Special Reports

City cut aid for violence victims

A little more than three years ago, the City of Tacoma eliminated a program in which three professional advocates assisted thousands of victims of domestic violence.

In the early days of the 13-year program, the advocates helped victims get protection orders, secure safe places to sleep and find baby sitters, counselors and transportation. They also helped victims navigate the judicial system, sometimes accompanying them to court.

City officials cut the $170,000 program in December 1999, citing a voter-approved statewide tax cut and a $7.5 million budget shortfall. But the advocates and their allies believe the cut reflected a lack of support for fighting domestic violence as well as tensions and disputes with City Attorney Robin Jenkinson and the Tacoma Police Department.

Now, as the city struggles to come to terms with Crystal Brame's slaying at the hands of her husband, Police Chief David Brame, advocates say Tacoma leaders should restore a vital service to victims.

"It was a budget issue for them clearly to save money, but they took a valuable service away from domestic violence victims," said Ann Eft, director of the Pierce County Commission Against Domestic Violence.

"It provided a safety net of support for victims and survivors," added Lynn Abegglen, a former commission chairwoman. "It's a hole that's never been filled."

Jenkinson declined requests for an interview. Heidi Wachter, at that time a Jenkinson aide who supervised the program, rejected any notion that the city didn't support the advocates. She said the program was the victim of tough budget times.

"There just really wasn't anything else to cut," Wachter said.

Now only one paid advocate works out of the city's Human Rights Office. Unpaid volunteers help the city attorney.

"The taxpayers made a choice," said Anne Crowley, the lead domestic violence attorney in Jenkinson's office. "There isn't an office that's worked harder to make up for that gap than ours."

Crowley said the city has been able to make up for the loss of the paid victim advocates using other staff positions and volunteers.

"I feel strongly that my unit here has not slighted victims of domestic violence," she said.

Still, Tacoma's commitment to victim advocacy pales in comparison to what's provided to residents of unincorporated Pierce County. The county program begins when victims walk into the County-City Building for a protection order. It stays with victims throughout the process of court, counseling and separation. (Read more about this Monday.)

"Right on the front lines"

The city's first victim advocate was Marguerite McCann, who started the program in 1987 in the Tacoma Police Department. She was on her own until 1993, when the department hired two more advocates. By the time she quit in 1998, the college-educated advocates were working for the City Attorney's Office, where instead of reaching out to victims in crisis their primary responsibility was paralegal work.

"The City of Tacoma basically went backwards," said McCann, who now works for Kitsap County helping the elderly and disabled.

Another advocate, Michelle Myatt, said she was devastated when her boss told her she would lose her job. "I just cried and cried for all the people, all the women, who needed help," she said.

Myatt said she no longer has the stomach to cope with the brutality she indirectly confronted on the job in Tacoma. But later she was reminded of how much her work mattered during a chance encounter with a former victim.

Myatt was paying for an oil change at an auto dealership when the cashier asked, "Michelle, do you remember me?"

"You helped me when my boyfriend beat me. I'm not with him anymore. I left him," Myatt recalled the woman saying. "Thank you. You saved my life."

In the Tacoma Police Department from 1987 to 1995, the advocates worked side by side with detectives, read every domestic violence report filed by patrol officers and tried to make contact with each victim.

"We were right on the front lines," said Linn Lucas, who quit after the 1996 move to the City Attorney's Office.

Once they started working for Jenkinson, the advocates said, they made contact only with those victims whose abusers would be charged with misdemeanor crimes, a fraction of those initially encountered by police. Often they were unable to speak with victims until days or weeks after crimes had occurred because of delays in handling the paperwork.

Instead of victim outreach, their primary mission was to verify phone numbers and addresses for prosecutors, several said.

"In essence, we were swimming upstream against a very strong current," said Liz Richardson, a former advocate.

While under the Tacoma Police Department, the advocates handled 5,616 domestic violence cases in 1994, according to research by McCann. After the shift to Jenkinson's office, the advocates handled about 2,200 cases the year before their jobs were eliminated, according to city figures.

Stepping on toes

Officially, the advocates lost their jobs because of the city's money problems. But several former advocates and two former assistant city attorneys believe city officials simply got sick of having them around.

McCann and Richardson, in particular, prided themselves on being outspoken champions of victims' rights and didn't hesitate to try to correct wrongs as they saw them.

"Marguerite and I were two burrs under the saddle. She took the left flank and I took the right," Richardson said.

In the Police Department, McCann handled the job on her own from 1987 to 1993.

Lt. Mike Miller, then a sergeant, said he persuaded then-Police Chief Ray Fjetland to hire two more advocates and two more detectives in order to cut down on repeated police visits to the same violent households.

"The national average was that it would take five to seven contacts with the (criminal justice) system before victims would break away," he said.

And police didn't have the time or expertise to help them. "It's not within a police officer's or detective's job description to meet with victims or counsel them," Miller said.

Because the police-based advocates read officers' reports almost immediately after they were filed, the advocates responded rapidly to help victims, said Judy Fortier, the city's women's rights coordinator.

"They had much more opportunity to provide an array of services," she said.

Several detectives who worked with the advocates said they appreciated their efforts.

"When you realize eight out of 10 victims don't cooperate with the criminal justice system, you start to realize just how important these people are," said retired detective Dwight Correll.

In the Police Department, Richardson and McCann both said they frequently encouraged officers to act on information they picked up from victims.

"We were trying to do the right thing," said retired detective Wendie Harper.

The advocates didn't get along with everybody in the Police Department. Conflicts emerged soon after the two new advocates were added, Miller said. Some detectives didn't want to share their cramped space.

One detective also made crude remarks about one of the advocates, another source said on condition of anonymity.

McCann, for her part, didn't worry about ruffling feathers:

•While in graduate school, she wrote a paper about the bureaucratic bottleneck that hindered prosecutions in the City Attorney's Office.

•She said she complained to the state Judicial Conduct Commission about Tacoma Municipal Court Judge Ralph Turco after he suggested in court that a man might need to kick his wife's buttocks instead of biting her. The commission admonished Turco, who's no longer on the bench.

•She said she volunteered as a sexual harassment witness for Harper and three other female police officers who sued the department for sexual harassment. The officers settled, with Harper getting $125,000.

•McCann also was a witness for former assistant city attorney Kim Rendish, who won more than $300,000 from a U.S. District Court jury because she was fired for suing the city in state court. In the state lawsuit, Rendish accused her bosses and Turco of retaliating against her for complaining about what she perceived as the judge's improprieties in handling domestic violence cases as well as unethical conduct in the City Attorney's Office. Rendish is now a deputy prosecutor in Thurston County.

Shift from police to prosecutor

Some of the advocates and some former detectives believe powerful men within the department were fed up with the advocates, prompting the move to Jenkinson's office.

Some pointed fingers at Sgt. Jim Young, who supervised the domestic violence unit after Lt. Miller. Advocates who worked for Young said he did not wholeheartedly support their work.

Young refused to respond to questions last week. However, in a five-page memo written in November 1995 and obtained by The News Tribune, he wrote that officials in Jenkinson's office told him the advocates were operating as "free spirits" in the Police Department and were wasting energy and resources "pursuing cases that will never be in the 'system.'" Young strongly endorsed the transfer.

McCann, infuriated by the prospect of the move, wrote a five-page reply to the lieutenant in charge. She said the advocates would be more effective helping victims as they first came into contact with police than after cases got referred for prosecution.

Detectives who worked with the advocates were sorry to see them go. Taking them out of the Police Department was "another colossal (expletive) stupid idea," said retired detective Correll.

Although he was not directly involved, Miller said the change might have been orchestrated to solve an ongoing problem in the City Attorney's Office. He said the city attorneys had a weak system at the time for deciding when to file charges.

"Cases ended up sitting. They were months and months and months behind. It was a very frustrating situation," Miller said.

Carole Hanson, a retired Air Force lawyer, was hired to oversee the city's domestic violence unit in January 1996, about a month after the move to Jenkinson's office.

Hanson said her bosses, Heidi Wachter (then Heidi Horst) and Jenkinson, wanted her to give the advocates "boot-camp" treatment and force them to quit or fire them. Hanson said she resisted and was forced by Jenkinson and Wachter to resign only six months after getting the job.

Wachter declined to discuss specifics in that case, saying only that she made a bad hire.

After the move to Jenkinson's office, McCann said her previously positive performance evaluations turned negative. Before their jobs were eliminated, she and Lucas quit.

When the advocates made suggestions, they said most of their bosses in the City Attorney's Office ignored them. "We were like unwanted children you don't talk about," said Richardson.

Richardson and others said Jenkinson didn't attempt to get to know the advocates or participate in meetings of the city's domestic violence task force, which was working to improve government programs.

But the task force lacked support from city leaders, said Rendish, the former deputy city attorney. "There were these meetings about domestic violence and how tough they were, but it was all just talk," she said.

The city's response

Wachter, who supervised the domestic violence unit and reported to Jenkinson, acknowledged that tensions ran high as the advocates made the move from the Police Department to the City Attorney's Office.

"It was a rugged transition, there's no doubt about that," she said.

Wachter, now the city attorney in Lakewood, attributed some of the tension to her own "strong personality," and said she wasn't afraid to seek the end of an individual's employment via termination or resignation if the employee wasn't meeting standards.

But Wachter rejected any challenge to her commitment to domestic violence issues.

She said the advocates' work within the Police Department was inefficient and inconsistent. After the move, she said, they chafed at her order to install a system in which every victim was guaranteed some level of service. She said that could be more difficult after cases have gone to prosecutors and victims have moved or become reluctant to continue. She said the advocates took it personally.

"They said, 'You don't want accountability, you just don't like us,'" Wachter said, adding that she understood why they were sensitive about doing things differently than they did with the Police Department.

"They resisted change because they worried the quality of contacts with victims would suffer," she said.

Wachter and Crowley, the city's lead domestic violence attorney, blamed the elimination of the three advocates' positions on voter approval of Initiative 695, which prompted the Legislature to slash the automobile tax that helped fund the office.

The city now employs one paid advocate in its Human Rights Office. "I do everything, from court orders to going to court with victims to victim impact statements," said China Fortson, who estimates she sees 800 victims a year. She said she also helps victims fill out do-it-yourself divorce papers, change their names and Social Security numbers to hide from abusers, and find shelter.

Volunteers have other lives

Nan Stoops, director of the Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence, and other advocates said the best community programs would not have helped Crystal Brame because there is no model to address when the abuser is in the Police Department, let alone the chief.

Nevertheless, prosecutors such as Rendish and Crowley said they valued the contributions by victims' advocates.

Just before the jobs were eliminated, a city domestic violence committee that Crowley was on recommended that the City Attorney's Office bring in more advocates, both paid and volunteer, said Fortier, the city's women's rights coordinator.

Even so, when Jenkinson was ordered to cut her budget, "she turned around and cut the advocates," Fortier said.

Tacoma City Councilwoman Connie Ladenburg said beefing up victim advocacy is one of three priorities being addressed by city officials examining Tacoma's services in the wake of the Brame shootings. The other priorities are teaching city workers to recognize warning signs and determining what services the city can provide to victims.

"It's definitely a need that we have to address in the city," said Ladenburg, who was not on the City Council in 1999 when the advocate program was cut.

Crowley, herself a former victim advocate, says she does the best she can with volunteers. Eft, the county domestic violence commission director, and others commended Crowley's work, but insisted the city would be better off with more paid victim advocates.

"Volunteers are fantastic, but volunteers have other lives," Eft said. "It's a safety issue because we know that when the prosecutor files charges, that makes it dangerous for the victim."

Staff writer Debbie Cafazzo contributed to this report.

Susan Gordon: 253-597-8756


Coming Monday:

Find out what help is available in Pierce County for victims of domestic violence.