Domestic Violence Courts: A Different Approach ; Program Targets Domestic Violence

By Bell, Tyler | Charleston Gazette Mail, July 20, 2015 | Go to article overview

Domestic Violence Courts: A Different Approach ; Program Targets Domestic Violence


Bell, Tyler, Charleston Gazette Mail


Editor's note: This is the first in a three-part series on a pilot program created to address domestic violence in West Virginia.

The Mountain State has such a high rate of domestic violence that its Supreme Court administrator Steve Canterbury characterizes it with a dark aphorism: "In West Virginia, we only kill the ones we love.

Domestic violence affects the lives of tens of thousands West Virginians every day. Statistically, the average West Virginian is more likely to harm or be harmed by a loved one than a stranger, and outside-the-box thinking is needed to untangle the vicious web of domestic violence in the state.

There were 12,180 domestic violence petitions filed in West Virginia in 2014, according to Lisa Tackett, director of the state's division of family court services. She said 2,039 of those petitions were filed in Kanawha County.

Domestic violence petitions are similar to what most people call restraining orders. They're court orders that limit or eliminate contact between the filer and respondent, and include such prohibitions as preventing the respondent from purchasing a firearm.

Those petitions are one of the few tools the state's judiciary have at their disposal when working with domestic violence, a crime whose simple description belies a dense and complicated interwoven fabric of personal relationships and powerful emotions. Because of the often complex nature of domestic relations, the crimes that result from them often defy simple explanations.

Canterbury related an anecdote.

"Two police officers show up and this guy has been whaling on this woman, he said. "So as they're cuffing him and putting him in the cruiser, she shoots them both with a shotgun and kills them both.

"That's the kind of emotional madness you're dealing with, he said. "There's so many layers there, and you can't expect a victim to react the same way a victim of, say, a burglary would act.

Even more problematic is the propensity for violent domestic abusers to slip through cracks in the system. When witnesses are unwilling to testify, or the domestic record of an individual isn't readily apparent to a judge, an already bad problem can fester into an irreparable one.

Canterbury brought up the deaths of Nalisha Gravely, 19, shot to death by her boyfriend in a Taco Bell broom closet on Charleston's West Side in 2008 and Jahlil Clements, 11, struck and killed by a car on Interstate 64/77 in 2012 while trying to flag down help for his mother, who was being beaten on the side of the highway.

In both cases, the perpetrators - of murder and grievous child negligence, respectively - had long histories of domestic violence.

In short, if somebody in the judicial system had pieced together the perpetrators' histories of violence in time, those two people might still be alive today. Members of the judiciary, law enforcement and civilians at large took note.

"There was a group of individuals in Kanawha County that believed it was important to have a court in Kanawha County that specialized in domestic violence, Tackett said.

Her office, in conjunction with former Kanawha Family Court Judge Mike Kelly, Magistrate Julie Yeager, the Kanawha County Sheriff's Office and the West Virginia Coalition Against Domestic Violence worked together to change legislation and create a sort of pilot domestic violence court.

"Slowly but surely we're trying to keep domestic violence cases with a singular number of judges, Tackett said. By funneling the domestic violence cases through a single judge - or magistrate - the possibility of an individual perpetrator slipping through the cracks is diminished.

That was simply not the case before the creation of Kanawha County's domestic violence court.

"You could see, in a year's time, all five family court judges and never see anyone familiar with your case, Tackett said, and that caused a great deal of confusion.

Today, if you're a domestic offender in Kanawha County, you stand before Magistrate Julie Yeager. …

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