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Some local officials praised aspects of Rock County’s practices for dealing with domestic and intimate partner abuse while others reiterated the need for reform after a report compiled by an area police chief and county data analyst found a high rate of domestic violence cases in Rock County.

The Gazette reported Monday on a presentation given by researcher Kendra Schiffman and Edgerton police Chief Robert Kowalski in which they highlighted the findings of a report they compiled concerning recent domestic violence charges against a man who was later accused of killing the same victim.

In the report, Schiffman and Kowalski said Rock County reported more than 7.2 domestic violence-related incidents per 1,000 people, higher than Wisconsin’s rate of 5.3 incidents per 1,000 and the U.S. rate of 4.8 incidents per 1,000.

Officials who spoke Thursday to The Gazette about the report included Schiffman, Kowalski, Janesville police Chief Dave Moore and Jessi Luepnitz, program director at YWCA Rock County.

The discussion centered around various practices within the criminal justice system and programs offered to victims of domestic violence.

Reaching out in timeOfficials said the high rate of reported incidents can be attributed to an effective network of advocacy groups, law enforcement and community-based tools in Rock County.

Such tools include a 24-hour phone and text line, lethality assessment training, and adjustments in abuse classification terminology that help police determine which offenders might be the biggest threats to their victims and the public.

One of the more critical elements of handling domestic abuse is the speed of the response. The sooner a case is reported to the YWCA or law enforcement, the easier it is for the system to react, the officials said.

Luepnitz hailed the lethality assessment program the police department started in 2018. It consists of an 11-question survey used to assess threats and is conducted at the scene of a reported incident.

Luepnitz cited a 20% increase in the YWCA’s caseload in the three years since the assessment’s introduction.

“Roughly 25% of our clients are connected to us through law enforcement,” she said, adding word-of-mouth and the crisis lines funnel many more to her organization.

Moore said an interesting result of the assessment program has been the streamlining of the domestic violence response team’s work. In the past, team members would assure a victim’s immediate safety but then leave and return within 72 hours to follow up and offer resources. Based on a victim’s answers, the assessment lets authorities immediately offer further help beyond just physical safety.

Luepnitz said the time between the reporting of an incident and the victim leaving the scene of abuse is critical. She described a coordinated effort in which people go to a victim’s residence when the abuser is away and pack things such as clothes, birth certificates and other personal belongings.

“Anything that you’re going to need to move forward without that abusive individual in your life, and then plan it out so that it’s done safely, and hopefully, without further incident,” she said.

Room for growthMoore described some areas for improvement in the county’s handling of domestic abuse cases, including improving the lethality assessment protocols and what he described as a deficient pretrial assessment process. He said pretrial assessments sometimes inadequately deal with suspects in domestic violence cases and fail to provide crucial information to those in the criminal justice system, particularly judges and prosecutors.

Moore said insufficient pretrial assessments can hinder judges’ and prosecutors’ ability to accurately deterimine the threat suspects pose before they are released from custody. He said the problem is compounded by the bond system.

“You can only look at it (setting a bond) through the lens of the likelihood to appear in court,” Moore said. “There is no formalized consideration for public safety or victim safety.”

Kowalski suggested the creation of a law making domestic violence a chargeable offense, similar to those that exist in other states. He gave an example of suspects locally who are charged in cases where battery and disorderly conduct take the place of domestic violence charges.

In some instances, suspects in these scenarios plead guilty to different enhanced charges related to the same case, effectively expunging the charge of a violent crime from their record.

“Maybe we need to change some of our laws to have a domestic violence law, as opposed to all those charges being an enhancement with domestic violence.”

Informing the publicIn the end, the formula for an effective system for reporting domestic violence boils down to the community. Schiffman said educational efforts can let people know of best practices and available resources for people in abusive situations.

“I think some people have a very limited idea of what the resources are and what’s needed and how dangerous and challenging that is,” she said.

Schiffman said this often leads to victim blaming because people who are “bystanders” don’t have an understanding of how difficult it can be for the victim to leave an abusive relationship.

A solution she recommended was incorporating early intervention education in schools to help teach children to recognize signs of abuse at home.

“There needs to be much more community support for early intervention so they’re not normalizing some of the more controlling abusive behavior and that they themselves are empowered to say ‘That’s not OK,’” she said.

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