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Grant targets spousal violence

| Sunday, March 25, 2001

Men and women in Butler County who abuse their spouses soon may stand a much greater chance of doing time for their crime.

Last week, at the request of county District Attorney Tim McCune, county commissioners agreed to apply for a $293,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Justice dealing exclusively with domestic violence.

McCune said the money, if approved, will encourage the arrest and prosecution of those responsible for domestic violence. It also will go a long way toward helping to address a continuing problem in the county.

'It's a problem that has a lot of wide-ranging effects on families. Of children who grow up in a violent family, I think the statistics will show that they're more likely to grow up to be violent in their relationships,' McCune said.

'So the hope is if we can stop the cycle of violence, then the next generation may not have as big of a problem.'

The county is close to exhausting a similar grant, of $378,000, which was approved in November 1999 by the Justice Department.

The district attorney's office in cooperation with VOICe - the Victim Outreach Intervention Center - used that grant money to hire additional staff to help prosecute domestic violence offenders and protect victims who file charges against their spouses. Money also was used to provide a more prompt and cohesive response to victims of domestic violence.

'Prior to the year 2000, domestic violence cases were not always prosecuted,' said Erika McNany, coordinator of the Domestic Violence Unit in the district attorney's office.

'With the adoption of an assistant district attorney to primarily prosecute domestic violence cases, every domestic violence case is now prosecuted and all batterers are now advised to receive domestic violence counseling, and nearly all domestic violence offenders are committed to jail at the time of the arrest,' she said.

McCune said more money and more work is needed to stem the problem of domestic abuse in the county, which he described as a serious problem.

Elizabeth Smith, VOICe's executive director, agreed. She said the agency receives about 50 calls a day on its hot line and sees between 135 and 150 new victims of domestic abuse each month.

With the help of the earlier grant, the agency is able to help victims more quickly, she said.

The district attorney said women and children long have been at risk of being seriously injured or killed because not enough has been done to address domestic violence here and elsewhere.

McCune said he still is haunted by the death of Brendan Duffy, a 6-month-old who was killed by his father, Steven Duffy, after a fight with the boy's mother.

McCune said the baby died because no one recognized the volatility of the situation. Yet family-related homicides are a frightening reality in Butler County, he said.

'Every day, when the phone rings, I'm not going to be surprised if somebody tells me that we have another domestic violence homicide,' the district attorney said.

In 1999, there were three homicides in the county related to domestic violence, and last year there was one, according to the district attorney's Domestic Violence Unit.

McCune prosecuted Duffy, 27, in the summer of 1999. Duffy was sentenced to life in prison for the death of his son.

'I think that police have made incredible progress in recognizing domestic violence,' Smith said.

The earlier grant, she said, has helped police to identify domestic abuse, including the difference between offensive and defensive wounds.

In the past, not knowing or having difficulty identifying the difference between those wounds, police had difficulty determining who was the perpetrator and who was the victim, Smith said.

A big part of the grant application approved last week by commissioners will deal with training police officers to better recognize domestic violence and to prosecute those responsible for domestic violence, according to Smith and McCune.

A film will be produced, with police as role players, to demonstrate different aspects of domestic violence and how to best investigate those types of cases, the district attorney said.

The film will be used by police departments to improve their handling of domestic violence calls, McCune said. State money will be used along with the federal grant money for the film project, he said.

In the past, police officers from several departments met together for training sessions. But that was too costly, McCune said.

The size of the federal grants indicate the seriousness of the problem, he said.

But it also indicates the work that has been done by VOICe, the district attorney's office, local police departments and other groups and organizations to address the problem, McCune said.

'We've been able to prove to the people in Washington that this is a good use of their money,' he said.

The first grant, Smith said, helped to establish a unified response for dealing with domestic violence. Police and prosecutors, as well as victim service agencies and support groups, work more closely together than ever before, she said.

The second grant will capitalize on the first and send a strong message that domestic violence will not be tolerated, she said.

Lawrence Sanata can be reached at lsanata@tribweb.com or (724) 779-7109.

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