The letters are simple, earnest, to the point: “Let me start out [to] say I’m so sorry for the abuse by hollaring, yelling and sometimes screaming at the top of my lungs. I take the blame for our marriage being over cause of my actions. So when they told me I had a domestic violence class to take I really regretted it. But going through this class I really see the point of taking it.”
The author is a 45-year-old man who’d been taking an anger-management class after a conviction for domestic violence. The class, provided by Family Resource Connection’s Penny Niceley at the Emergency Operations Center in Bunnell (the location is purely coincidental: it has classroom space), is among the substantial accomplishments recommended by the domestic violence task force Sheriff Rick Staly established in 2017. Until then, individuals required to attend anger management as part of their court disposition had to drive to St. Johns, Putnam or Volusia counties for class. Many couldn’t. The Flagler class, which costs them just $15, makes completing the terms of a sentence easier.
The letter isn’t a term of sentence. But it’s required by the class as one of the gauges that allows Niceley and Stephanie Morrow, the director of Family Resource Connection, to measure whether and what the “batterer” has learned.
“I regret losing you and the kids,” the writer continues, describing himself as “a total dumb ass” at one point. “I just want you to understand it’s not your fault. I take the responsibility in the entire situation.”
The letters don’t actually go to the intended recipient. They remain in the individual’s file. But through the filter of obvious attempts to write what the facilitator wants to hear, the letters can be revealing, and at times reflect the writer’s thankfulness for the class and the judge who sentenced the individual to attend it. One participant had been arrested nine times on domestic violence charges between 2012 and 2015, went to prison, took the class and wrote one of those letters in the summer of 2016. He hasn’t been arrested since.
“We at least are making some progress,” Morrow said today, though the class faces two significant challenges. The first is that a county official told her the room the organization uses at EOC on Monday nights may not be reserved for its uses in the future: it could be available. It could not. The second is that only three individuals are currently attending classes, namely, Morrow thinks, because Circuit Judge Terence Perkins, who is relatively new, hasn’t yet been made aware of the availability of the service. In Putnam County in comparison, 12 are enrolled.
Staly said he would address both issues. “Take that off the table, I will get you a space, a dedicated time,” he said to ensure that the class doesn’t lose its space. He said he would ensure that Perkins is also made aware: “This is another tool that we need to emphasize that the judge has,” he said.
Morrow and Niceley spoke of the class during an update of the sheriff’s domestic violence task force. The session was not well attended: several of the task force’s committee members committee leaders weren’t there, which concerned the sheriff, who compared the waning interest to a neighborhood watch group that gets intensely involved when there’s a crime spree, then loses interest when issues cool. “We don’t want this to wane, because if it wanes, we’re going to see the numbers go back up,” Staly said.
He provided the audience of about two dozen an update on those numbers: arrests for domestic violence went up in 2018, as he had predicted. But they fell some in the first quarter of 2019.
There were 140 domestic violence cases recorded by the sheriff’s office in the first quarter of the year, down from 148 in the same period last year, but up from 136 two years ago. Arrests are down to 96 this past quarter, down from 104 last year but up from 69 the year before. The State Attorney’s Office is following up on cases by filing domestic violence charges more often, thanks in large part to the dedicated detective’s ability to focus on her cases.
The detective is Fiona Ebrill, who made an appearance at the update with one of the sheriff’s two newest members: Khaleesi, a chihuahua (named after the Game of Thrones character) who, like its border collie counterpart called Dollie, are therapy dogs. Dollie is assigned to detective Annie Conrad. The dogs play a role in calming victims of domestic violence. The two detectives both recently spent a week in training at the Broward County Sheriff’s Office, learning how to handle the therapy dogs.
Staly acknowledged that it’s too soon to tell if the 2019 trend will hold. But he attributed the successes to developments implemented since the task force was established. These include the hiring and grant-funding of a detective dedicated to domestic violence and to an analyst, and the addition of ankle monitors as surveillance tools locked onto the ankles of individuals released from jail with domestic violence cases yet to be disposed, or if they’re serving out injunctions or probation. Twenty individuals are now with ankle monitors, which the individuals themselves must pay for and maintain. The monitors immediately send a signal when the offender crosses a no-go line, such as getting close to a spouse’s home or workplace. A few individuals have been arrested for violating those no-go lines. Most don’t have to learn the lesson the hard way.
“Once they have that ankle monitor on they are scared to death of going anywhere near the victim,” the sheriff’s Chief Steve Brandt said. Instead they call the sheriff’s office when they’re in doubt, to be sure they’re not crossing any lines. But recently a man was booked back at the county jail because he’d failed to keep his battery powered, and the signal was lost.
The domestic violence class’ Morrow more recently started a program at the county jail to help inmates who are about to be released, either to start them on their court-assigned anger management class, which they can then continue in the free world, or to line them up with the sort of services they will need after release–services that are in short supply in Flagler. The efforts are all aimed at lowering recidivism.
“We’ll probably never solve this problem but we can make a dent in it and make sure the resources are there,” the sheriff said.
If you need help, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1−800−799−7233 or TTY 1−800−787−3224 or visit the National Domestic Violence Hotline.