Special Reports

$473,600 will seed programs for victims

A new $473,600 federal grant announced Tuesday by Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Edmonds) aims to improve community and legal services for domestic violence victims throughout Pierce County.

But the two-year grant will pay for only a fraction of what Pierce County and Tacoma need, county and city officials said Tuesday. At a noon study session of the Tacoma City Council, a judge, a city attorney and a detective described hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of improvements they'd like to make to help victims as they navigate the city's beleaguered criminal justice system.

For example, the city attorney would like to hire three advocates to help abuse victims through the legal system. The city once had advocates, but the positions were cut in 1999.

Pierce County Executive John Ladenburg estimated Tuesday afternoon that the county, including Tacoma and other cities, needs at least $2 million more each year to adequately care for victims and handle domestic abuse.

Tuesday's grant, he said, is "seed money."

If voters increase the county sales tax by three-tenths of a percentage point, Ladenburg said, "we'll give you a domestic violence system that will really work."

A sales-tax vote is scheduled for November. But Tuesday afternoon, a County Council committee voted to ask residents to increase sales taxes by two-tenths of a percentage point, not the three-tenths that Ladenburg had hoped for.

The difference amounts to $5 million a year, most of which would be dedicated to domestic violence programs. The County Council will make a final decision on the amount at a meeting next month.

Tuesday's grant will pay for the beginnings of a county plan to beef up services for victims throughout the county. Ladenburg said the goal is to have five service centers throughout the county where victims could go to see a judge, meet with lawyers, detectives and advocates, and learn about victim services.

The grant will:

•Pay salaries for two new victims' advocates who will work for a community social services organization.

•Cover overtime hours for sheriff's deputies to track down abuse perpetrators.

•Buy digital cameras for officers to document injuries and damage in domestic violence cases.

•Sponsor training on protection orders and related issues for deputies and also officers in 10 small towns.

•Pay for a "summit" on domestic violence for people throughout the county's legal system.

Eileen O'Brien, Pierce County's justice services manager, applied for the grant in January - months before Tacoma Police Chief David Brame killed his wife and himself, bringing a new focus to the city's and the county's work on domestic violence.

"Crystal Brame coalesced some new people around the domestic violence issue, but we've been progressing slowly toward a better DV system for a long time," Ladenburg said. "This gave us a chance to leapfrog ahead."

At Tuesday's City Council study session, the judge, the attorney and the officer detailed wide-ranging plans they believe would make things better for domestic violence victims.

"They asked what our wish list was," said Municipal Court Judge Elizabeth Verhey.

City Council members Rick Talbert and Connie Ladenburg, who had asked for the lists, said the plans don't have funding and may never be approved. But collecting "wish lists" is an important part of the process of finding the best solution for Tacoma and Pierce County, they said.

Anne Crowley, who handles domestic violence cases for the city attorney's office, told the council her department would like to hire three victims' advocates, whose salaries would be about $55,000 each; another full-time attorney to handle solely domestic violence cases, at $70,000; and another person to coordinate volunteer helpers, at $40,000 per year. That's $275,000, plus benefits.

Verhey told the council that the courts would like to hire one or two probation officers to help judges monitor domestic violence offenders. Those officers would earn about $50,000 per year, plus benefits, she said.

Verhey also proposed creating a "Tacoma Law & Justice Center," which would house legal and social services for domestic violence victims. The center would need about nine new employees, at a total cost of about $435,000, including benefits, she said.

The Tacoma Police Department also has proposed hiring more detectives to be dedicated to handling domestic violence, as well as victim advocates, said Talbert and Ladenburg. Representatives of the police department couldn't be reached for specific details.

Representatives of the YWCA and the Tacoma Women's Rights office said abuse victims desperately need more legal help, because so many issues connected with abuse are handled in the civil courts, where there is no guaranteed legal representation. Victims need lawyers to help with protection orders, custody disputes, name changes and other issues, they said.

They also said victims need more affordable housing, so they have somewhere to go when they leave their abusers.

Lisa Kremer: 253-597-8658