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Small-town life complicates domestic violence enforcement

By Megan Guza, Point Park News Service:

Law enforcement issues pose unique challenges to victims of domestic abuse, and to the agencies that try to help them, in Western Pennsylvania’s rural communities.

“I get a headache from it [law enforcement] every day,” said Lauren Lacey, manager of the Fayette County Domestic Violence Shelter. “Honestly, the general consensus from women, and even men – they feel they were treated as the perpetrator and not the victim.”

Some abuse victims, she said in a telephone interview, have been arrested for calling the police.

“Even recently, I had somebody tell me they threatened to arrest her if she called back,” she said. “A lot of women don’t have an outlet, don’t feel safe – they don’t feel safe even with police.”

Janice, who asked that her real name not be used, lives in a small town of just under 2,600 in Washington County. Her partner of nearly 20 years abused her for most of them. When she did call police, she said, they didn’t help.

One night, years into the abuse, she came home to find her partner cooking cocaine in their kitchen with a friend.

“I said, ‘You promised me. You promised you’d stay away from the drugs,’” she said during a telephone interview. “He kicked me and threw me on the ground.  He shoved my head in the cabinet and started slamming it.”

So she ran, she said, but not before calling police. She said the police told her that because she’d been the one to leave the house, she would have to find a place to stay.

“I walked into town and hid,” said the 56-year-old deli clerk, adding that her boyfriend and his pal came  looking for her. “I was hiding in bushes.”

She went to a local bar, which had stopped serving for the night, and hid inside. She said state police found her and chastised her not just for being in the bar, but for scarring her partner.

“They said he had marks on him, which, if he did, was because I retaliated,” she said. “They said, ‘Because you have no marks on you, you have to leave the house.’”

The lack of help from the police, she said, continued just as long as the abuse did – for nearly 15 years before she left for good.

“They always sided with him,” she said. “He always had the upper hand.”

She said things were good for the first few years of the relationship – he was eight years younger – but when they started to go downhill, they went fast.

“I didn’t realize he was selling and doing drugs,” she said. “When the drugs got worse, the abuse got worse.”

Her boyfriend was eventually jailed on a charge of driving under the influence, but he was allowed work release.

“That’s when it got bad,” Janice said. “If I wasn’t there to pick him up, I got my head whacked in.”

When she finally decided she had to get away from him, she would go to her sister’s house, something she said police would use to side with her boyfriend.

“They would tell me, ‘You have a place to go – he doesn’t. He has to stay here, and you have to leave since you have somewhere,’” she said.

Some women risk their housing security by calling the police.

Norristown, Pa., made headlines this past summer when the ACLU of Pennsylvania filed a lawsuit challenging a borough ordinance it said punishes tenants requiring police assistance for domestic disputes.

The ordinance acts as a “three strikes” law: landlords housing tenants who call the police at least three times during a four-month period face fines or citations. It also allows the landlord to evict a tenant who does so.

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of Norristown resident Lakisha Briggs, who said police were called after her ex-boyfriend physically abused her. Briggs told the ACLU that when police arrived, they told her this was her “third strike,” and they planned to suggest to her landlord he evict her.

Other times, Lacey said, police do not have the training or the knowledge to properly handle domestic violence cases.

“It’s probably the biggest issue we have here – law enforcement,” she said. “They’re not educated. They’re hard to approach about getting the education. They don’t know about the Protection From Abuse (PFA) process. A lot of issues that we have are with the police.”

Denise Scotland, of the Rural Advocacy Task Force at the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence.
Denise Scotland, of the Rural Advocacy Task Force at the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

That’s not to say that rural law enforcement is any less dedicated or responsible, said Denise Scotland, who oversees the Rural Advocacy Task Force at the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence in Harrisburg.

“It’s the circumstances that make it a little more difficult,” she said during a telephone interview. “In small, rural, close-knit communities, it is a case of everyone knows everyone.”

“Often, the police will know both the victim and perpetrator,” she said. “They might try to do some other intervention than a PFA or take his guns – they all hunt together and he needs those.

“It’s not to say the police are violating the law, but there’s more reluctance.”

That reluctance often transfers to the victims of the violence.

“Some do know that he’s going to lose his guns if the police come, and that’s going to make the abuse worse,” she said.

This, she said, makes survivors reluctant to call in law enforcement.

“They’re less likely to reach out, which means police are less likely to feel like they need training because they think, ‘It doesn’t happen here,’” she said.

East Bethlehem Township Police Chief Mark Pompe said his department runs into that issue.

“It’s hard,” he said during a telephone interview. “Sometimes we arrest both. Sometimes we arrest the guy and see later the guy was in the right and she just wanted him out of the house because she was messing around or vice versa.”

He said domestic violence training is an issue as well.

“Training in general is hard to find, but in Washington County, there’s hardly any,” he said. “They have it in Allegheny County, but I’m not driving all the way out there. It’s hard to get funding in this area for training.”

He said officers would welcome the opportunity for additional training, especially in domestic violence.

“Officers just jump on it,” he said.

A 2011 report by the Rural Assistance Center at the University of North Dakota says the close-knit nature of such communities lends itself to less reporting from survivors.

“Relationships or familiarity with health care providers or law enforcement officials may affect victims’ willingness to discuss abuse or violence,” said the report. “At the same time, relationships with the abuser could limit how much a claim of abuse is looked into.”

Westmoreland County victim Alexis (not her real name), who was abused by her boyfriend in Bucks County in the 1980s, said this played into her decision not to seek assistance.

“We shared friends. My mother lent him money. He knew many of the local cops and politicians,” she said. “He was from Reading, and I was raised in Detroit – an outsider. Most important, it just wasn’t done.”

Scotland said an “I don’t want to damage his entire reputation” mentality also stops some women from reporting the abuse. On top of that, she said, the prospect of seeing the person who is probably the family provider taken away is scary to some women.

“Some have joint ownership on farms or of livestock or businesses together,” she said. “They don’t want to report because of the potential ramifications of that person getting hauled off to jail. They’re left running a business or caring for a farm by themselves.”

This the second in a three-part series on domestic violence in rural Western Pennsylvania. The previous installment focused on problems created by location, law enforcement and finances.  The series also appears in Washington’s Observer-ReporterNext: Money problems.


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