Home violence gets state attention

By Amy Gardner, Staff Writer

Reprinted by permission of The News & Observer of Raleigh, North Carolina, February 11, 2003

When prosecutors, judges and counselors try to help victims of domestic violence -- or punish their batterers -- they often aren't equipped to protect the children involved.

Yet in half of the homes where an adult is battered, the children are abused, too, experts on such cases say.

That's one reason Gov. Mike Easley, Attorney General Roy Cooper, Chief Justice I. Beverly Lake of the state Supreme Court and other state leaders came together Monday to promote proposed domestic-violence laws designed to protect children.

"It is a vicious cycle," Easley said of the connection between family violence against adults and against children. "It never stops unless you intervene."

At the top of the list of the group's proposals is one to make it a crime to assault an adult in the presence of a child. Although assault is already a crime, and batterers are often charged with the offense "assault on a female," the heightened penalty for assault in front of children might deter some would-be offenders, Cooper said.

"This law will give us one more arrow in the quiver to fight this horrible situation," he said.

The proposal is not unlike certain hate-crime provisions, which heighten penalties for some crimes in the presence of a discriminatory motive.

Some recommendations made Monday by the Child Well-Being and Domestic Violence Task Force:

  • Create additional misdemeanor "assault in the presence of a child" crime.

  • Lift barriers to removing children from custody of batterers and urge courts to presume that it is in the best interests of children to be placed with the other parent.

  • Create a system to alert county social services officials when someone is charged with the new crime so children can more quickly be protected from abuse.

  • Foster cooperation among state and community agencies that historically have dealt separately with domestic violence and child abuse.

  • Have county departments of social services adopt uniform policies for handling domestic violence cases.

  • Expand family courts, which only a few counties have now, statewide by 2010.

The idea, Lake said, is that emotional abuse can be as scarring as physical abuse -- so batterers should be punished for the effect of their actions on children.

The Child Well-Being and Domestic Violence Task Force has been studying the effect of domestic violence on children for about a year. The group presented its final report to Easley on Monday and is expected to find patrons for several pieces of legislation in the General Assembly this year.

"Currently, there's very little discussion regarding domestic violence in the home and what the effects of it are on the children," said Leslie Starsoneck, who helped draft the report and is executive director of the N.C. Council for Women and Domestic Violence Commission.

One way to gauge the effect of domestic violence on children is to track their stays in shelters; according to state statistics, more than 7,500 children visited shelters last year.

In its report, the task force singled out the legal difficulty of removing children from the home of accused batterers as one of its top concerns. When a woman seeks a protective order against her husband -- women comprise 95 to 97 percent of domestic-violence victims -- the children don't always follow her.

To gain temporary custody in such a scenario, victims are required to prove that their children are at "substantial risk of physical or sexual injury," Starsoneck said.

That's a high legal hurdle to clear -- too high, she said, because the victim has already demonstrated her own risk, and because there is such a strong correlation between domestic violence and child abuse.

To reduce that burden, the task force has proposed eliminating the burden of proof and urging judges to presume that the best interests of children are served by placing them with the "nonoffending" caretaker.

"These parties, where there's been a significant amount of violence, are left to negotiate over the children, which can put the kids in danger and can put the victim in danger as well," Starsoneck said. "So what the task force is saying is that the standard should be eliminated."

Domestic violence is difficult to track because crimes that qualify, such as homicide and assault, are often not recorded as "domestic" crimes. The task of determining which homicides are domestic and which are not is a subjective one.

As a result, records are skimpy. During the past fiscal year, state domestic-violence programs reported serving 47,983 people, up 16 percent from the year before.

One national organization, the Violence Policy Center, rated the state sixth in the nation in murders of women by men in 2000. But its numbers include domestic and nondomestic scenarios.

The task force that issued the report Monday resulted not from a spike in numbers for domestic violence in this state but from conversations about a year ago between state Sen. Kay Hagan of Greensboro and Carmen Hooker Odom, secretary of health and human services.

The two discussed the possibility of training social workers who help abused children to be able to intervene also when domestic violence is present. That conversation led to the conclusion that the state's responses to child abuse and domestic violence are disconnected, and that new policies were in order.

Hagan appeared with the other officials Monday at the Time Together Supervised Visitation and Exchange Center in downtown Raleigh, which helps victims of domestic violence and their families.

She said she was drawn to the topic when she heard an audiotape of a man and a woman having a "horrendous fight" that was recorded by a child on a toy tape recorder. The wife later died, Hagan said.

"It is something terrible that these children have to deal with," she said.

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