During a sentencing hearing for a domestic violence case in Orange County, a woman stepped forward to make her victim impact statement. Visibly nervous but speaking in a clear, purposeful voice, she testified that her then-husband had choked, punched and attempted to strangle her in their home. When a neighbor came to investigate her screams and asked if she was OK, she said she wasn’t. The neighbor called the police and managed to pull her out the door to safety.
In her statement, the woman said the attack had forever changed her life. She said she remains anxious and afraid and has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Judge Dale Durrer sentenced the defendant to five years in prison, with four years suspended, a year in jail with six months suspended and four years of supervised probation.
Orange County Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Katie Fitzgerald prosecuted the case. She said during a recent interview that domestic violence is a problem locally, just as it is everywhere else: “I think this is the ugly truth of every community. There is domestic violence going on all the time.”
She estimates her office handles 20 to 35 domestic violence cases each month and a total of 250 per year, and she said 88% of the victims in Orange County are women. Among the individuals she has worked with are repeat victims—women who have been assaulted by a series of partners.
Cases can come in from state, county and town law enforcement agencies. Orange County Sheriff’s Office Chief Deputy Mike LaCasse said that since January 1, the sheriff’s office has had 45 “reportable domestic-related incidents” including a total of 29 involving intimate partners—that is, spouses, ex-spouses, “boyfriends and girlfriends,” “ex-boyfriends and girlfriends” and one engaged couple. The remainder involved other family relationships, such as a parent and child.
LaCasse said deputies never know what to expect when they get a call about a domestic incident. It may be a shouting match, which in itself does not qualify as a crime, or it may be a frightening, unpredictable scenario.
As a hypothetical example, he said, “I get a call from the wife. The husband’s drunk, they get into an argument, the husband’s pushed the wife down, is belligerent. When I arrive, the wife is quieter and doesn’t necessarily want to tell [me] what’s going on.
“You’ve got to figure out exactly what is going on. There’s nothing easy about a domestic violence investigation once you go to it,” he continued. “When someone’s house gets broken into, they’re glad you’re there. When it’s a domestic violence crime, sometimes nobody wants you there, even though you were called there.”
He said there are times “when you go to one of these [scenes], and you see the fear in the victim’s eyes—so bad that they felt the need to call the police—then talk to the offender, and you see the belligerent attitude and the aggressive way they deal with the victim.”
However, fear and various other emotions may prevent a victim from pressing charges.
As Orange Police Chief Jim Fenwick explains it, a fight between two persons not in an intimate relationship typically results from a “single specific issue”—which he likens to the visible part of an iceberg.
But with domestic violence, he said, “We are also dealing with that underwater part of the iceberg—the unknown issues that have built up over weeks, months and years to the episodes of domestic violence. What can make these types of calls so dangerous for officers is that tense emotions are interwoven throughout all of these issues, plus the added potential elements of children and financial issues.”
Dilemma of victims unwilling to testify
Fitzgerald also must deal with the reluctance of some victims to press charges. Whether out of fear of their abusers, love for them, concern they and their children will have no place to live if the abusive partner is locked up and no longer paying the bills—or some combination thereof—these victims don’t want to testify.
Fitzgerald said uncooperative victims are such a concern that the Commonwealth’s Attorneys’ Services Council was making it a focus of a five-day training session on the investigation and prosecution of intimate-partner violence. Orange County was one of 12 commonwealth’s attorneys’ offices selected from across the state to participate in the program. Each prosecutor was to be accompanied by a local law enforcement officer, though LaCasse said this week that no one from the Orange County Sheriff’s Office had been available to attend the May session in Staunton.
LaCasse said that, by law, he and other law enforcement officers are required to make an arrest if they respond to a domestic call and see evidence of an assault on a victim, such as marks on the person’s neck, and can identify the attacker. If they don’t have enough evidence for an arrest, he continued, they still can get an emergency protective order, lasting three days, for the victim. The protective order then can be extended if the victim requests it.
“We’ll stay late; we’ll come in early”
Fitzgerald said she and her fellow prosecutors don’t want to add further trauma to the lives of victims afraid to testify.
“What we’re trying to do—hoping to do—is, as often as possible, help folks who have just been so beaten down by being dependent” on their abusers, she said.
She said that often starts with giving survivors of domestic violence a chance to talk about what they’ve been through. She said these women and men have essentially “lost their voice” in the process of being stalked, threatened and attacked, and she and her colleagues want them to know they can speak openly about their experiences without fear of reprisal.
“We’ll stay late; we’ll come in early; we’ll work around people’s work schedules because most people don’t have the flexibility to come in during normal business hours to meet with us. So we are trying to be as responsive as possible to when our victims are available, whatever circumstances under which they’re available,” she said.
Resources available for victims of domestic violence
Her approach is to tell victims, in effect, “We’re not going to rock your world. We’re not going to rip you out of your home. But you know what, there are some resources you might want to think about.”
This is where Ryane Wharton, victim advocate for the Victim/Witness Assistance Program in the Orange County Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office, comes in, along with Services for Abused Families, Inc. (SAFE), a nonprofit agency serving Orange, Culpeper, Fauquier, Madison and Rappahannock counties.
Fitzgerald said Wharton often gets calls in the middle of the night from victims in need of guidance. Wharton can help them navigate the court system and put them in touch with SAFE, which can offer them shelter in a secure location if they feel endangered at home. SAFE also offers counseling and follow-up contact if survivors want it, and all of its services are free and confidential.
With allies lined up on their side early on, Fitzgerald noted, victims have begun “opening up much faster” and providing crucial information prosecutors can use to bolster their cases. She noted, however, that not all domestic-violence cases go to trial and not all end up with convictions. She said that because judges are seeking “creative alternatives” to jail time, she sometimes requests a continuance with the proviso that a first-time offender agrees to attend an anger management class, in hopes this will resolve the problem.
A bus ticket to safety
Cindy Hedges, executive director of SAFE, works with victims of domestic violence every day. SAFE serves these victims and their families in a variety of ways, including offering them shelter, counseling and follow-up services.
Under appropriate circumstances, Hedges said, SAFE will provide survivors of domestic violence with bus or train tickets so they can move far away, without their abusers having any idea where they have gone.
A call to the SAFE hotline is often the first time a victim of domestic violence asks for help. The anonymous and confidential hotline number is (800) 825-8876. SAFE staff members do all they can to publicize this number, which is posted in social services offices and public libraries, among many other places.
According to Angela Abeijon, SAFE shelter and support services manager, the SAFE hotline received 661 calls for help last year. Of those calls, 132 were from Orange County.
Of the 71 Orange County residents whom SAFE staff met and assisted last year, 62 were women or girls and the others were men or boys. A total of eight mothers and 12 children from Orange County took refuge in the SAFE house in 2018. (The location of this house is not shared publicly.)
SAFE advice for survivors
Staying at the SAFE house isn’t the only option for people on the run from abusive partners. Sometimes, an abused woman or man may not be able to leave home, at least not yet. In those cases, Hedges said, SAFE will help the person plan an escape and line up the resources necessary to make it succeed. This is where a bus or train ticket can be useful.
One piece of advice the 14-member SAFE staff consistently offers is very practical: Don’t advertise your location. Hedges and Abeijon said abusers stalk their partners via phone apps, social media and online bank statements that pinpoint location. They tell people on the run from abusers to turn off location settings on their phones right away.
Helping people escape abusive intimate relationships and build new lives is demanding, stressful work, but Hedges and her colleagues are in it for the long game. They sit with many victims, female and male, who weep with fear and pain. But there have been plenty of SAFE success stories, as victims begin to see themselves as survivors and figure out new ways to live and thrive. Hedges said it is all worth it for the times she sits with survivors who have turned their lives around and cry “tears of joy.”