Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Calhoun County series.
Physically or verbally assaulting an intimate partner is a learned behavior that a program in Calhoun County is working to change, a program that participants say has given them new skills to cope with their experiences.
In February, the Domestic Violence Intervention Court began operating under the guidance and direction of 10th District Court Judge Tracie Tomak, the driving force behind the effort to create the specialty court. She says establishing a Domestic Violence Intervention Court was a goal of hers when she was elected in 2018 to replace retiring Judge James Norlander.
The way it works is domestic violence cases are assigned to her courtroom docket. She says this is a longstanding tradition for judges elected to the 10th District Court and she knew there was an opportunity to make a positive difference in changing the learned behaviors of those who commit domestic violence against an intimate partner and reducing the likelihood that it will happen again.
Establishing a Domestic Violence Intervention Court was a goal of 10th District Court Judge Tracie Tomak when she was elected.
“I believe domestic violence is something that happens to families from all walks of life,” Tomak says. “This is a community problem. Kids see mom and dad hitting each other. The children in these households go to school and these are the coping skills they’ve been taught. We have to stop the cycle. It’s generational and I wanted to stop that.”
Of the six Calhoun County specialty courts, the Domestic Violence Intervention Court is the only one that does not require county or court funding. Tomak used existing resources to create the team, with the support of her fellow judges. Six of the nine judges now oversee a specialty or problem-solving court: DVIC; Sobriety Court; Veteran’s Treatment Court; Mental Health Treatment Court; and Men’s and Women’s Drug Courts.
Those involved with the Domestic Violence Intervention Court program were already doing similar work so there was no need to go out and hire a team of people. And program participants pay for their own counseling through a Healthy Relationships program and any substance abuse counseling they may require.
The county's newest court comes at a time when domestic violence is rising. In 2019, Calhoun County recorded 588 filed cases involving intimate partner violence. As of August 2020, 491 cases had been filed, according to Tomak.
“Domestic violence, or intimate partner violence, accounts for 15% of all violent crime nationwide. In Michigan, 41.8% of women and 23% of men experience intimate partner physical violence, rape, and/or stalking in their lives,” Tomak says. “In a single day in 2014, Michigan domestic violence programs, like our local S.A.F.E. PLACE shelter, provided services to 2,492 victims/survivors.”
Social distancing requirements and closures that went into effect in mid-March prevented S.A.F.E. Place, from offering shelter to domestic violence victims and their children at its 54-bed facility in Calhoun County. At the time, Ellen Lassiter Collier, CEO of S.A.F.E. Place, said she felt helpless knowing that her organization was unable to take in victims of domestic violence.
“Our staff clearly knew that this form of violence doesn’t stop, but was likely increasing during this time and we knew people needed our help, but there were a lot of barriers to seeking services because there were additional social barriers in place,” Lassiter Collier said.
Those victims who could get away from their partners were put up at hotels. Since many of the restrictions have been lifted, S.A.F.E. Place is at capacity with a drastically reduced number of beds available, says Margo Cummins, Legal Advocate with S.A.F.E. Place.
“Where there might be a section of three rooms, we can only have one,” Cummins says. “Normally we have 52 to 54 beds available and now we’re doing between 17 and 20.”
There’s no doubt, she says, that the pandemic is creating additional stressors.
“We’re all kind of in our little bubbles and we aren’t able to get outside and get help from others. Family members who may have taken in domestic violence victims and their children are reluctant to take them in now because of health issues they may have and concerns about getting COVID,” Cummins says.
While the numbers of people filing for divorce at the height of the pandemic was down, she says, she is starting to see an upswing in people filing for divorce.
“We are not surprised at all that when people went into a lockdown mode, they were dealing with what they had and now there are opportunities to make choices,” Cummins says. “What they’re dealing with is something they don’t want to tolerate any longer. They can only stay in that situation for so long.
“Domestic violence is about power and control and when you have a lot of people in a small space and they’re all demanding things, it can escalate.”
Slowing the spread of another health crisis
Since February, 79 people have been sentenced to the DVIC. Of those six were female, Tomak says.
“If they pled guilty or are found guilty of domestic violence and it is their first or second offense of intimate partner violence, they will be sentenced to probation and put into DVIC,” she says. “What makes DVIC unique is the nationally recognized counseling program and specialized probation oversight. Healthy Relationships Counseling, formerly titled Violent Offender Program, is offered locally by two separate treatment providers, KPEP (Kalamazoo Probation Enhancement Program) and Julie Robert, owner of Healthy Relationships Education.”
Pre-COVID, the counseling, and probation oversight were being done in-person. Monthly Zoom meetings, which go bi-monthly in January, are being used to check in with DVIC participants to track their progress.
The counseling is based on the Duluth Model or Domestic Abuse Intervention Project. Tomak coined the name “Healthy Relationships” to retitle the programming to be more positive and appealing. She says, “There is no question that the counseling portion of our DVIC is what changes lives. I wanted the name of the program something that appealed to the defendant and their loved ones. ‘Healthy Relationships’ is a term we can all support and encourage.”
Domestic Violence Intervention Court also frequently requires participants to complete mental health treatment and substance abuse treatment, in addition to the Healthy Relationships classes, filling a gap for individuals who might not otherwise qualify for other specialty probation courts.
“DVIC is able to address not only the controlling and violent behaviors but also the mental health and substance abuse issues that can amplify already poor relationship skills,” Tomak says. “Participants are required to remain sober while in the DVIC program and must attend regular Zoom review sessions with our team.”
That team includes Tomak, Robert, Robert Chatel, with KPEP, and Shannon Wagner, a probation officer who currently supervises more than 60 individuals who have either pled guilty, or who have been found guilty, of a crime involving intimate partner violence.
Detective Josh Chapman, the Domestic Violence Investigator with the Battle Creek Police Department, who also attends the monthly team meetings, says he is hearing good reviews from participants about what they are learning. Chapman’s position is funded through the federal STOP Violence Against Women Formula Grant Program.
“Participants have told me that they are learning things here that they wish they would have known about 10 or 15 years ago,” says Chapman, who leads the Offender Focused Domestic Violence Initiative. “I had one gentleman tell me that people should go through this program before they get married and that if he had, it would have saved him a lot of heartache.
“The program is giving them real skills to cope and recognize what abusive behavior is.”
Wagner and Tomak discuss the participants' progress on a regular basis. Wagner provides a written update on each participant to the team before each review session.
It is these written updates that indicate the level of success a participant is having in the program, Tomak says.
“DVIC has created a space for intimate partner violence to be brought to light and addressed at a broader level. This program focuses on accountability for program participants and on enhancing the safety of the community and survivors of intimate partner violence,” Wagner says. “Participants are supported by the court in their efforts to engage in rehabilitation and are required to complete Healthy Relationship Classes as well as accept responsibility for their use of violence in relationships.”
Cummins says she thinks the DVIC is providing accountability, education, and the tools to give participants the ability to change.
“It provides participants with a really good option of seeing what an equitable relationship looks like. Most guys will say they wish they’d had this class in middle or high school,” Cummins says. “That accountable piece is very strong and what they’ve learned can trickle down to their children, families, or co-workers.”
Celebrating the successes, acknowledging the failures
During the participant review, Tomak offers individual praise and encouragement, as well as sanctions. The team votes on sanctions based on allegations of violations such as skipping classes, using drugs or alcohol, or additional police contact or violence.
“It is not always an easy road to DVIC graduation,” she says.
Sanctions may include community service, additional classes, or even jail. To date, eight participants have been revoked from probation and were sentenced to the maximum jail allowable, 93 days for a first-time offense, and 365 for a second offense. Third-time offenders are prosecuted in the Circuit Court and face up to five years in prison.
On the flip side, since February, five males and three females have successfully completed the program, with three having their charges dismissed. The Spousal Abuse Act (SAA) allows dismissal of a charge from the public record after successful completion of probation for a first-time domestic violence offender and 23 of the 63 participants currently in DVIC are eligible for the SAA diversion, Tomak says.
Upon graduation, the participants prepare and deliver a speech about their experience with DVIC.
“It is overwhelming to witness the change in attitude and behavior on top of the gratitude they express to all of us involved in their journey,” Tomak says. “We have seen thanks given to the arresting officer, the prosecutor, the court, and notably their probation officer and class facilitators. We sincerely want to see these folks go on to live happy and violence-free lives.”
Chapman says oftentimes the victims want to see their abuser get counseling as opposed to jail time.
“There is hesitation to some degree with all of them to prosecute their abuser. There are deep emotional connections between people who are victims of domestic assault and their abuser,” he says. “It can be difficult to get cooperation in some of these cases. It’s difficult for them to come forward and I can understand that.”
One person who went through the program told Tomak that prosecution of his case saved his life and the lives of his chiIdren.
“He told me, ‘We’re different people now,’” Tomak says.
Some defendants choose to begin the Healthy Relationships classes while their case is still pending, a significant change in local philosophy. In January 2020, prior to starting DVIC, Tomak and Wagner got four Healthy Relationships participants to meet with local defense attorneys to describe how the counseling was changing their lives.
The participants' sole purpose was to encourage the attorneys to have their clients take these classes.
“It was one of the most emotional and moving things I have ever witnessed in our local court culture,” Tomak says. “Our prior culture for the defense facing a Domestic Violence case was essentially to wait and see if the victim appeared for the jury trial. Many victims would ‘give up’ and the case would be dismissed. We would then spend more community resources with subsequent police contact, arrests, and new charges. We were chasing the problem without addressing the cause.
“The goal of DVIC is neither guilt nor dismissal, rather, it is intervention to stop the cycle of abuse. I believe it’s working.”