Court system efforts focus on safety of domestic violence victims
[Editor’s note: This is the sixth installment in a multipart series about domestic violence. The following story may contain graphic details that some readers may find disturbing.]
The Coffee County District Attorney’s Office is dedicated to fighting domestic violence, with the main goal being protecting the victims and ensuring their well-being.
Jennifer Craighead has served as an assistant district attorney in Coffee County for more than four years. She deals primarily with domestic violence cases, also handling some sexual assault cases, if they are related to domestic relationships.
The charges Craighead handles include misdemeanor domestic assault, assault, harassment, stalking and vandalism.
In Tennessee, domestic abuse cases are not limited to violence between intimate partners. These cases can involve violence between siblings or roommates, as well, said Craighead.
Last fiscal year, 538 domestic violence cases were handled by the Coffee County office, according to Craighead.
“Our law enforcement does a really good job in regards to responding to domestic violence situations and making appropriate arrests when needed in assisting victims,” Craighead said.
The struggles of the victims
Craighead has noticed some common threads when it comes to the victims in the cases she prosecutes. Many of them have experienced violence for a long time.
“This is something they grew up seeing,” she said.
Also, once they find themselves in a controlling relationship, it’s hard for victims to break free.
“A lot of them are drug dependent, and they get into a relationship that becomes very controlling and very violent because they are addicted,” Craighead said.
Many of the victims have children and they are afraid not only for their own safety, but for the safety of their children. Most of the victims, she said, are completely dependent on the abusers.
“They are separated from their family, they have no employment, and at some point they are made to stay at home,” Craighead.
While Craighead has prosecuted women for being the aggressor, most of the perpetrators in the cases she’s handled are men and the majority of victims are women, she said.
“For the most part, victims get secluded and have no help,” she said. “And when they actually come in the court system, they’ve hit rock bottom – they don’t have anywhere else to go. They are estranged from their family, they don’t have employment, and they don’t have money.”
When survivors of abuse make the first contact with the prosecutor, many are frightened. Without support from family or friends and without money and employment, Craighead said, they know the prosecution of their abuser means losing their only relationship. The situation is even worse if the abuser happens to be the father of the victim’s children.
Craighead is aware of the anxieties victims face and she understands their dilemma.
She also knows that the threat of abuse and the severity of the violence usually increases when the victim tries to leave the abuser. To protect survivors, when Craighead makes the first contact with them in court, she helps them register for an online tool that notifies them when the defendant is released. Additionally, she assists them to connect with Haven of Hope so they can learn about a safety plan, an order of protection or legal aid.
“We also let them know what their rights are,” Craighead said. “Most of the victims are in crisis when they come in.”
They deal with anger, heartbreak and stress.
“We try to give them all the resources we can immediately to get them in the best position possible going forward with prosecuting the case,” Craighead said.
“Of course, court can be very daunting,” she said. “There are a lot of court days, everyone wants them to tell their story – they have already told the story to law enforcement when it happened, then they have to tell the story to either the victim coordinator or myself, and at some point they might have to testify. So it’s a lot of waiting, and by the time the case does come to court, they may be out of money, and they don’t have child care.”
Often, the victim still has feelings for the perpetrator.
“They do love the person,” she said. “To do this job well, you have to understand that they are still in love with the person and still dependent.”
That’s why Craighead’s main goal is ensuring the well-being of the victim, not a conviction.
“I would do everything I can to hold the defendant accountable for what he did to the victim,” she said, adding she foremost strives to make sure the victim is safe.
Craighead knows that most survivors return to the perpetrators multiple times before they leave permanently.
“Normally, I am going to see them again – it may be six months or two weeks,” she said. “It is usually reoccurring and it may be 10 times – it doesn’t matter to me, at some point, she is going to be ready.”
More than half – 59 percent – of domestic violence cases in 2017 were dismissed. The majority of the dismissals happened because the victim refused to cooperate, according to 2017 report of the Tennessee Bureau of Investigations.
“So we just try to be very supportive even when we have victims that get angry with us because they don’t want the person in jail – they say they lied, it didn’t happen,” she said. “But several times later, they will come back and be ready to come forward. That is my goal. To give victims the best chance, to educate them about what’s available. You may not be ready this time to prosecute, but I’m going to be here when you are ready.”
She educates the victims and helps them prepare a safety plan.
“You may be going back in this situation, but have a plan, have somewhere to go,” she said. “Get your child’s birth certificate, have some cash and hide it somewhere, so when you are ready to go, you’re in a good position.”
Community support needed
“We definitely need more community support,” Craighead said. “It’s hard for people to understand, if they’ve never been in this lifestyle, why the victim returns to the person that is beating them or beating their children, or the children are watching it.”
It’s important for the community to understand victims don’t have an easy way out.
“Basically, just awareness will help,” she said. “The awareness is important.”
With the support and understanding of the community, it’s easier for victims to find courage to testify against the perpetrators.
And many of them do.
General Sessions Court Judge Jere Ledsinger handles domestic violence cases in Coffee County.
One way to battle the issue, according to Ledsinger, is offering programs to perpetrators to help them change their behavior.
“I began to recognize many years ago that these people kept fighting each other and didn’t know how to get along,” Ledsinger said. “There needed to be something more intense, more of a follow up. I had couples that fought – they had children and some of them, in fact, loved each other.”
So rather than separating the couple and focusing only on punishing the batterer, he thought changing the batterer’s attitude might be the solution for some of the cases.
He was instrumental in launching the batterer’s intervention program, which is now a reality. The batterers’ intervention course is taught at the Solutions Education Center in Tullahoma.
Elena Cawley can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.