab the headlines, they become a yardstick against which women measure their own situation. The result is that battered women sometimes minimize the violence perpetrated against them. If they don’t have the black eye or the split lip they write it off, McElyea said.

Even when the batterer agrees to counseling, it may be the wrong kind.

"Marriage counselors generally don’t know how to deal with a relationship where someone is being battered," McElyea said. "Unless you understand the dynamics of domestic violence, I really discourage mental health practitioners from taking on that issue."

Batterers seeking treatment need to talk to an attorney or the probation department to make sure they’re seeing someone recommended by the court, Sane said.

Children who’ve witnessed domestic violence are often frightened by what they’ve seen and heard, but some learn to imitate the behavior, McElyea said.

"A domestic violence victim came to my office with her 5-year-old son. She was talking and her son was trying to get her attention. When he couldn’t get it, he started hitting her. At 5 years old he’s already learned hitting her will get her attention."

In her seven years of experience dealing with victims, McElyea has met many women who suddenly found themselves in an abusive relationship.

The description of how they got there has an eerie sameness about it, McElyea said.

"I watched my mom. I didn’t want to go there, but it creeps up on you,’" she said, repeating their words.

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