Special Reports

Top centers coordinate court systems

There are three key differences between Pierce County's one-stop domestic violence center and others considered the best in the nation.

Some top-notch domestic violence centers have enough room to provide free office space to people who help victims get emergency housing, food, counseling and other services, so victims don't end up going home in frustration.

In other well-regarded domestic violence centers, court systems work together to handle perpetrators' cases. One step is combining misdemeanor case loads in Tacoma and Pierce County; another step is having the same prosecutors and victim advocates handle both felonies and misdemeanors.

Local domestic violence experts believe Tacoma and Pierce County are capable of working together to do all of those things.

Victim services

In San Diego, a community safety audit four years ago showed that victims of domestic violence often had to go to 32 places to get all the help they needed. They had to repeat their stories at each stop.

The one-stop center took care of that.

"It's a safe environment," said San Diego Police Lt. Jim Barker, who supervises the Police Department's domestic violence unit in the city Family Justice Center - their name for the one-stop center.

"It's victim-centered," he said. "It's not a police station, even though we have detectives here. At the police station I was lucky if I saw three or four (victims) a year."

And, he said, "It's working. And you're talking to a cop. For years I said, 'I'm not a ... social worker.' But if we can get victims out of the criminal justice system, that's what we want to do."

Domestic violence programs rarely can cite statistics to show how well they work, because police assume victims report only a fraction of actual assaults. In fact, police departments and victim advocates usually believe a sign of successful domestic violence campaign is a marked increase in the number of cases.

San Diego has one statistic Barker cites proudly. In October 2002, when the center opened, about 50 victims came to the center for help.

"In July, 658 people came through the doors," he said.

Coordinating misdemeanor cases

Craig Roberts, one of the coordinators of Pierce County's one-stop center; Ann Eft, director of the Pierce County Commission Against Domestic Violence; and others believe Tacoma and Pierce County courts can and should join forces in a one-stop domestic violence center.

If cases were combined, treatment of perpetrators would be consistent, whether abusers committed crimes in Tacoma or elsewhere in Pierce County. City and county prosecutors could work together to keep track of perpetrators and make sentencing recommendations.

"We've seen these guys jump from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, they've got cases in district court, they've got cases in municipal court, and they're all handled differently," Roberts said.

Spokane County prosecutors and city prosecutors are cross-deputized to handle misdemeanor cases in each others' jurisdiction. That means that if, for example, an abuser were to threaten a victim at home in the county and at work in the city, one prosecutor could handle both cases.

Bringing in the felonies

Domestic violence experts say abusers who commit misdemeanors are just as dangerous as those who commit felonies, and their victims are just as likely to fail to help prosecutors make their cases.

People who commit domestic violence misdemeanors often graduate to felony-level crimes, or fluctuate between the two levels, experts say.

In Tacoma, different prosecutors handle the cases at different levels.

In Vancouver, Wash., domestic violence cases are assigned to attorneys and to victim advocates based on the perpetrator's name.

For example, Jeannie Bryant's business card reads both "Deputy Prosecuting Attorney" and "Assistant City Attorney."

Before she was promoted to coordinator of the domestic violence prosecution center, Bryant handled all cases where the perpetrator's last name started with E through J - whether the case was in municipal, district or superior court.

Bryant would know when an abuser was charged with a crime, no matter which court the charges were filed in. And she'd be familiar with cases when abusers offended again, she said.

City attorneys and county prosecutors in the domestic violence unit are cross-deputized to work in each others' courts, and to handle both felonies and misdemeanors.

Bryant said she and other prosecutors at first were hesitant to let city attorneys, who traditionally handle only misdemeanor cases, work at the felony level.

She and another prosecutor worked with city attorneys to ensure they understood felony sentencing guidelines.

"We weaned them in," she said. "They did well."

In fact, the biggest conflict anyone in Vancouver can remember over bringing together the county and city employees was Casual Day. The city lets employees wear jeans on Fridays; Clark County doesn't.

The center's support staff members are divided between city and county employees. Eventually they decided to follow their employers' policies, so if you visit the center on a Friday, some staff members will be in professional wear, others in jeans.

SIDEBAR: Comparing programs

Tacoma population: 198,000

Pierce County population: 715,000

Pierce County's one-stop domestic violence center: 21 deputies, prosecutors, victim advocates and court staff members

Vancouver, Wash., population: 145,000

Clark County population: 350,000

Vancouver-Clark's one-stop domestic violence center: 13 prosecutors, victim advocates and staff members (a police officer will be added soon)

Spokane population: 196,000

Spokane County population: 420,000

Spokane's one-stop domestic violence center: 22 prosecutors, detectives, advocates and staff members

San Diego population: 1.25 million

San Diego's one-stop domestic violence center: 120 police officers, prosecutors, victim advocates, staff members and community advocates

(The center does not serve the county.)

Note: One-stop domestic violence centers often do not have their own budgets. Employee salaries are paid by the department that employs them. For example, in Pierce County, deputies are paid by the sheriff's department, attorneys by the Prosecuting Attorney's Office and court staff members by the county clerk.