County seeks grant renewal for domestic violence legal cases

Anoka County is seeking renewal of a federal grant to continue its efforts to improve the criminal justice system’s response to domestic violence cases, specifically those in which the victim is judged to be at high risk of serious injury and death.

Back in 2010, the county received a $400,000 grant from the United States Department of Justice, Office on Violence Against Women (OVW) to launch the “community defined solutions to violence against women program.”

The grant dollars run out Sept. 30.

The new grant request, which has been approved by the Anoka County Board, is for $300,000 over the next two years, starting Oct. 1.

According to Anoka County Attorney Tony Palumbo, the $300,000 is the maximum the county can apply for in this funding cycle.

The county board action was for submission of a grant application up to an amount of $900,000.

That was because of a request by the Coalition Against Battered Women (CABW), a statewide organization, to expand the scope of the grant renewal request, Palumbo said.

The idea was for Anoka County to cooperate with CABW in providing training throughout the state on the county’s program model, he said.

But since the board meeting March 13, the county has learned that to include the statewide training component would jeopardize the entire grant request, so the submission was amended to exclude that portion, Palumbo said.

Palumbo is optimistic that the $300,000 grant will be approved, he said.

The goal of the program remains the same with the new grant submission – to more effectively address lethality in domestic violence cases beginning with initial police contact and continuing throughout the case in the courts.

These have included lethality assessments at the point of initial police contact and fast tracking the domestic violence cases through the court system.

According to Palumbo, there has been success in both areas.

When the program began, lethality assessments at the initial police contact in domestic violence cases were limited to the Anoka County Sheriff’s Office and the Columbia Heights Police Department.

Now, all law enforcement agencies in the county, with the exception of St. Francis Police Department, conduct the lethality assessments.

The initial lethality assessment to determine the risk to the victim from the offender is updated throughout the process based on victim contact, bail evaluation and pre-trial release information.

That assessment data is made available to the courts as they deal with the cases.

Victims services in high risk cases are provided by Alexandra House, the Anoka County-based shelter for battered women and their children, which was involved in the initial grant application and received a portion of the federal dollars that were awarded to the county.

With the money it received, Alexandra House has been able to increase is advocacy services.

“This has worked very well,” Palumbo said.

“We have been able to keep offenders away from high-risk victims and there have been no major failures.”

And where alleged domestic violence offenders have been released in high-risk cases, the grant dollars have enabled the Anoka County Corrections Department to hire a full-time probation officer to closely monitor the suspects, according to Palumbo.

In addition, with the cooperation of the courts, the offender now receives treatment while the court case is in progress, not after sentencing, Palumbo said.

The incentive for the offender is they will likely get a lesser sentence if the treatment is successful, he said.

“It seems to be working,” Palumbo said.

Efforts to fast-track domestic violence cases through the criminal justice system has also brought positive results, according to Palumbo.

Before the project began, felony cases were taking nine to 10 months from charging to sentencing; that has been reduced to 90 days, Palumbo said.

In addition, gross misdemeanor domestic violence cases, which also used to take anywhere from nine to 10 months to resolve, are now being handled 60 days, he said.

One way this has been accomplished is a reduction the number of court hearings being continued, again through the cooperation of the court system, Palumbo said.

If the grant is renewed, the county won’t make any changes in the program, except to shift some duties of existing staff involved, according to Palumbo.

In applying for the original grant in 2010, the county cited four specific domestic violence cases in Anoka County – two in 2008 and two more in 2009 – that resulted in death of the woman victim.

Peter Bodley is at [email protected]