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Before it's too late

Friday, July 16, 2004

Sharp County Domestic Violence Unit works to end cycle of abuse

By CHRIS WULFFStaff Writer

A woman lies battered and bruised in the corner of a bathroom in her home. She knows she should leave him but she doesn't know how. The abuse grows worse each time. Finally, she realizes she must get help to leave to save her own life.

While it may seem like the storyline of a Lifetime movie, this happens more often than one would think, said Donna Middlebrook, investigator with Sharp County's Domestic Violence Unit.

"If domestic violence isn't addressed it only gets worse," she said. "It can even led to domestic homicide. We want to stop it before it gets to that point."

Since the unit was opened in October 2003 Middlebrook and her fellow investigator, Ken Guidry, have been working to do just that.

"People need to realize domestic violence is a crime," Middlebrook said. "By law it is a crime. There are other alternatives to solving problems other than becoming physical."

In January the two investigators worked 12 domestic violence cases. In June that number had jumped to 28, and it continues to rise.

"I don't think domestic violence is going up," Guidry said. "I think people are just finding out more about us."

Domestic violence units are typically found in larger areas in the state, but since abuse isn't limited to metropolitan areas, efforts are being made to establish more units in rural areas.

Sheriff Dale Weaver recognized the need in Sharp County in December 2002 before he took office.

Weaver contacted Middle-brook, a reserve officer for the sheriff's office and a court advocate for the Ozark Family Development Center, about establishing a unit in the county.

After some research, Middlebrook began working on the grant, a first for her. With the help of two other women she completed the grant in 10 days. It was approved in September 2003 and the unit opened soon after.

"Domestic violence is the same everywhere," Middle-brook said. "We just have a sheriff who has identified the problem and wants to do something about it."

The two-year $293,000 Violence Against Women grant from the U.S. Department of Justice made it possible to pay two investigators and for an outreach coordinator, two patrol cars, the office and equipment. After the grant term is completed the unit will be absorbed into the sheriff's office staff.

Guidry said since the unit began they have helped victims of mental, physical and sexual abuse get the help they need.

Arrests are made and orders of protection are served. This year no domestic abuse cases have gone to trial in Sharp County, Middlebrook said. Abusers have pleaded guilty in most cases and a couple abusers have fled.

National statistics show that 98 percent of domestic violence victims are female. Victims are typically uneducated and without jobs, but anyone can be abused, Guidry said.

Domestic violence often goes unreported. Abused men often are ashamed to report abuse, Middlebrook said. Many victims of both sexes often believe their abusers when they say they won't harm them again, but the abuse almost always continues, Middlebrook said.

Authorities are rarely contacted at the first incidence of abuse.

"Victims usually consider them to be isolated incidents, but it's usually not," Guidry said. "It may start off as a backhand but it escalates and escalates until victims may become unconscious or fear for their lives. We want everyone to realize any abuse isn't OK."

The unit is working to train other law enforcement agencies in the area to recognize signs of domestic violence and teach them how to handle the situations.

"Our job is to ensure safety, make arrests, perform investigations, collect statements, evidence and photographs," Guidry said. "It takes a little bit of a softer touch than most other things. Domestic crimes are emotionally motivated."

The unit works with the Ozark Family Development Center to help the victims of mental and physical abuse leave their abusers, place the victims in shelters and help them to begin their lives again free of abuse.

While leaving is a good step, it often isn't the end. Statistics show that victims leave their abusers an average of seven times before they leave for good, Middlebrook said.

"Our goal is to get that reduced," she said. "We can't change it all but maybe we can reduce it."

Even after victims leave they often find themselves abused again. After abused victims leave their abusers they often find other abusers, and abusers find other victims, Middlebrook said.

Middlebrook said the center helps victims look for red flags to try to prevent the cycle from continuing. Counselors and advocates are past victims or have extensive abuse training and are available for victims.

The Coordinated Commun-ity Response Team, made up of church leaders, medical personnel, social workers, police officers and other community leaders has been formed to help locate resources and find solutions for families of domestic violence.

"A lot of victims feel trapped in these situations because of financial situations they get themselves into," Guidry said. "Usually they aren't working, and the team can help with support of all kinds."

"We're trying to let everyone know it isn't as easy as just leaving," Guidry said. "Training people to realize that is important, and that's where the team comes in handy."

A school resource officer could also be useful in preventing and reporting abuse, Guidry said.

"That dating level is usually where abuse begins," Guidry said.

Abusive behavior is learned from watching abusive behavior, Middlebrook said.

"You're not born to be an abuser," she said. "People see abuse occurring and the victims taking it. They come to think that that behavior is acceptable. We want them to know it isn't."

Although it may be learned it is usually the same, Guidry said.

"Eventually these people are so beat down mentally and physically they have no confidence," he said. "We can usually tell a victim what the abusers say to her. We just encourage her, try not to revictimize her and point her in the right direction."

Middlebrook wants to assure victims they can seek help and the abuse can stop. She also wants friends and loved ones to recognize abuse.

"We want them to call us," she said. "Whatever they need we may have the resources to get them help. We just want them safe and the violence to stop."

To report abuse or seek advice about abusive situations call the domestic violence unit at 870-994-7108, Ozark Family Development Center at 870-856-4199 or the nonemergency number for Sharp County Central Dispatch at 870-994-2211.



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