Taking right support role key in DV cases

Michelle Easterling
Staff Writer

Check the docket in municipal or justice court just about any week and it will be dotted with domestic violence cases, even in relatively small communities like West Point and Clay County.

And unfortunately, the cases often involve repeat offenders.

“I’m constantly surprised at how many domestic violence cases we have here,” says Michelle Easterling, who is the prosecutor in both courts and deals with both sides on a weekly basis.

“I don’t know that we have any more domestic violence here than anywhere else. But I know our local police and sheriff’s departments take these cases very seriously. They encourage victims to file charges, but so many times victims refuse out of fear of retaliation. In cases where the officer can file the charges, they do.  It’s really important to have law enforcement intervene as quickly as possible. Not every case involves a severe beating or a stabbing or a shooting but even a threat or a slap is too much. And it often leads to more or is just the tip of the iceberg,” Easterling continued.

“As many as we see in court, I worry about the ones that don’t get reported. How many are out there not getting help?” she asked.

October is National Domestic Violence Awareness Month and counselors, law enforcement and those in the courts say the abuse is a problem every day, even though awareness is higher now than ever before.

“It’s far better now than it was when I first started practicing,” Easterling said of awareness and understanding of the issue, not to mention services available to both victims and perpetrators. “We’ve come a long way. But we’ve still got a long way to go.

"It is also important to convey the message that victims will be supported, believed and heard,” said Desiree Stepteau-Watson, associate professor of social work at the University of Mississippi.

Domestic violence can be anything from physical violence, sexual assault, intimidation, threats of violence and/or psychological abuse.

Among the signs that a person may be a victim of domestic violence are unexplained injuries, being concerned about disobeying their partner, being in constant contact, having to check in with their partner, injuries at various stages of healing, and cutting off relationships with family members and friends.

Women between the ages of 18 and 24 are at the greatest risk of experiencing of domestic violence, but it can affect anyone, regardless of economic or educational level, race, religion, age group (including the elderly) or sexual orientation.

This type of behavior in relationships can be learned at a young age, as children who grow up witnessing or experiencing violence at home may believe that it is a normal way to resolve conflict. Drug and alcohol use may contribute to the violence, but do not necessarily cause it to occur.

"Common myths about domestic violence include perceptions that it is easy to leave violent situations," Stepteau-Watson said. "Some people think if the abuse was that bad, then the victim should just leave, and if she or he doesn't leave, that must mean they like it.

"In fact, it can be extremely dangerous to leave an abusive partner. The abuse may escalate and become more dangerous if the victim attempts to leave. Leaving may put family members, children and friends at risk of harm."

Stepteau-Watson encourages anyone who suspects a friend, loved one or co-worker is experiencing domestic violence to put their safety first by finding a safe place to talk, then focusing on what they want to do, not what they should do.

"Be sure to let them know that you want to be of support," Stepteau-Watson said. "It is also important to document what you observe, keep a record of what you see and hear. Such a record could be a useful piece of evidence in the future.”

Courts and an increasing number of social service agencies and community groups exist to help victims and to serve as partners offering help. Community Counseling is just one major resource.

“It’s not always about just punishing an offender. Many times, the parties reside together or have children in common and want to save their relationship.  In those situations, we also try to provide opportunities for those offenders to get help – such as through anger management counseling, or drug/alcohol treatment,” Easterlling concluded.