One Year Ago

Article excerpt

Byline: Bill Bishop The Register-Guard

If Tomas Ortega Benitez were arrested today under the same circumstances that put him in jail a year ago, one thing is certain. He would not get out because of jail overcrowding, so he could not then go and kill his ex-wife.

The Lane County Jail's new risk assessment system would recognize Ortega Benitez as a dangerous man.

It would score him "high-risk" because he repeatedly violated court orders that he not contact Paula Benitez. It would give him still more points because of threats he made against her. It would give him one of the jail's 340 beds and tag other, less risky inmates for potential release.

"If he was here today, we would have to let out 170 people before we reached his name," says Lane County sheriff's Sgt. Doug Hooley, who helped build the new risk-assessment program over the past two years.

Some things have changed in the year since Ortega Benitez ambushed and fatally shot Paula Benitez in her Springfield home and then killed himself - making public the usually private nightmare of domestic violence. Her death, the 11th in the county in a six-month period linked to domestic violence, shocked the community into soul-searching over what could have prevented the tragedy.

Since then, some things have changed for the better. The area's child protection, law enforcement and victim assistance groups are collaborating like never before to deal with families in crisis, to ensure victim safety and to prosecute offenders.

But there remain serious obstacles to confronting and preventing domestic violence, community leaders say.

For example, enrollment has plummeted in the community's three nonprofit batterer intervention programs, which aim to prevent future violence by teaching batterers to recognize their abusive patterns and to use nonviolent means to resolve conflicts.

Data is not available to pinpoint the cause of the declines - whether it is due to less overall domestic violence or to government policies producing fewer arrests, less prosecution, fewer probation violations, less court-ordered treatment or a combination of factors, local officials say.

At least one of the programs - Non-Violent Alternatives - may not survive, NOVA Executive Director Teri Gutierrez says. The agency relies on local courts to order offenders into treatment, and focuses its program on domestic violence offenders who also have drug and alcohol problems.

NOVA used to have nine batterer intervention treatment groups. The agency now has five groups with a total of 70 men.

Budget cuts to the Oregon Health Plan took away drug treatment support for low-income Oregonians, leaving potential NOVA clients unable to afford batterer treatment after they pay for addiction treatment, Gutierrez says.

Court-ordered attendance is down, in part, because the judge who handles violations of restraining orders prefers to send violators to road crew or jail - instead of batterer intervention programs - when they violate a court order that they stay away from an estranged partner.

Lane County Circuit Judge Gregory Foote says he fully supports batterer intervention and generally orders it for abusers charged with assault or harassment when the prosector asks for it as part of a sentence.

However, in restraining order violations - which are not criminal acts - Foote believes the threat of a swift jail sentence does a better job of keeping conflicting parties separated.

"I think what the parties need to know ... is the court will enforce the orders. It tells both sides we're serious about it," Foote says. `I don't hear petitioners come in and say, `Give this guy treatment.' It's, `Make this guy leave me alone.' '

Foote, who has 27 years of experience on the bench, met with program representatives to discuss the issue. He says he will consider guidelines they may suggest to help him identify violators who may need treatment. …