Maybe there was nothing the courts and police could have done to avert the suspected domestic battery deaths of at least 22 region residents who have been killed since 2010.
Even if they had not previously been battered, stalked or harassed, their deaths send a message to all who seek shelter or protection through the legal system.
Perhaps no amount of victim advocates, intervention counselors, specially trained police officers, no-contact orders or protective orders — one of the last lines of defense for domestic-battery victims — could have produced different outcomes.
Victims know that. The police know that. And, certainly, Judge William Davis of Lake County Superior Court, who has issued orders of protection from his seat on the bench in Hammond, is aware of it.
“Everybody knows all it is, is a protective order. All it is, is a piece of paper. And if the other person who receives it has no respect for the law and doesn't even show proper deference to the fact they've been ordered to stay away from somebody, that is not going to stop them,” said Davis, discussing the limits of what he calls “paper protection.”
That knowledge keeps victims in mortal fear, said Geneva Brown, a Valparaiso University Law School professor who conducts a domestic violence clinic out of the Lake County clerk's office in Crown Point.
Breaking up is riskiest time
“What I wish courts and law enforcement would understand is that women are most vulnerable for lethal violence when they leave the relationship — when they come to the court for help. I don't care how frustrating it is for police officers or courts or the judges to understand,” said Brown, a Gary native. “It takes a lot for someone to come into court, to ask for an order of protection and ask to be protected.
“If a criminal charge is companion to the order of protection, and she's been a victim of severe abuse, the person is in jail. They may be looking at losing their job; and you have someone who has lost a job — they have a lot to be angry about. It's very intimidating and very frightening for her.”
Protective orders are supposed to give both parties a cooling-off period to assess whether they want to halt hostilities, reconcile or part company relatively amicably. There isn't a lot of evidence they effectively do that, victim advocates said.
The Lake County prosecutor's office, which automatically attaches a no-contact order to all domestic violence cases, gets a “high percentage” of victims who are simply too afraid to proceed and cooperate after filing domestic battery charges, Prosecutor Bernard Carter said.
“We get victims who bond out a husband or boyfriend,” said Peter Villarreal, first assistant deputy prosecuting attorney. In some instances, the victim will even attest the attacker was acting in self-defense, that she started the fight, Carter said.
Paul Haluska, of the Lake County Sheriff's Department Protective Order Assistance Program, figures roughly 95 percent of orders of protection are either rescinded or lapse when the victim doesn't show up in court.
Davis estimates that of the approximately 270 cases he heard in the first half of last year, 25 percent to 35 percent of orders of protection he granted in Room 5 were voluntarily withdrawn within four to six months.
Despite the no-contact orders, victims who secure orders of protection frequently find batterers are undeterred, continuing to threaten, stalk and harass, even though they risk upgrading their offense from a misdemeanor to invasion of privacy, a Class D felony.
Victims' subsequent dealings with police and court personnel to enforce an order of protection can feel more like torment than assistance, some victims said.
Victim burdened like no other
It's up to victims to be heavily invested in their case, saving text messages and voicemails if they're getting “adverse contact” from suspects, said then-Lt. Jeff Snemis, Merrillville chief of detectives. Snemis said doing so serves a twofold purpose: It allows police to establish probable cause and weeds out “vindictive victims” who might be making baseless accusations.
"In no other crime would you have to burden the victim” to pursue their case, said Kerry Blomquist, legal adviser to the Indiana Coalition Against Domestic Violence.
VU Law School's Brown, whose previous work as a public defender involved her defending domestic batterers, observed that working with victims can become frustrating for many in the system.
“We've had cases where there have been multiple orders of protection filed … sometimes on both sides,” she said. “Those are the cases where the courts want termination of the relationship. And frankly, you can't blame them (the courts) when you use this as a weapon against a former partner or you try to hurt someone.”
Dealing with the forms and bureaucracy, the embarrassment of staying with an abuser and the social stigma that goes with it might be a big part of why many stop pursuing legal remedies. But there are other reasons, Brown said.
“A lot of people do not want to terminate their relationships (with an abuser),” she said, explaining: “They don't want to raise families on their own. They don't want to be economically vulnerable."
Who risks homelessness?
Little wonder 85 percent of victims seeking assistance had left their abuser five times previously, considering Indiana pays less than $350 a month in Temporary Assistance for Needy Families to a family of three, Blomquist writes in her essay, "Five Barriers for Leaving an Abusive Relationship."
Financial despair is the primary reason victims return to the batterer, since TANF is "the primary safety net for fleeing abuse victims," she said.
Brown said she doesn't know how many former clients attempt to “fix the problem” on their own. Do they succeed? Do they fail? Do they tire of dealing with the system or their situation?
Some do reconcile. Brown estimates 10 percent to 20 percent of her clients might have.
“I've seen people go through absolutely antagonistic hearings and end up reconciled,” Brown said. She can't begin to guess how many, since "no one ever calls me up and says, 'Hey, we've reconciled.'"
That's why she always counsels her law students to respect their clients' wishes.
“The best goal for my clients is that they understand they don't have to be in abusive relationships,” she said.