A woman’s boyfriend arrives home drunk and abusive. After he hits her in the face, she calls the Mount Vernon Police. Officers arrive at the scene, arrest the boyfriend, and take pictures of the woman’s face to submit as evidence at the boyfriend’s trial. Several days pass. The officers who made the initial arrest are now busy responding to new emergencies. The woman’s bruises, which were only faint when the photographs were taken, have become dark and inflamed, disfiguring the woman’s face. This is when Maureen McKeon knocks on the woman’s door, camera in hand, ready to take the photographs that could be the difference between a conviction for the abuser and a slap on the wrist.
As Mount Vernon District Station’s Domestic Violence Officer, McKeon will often revisit a victim of domestic violence a week after the arrest was made. At this point, scratches or bruises that were fresh and indistinct when the initial photographs were taken have become dramatic evidence of the crimes committed by abusers.
In 2005 The Mount Vernon District Police Station dealt with 1,768 cases of domestic violence. McKeon appeared in court for 71 of these. 53 of them resulted in a conviction. This 74% conviction rate is a significant improvement over the 30% rate she estimates there would be without the influence of an officer with expertise in building cases against domestic offenders.
"Another major part of the program," she says, "is to get with non-English speaking victims," who often "don’t understand court processes and their rights." She says that many domestic abusers take advantage of undocumented immigrants by telling them that if they go to the police, they will be deported. This is not true, she says. "We don’t call immigration if victims report crimes. That’s an important thing we want the community to know."
McKean reads every domestic violence report that comes into the station. She will try to respond personally to the "most significant and severe and those that involve non-English speakers." She says she will often go to court with the arresting officer in order to "give way more evidence than we would have had if this position didn’t exist."
The position does exist because of a pilot program involving five district stations, including Mount Vernon, begun in 2004. The five participating officers visited Alexandria’s domestic violence unit, which has existed for 15 years. The officers have mastered their new role mainly through experience and a process of learning the kinds of evidence commonwealth attorneys want for these types of cases.
Mckean’s message to victims of domestic violence is "get into some kind of a counseling program. If the offender doesn’t want to do it, the victim still should. This is not the way you should be living your life. You don’t have to be beaten every day."
DOMESTIC VIOLENCE officers work in conjunction with civilians in the Victim Services Unit.This unit of the Fairfax Police Department was recently decentralized so that each district station is staffed with Victim Services personnel. Victim Services personnel will often travel with the domestic violence officer. The two will then work in parallel tracks as the case proceeds towards trial: the domestic violence officer handling the law enforcement aspects of the case, such as evidence collection, and the Victim Services specialist helping the victim to pursue the case while often rebuilding a life torn into pieces by violence within the home and the decision to make it stop.
Officer Bud Walker, of the Public Information Office, explains that the Victim Services Unit is made up of civilians because victims often "want to deal not with a point of authority, but with a point of empathy." In domestic violence situations "if the uniform is a barrier, let’s get the uniform out of the way."
Carol Ellis, Director of the Victim Services Unit, concurs with this priority. She said the philosophy of the unit is simple: "‘Someplace safe’… The idea is, we want to provide safety first for victims, above all things."
She explained that "since 1986 Fairfax has been on the leading edge" with specially trained victims services civilians. "We are extremely fortunate in the Fairfax County Police Department because we have a Victim Services Section." Nationally, most are located within the prosecutors’ office.
Daniel Hicks is the Victim Services specialist in Mount Vernon. He is fluent in Spanish. Other Victim Services personnel speak Spanish, Farsi, Korean, Arabic, and Chinese.
Ellis said Victim Services personnel accompany domestic violence detectives to the home, accompany people to court, help them to get protective orders, stand by for safety while the victim is retrieving items from the home, help people file for victims’ compensation and if necessary may even help procure a bus or a train ticket to help them leave the area.
"Victims are impacted financially, physically, emotionally, and spiritually and our job is to respond to their critical needs in a time of crisis," she said. "We are the gateway to [community] resources and to the criminal justice system."
Fairfax Police Department Victim Services: call (703) 246 2141 or visit http://fairfaxcounty.gov/police/victim_svcs.htm
Fairfax County Women’s Shelter: (703) 435 4940
Victim Assistance Network- a 24 hour hotline for resources and counseling: (703) 360 7273
Advice From an Expert
Kacey Kirkland is a Victim Services Specialist who deals exclusively with domestic violence, sexual assault, and stalking. "One of the big things I always tell the victims I work with is they are not alone," she said. "A lot of women feel like they are the only person going through this. They have been isolated by the abuser, told it is their own fault. Being told [by Victim Services] that unfortunately what they are going through is considered normal in the realm of domestic violence" can actually relieve some of the shame they were feeling. "Some victims feel that it is comforting to know that they are not alone… When you realize you are not the only person out there that is going through the same thing. That helps you go forward."
"We want to make it a public awareness issue," Kirkland says. So that people will be "more willing to say, ‘Hey, can we talk?’ when someone comes in with a black eye." Kirkland acknowledges that it is not easy to speak to someone if you suspect they are being abused, especially if you have no direct evidence for it. "The best thing to say is ‘I’m here, you can talk whenever you want to,’ and to not pass judgments," even if the person refuses to leave the man who is beating her or to seek help.
"People find it hard to understand why others don’t leave a situation where domestic violence is involved. But there are often complex issues behind the violence. People are a product of their environment. No doubt. Growing up in a family where abuse took place, they learn to think that this is how things are."
Kirkland said never to tell a woman who is being abused what she should do. Instead, she suggests "informing them that if they have children, and the children are witnessing abuse, it’s very, very likely that the children are growing up to be abusers or to be abused. They don’t see mommy leaving or daddy changing."
She stresses that contacting Victim Services don’t mean leaving a spouse or a loved one. "They are not required to decide to leave their husbands, just get as educated as possible and know the options available to them."
"Hopefully this will be read by women in domestic violence situations who maybe don’t even realize they are in an abusive situation. We are here. Fairfax County has a wealth of resources available for them to use. All you have to do is pick up a phone. It won’t be an easy process. Things are not going to miraculously be okay again…The Victim Service Unit is here to support victims of domestic violence. If they are willing to take the chance to call us, we are willing to help them and guide them through to the end… the other side does come."