Special report: Officials break down domestic violence

Linda Miller, Zonta president in Austin, places a flag along side those already placed at the Zonta statue across from the Jail and Justice Center. The flags were placed as part of the 16 Days for the Elimination of Violence against Women, an international Zonta movement to bring community awareness for those affected by domestic violence. — Eric Johnson/photodesk@austindailyherald.com

Flags of hope

Another yellow flag went up Monday morning in downtown Austin — the last flag meant to bring attention to a problem that has no solution. Perhaps raising awareness, like the flags, may at least be a way to get people thinking about that problem: domestic violence.

Local Zonta Club members recently participated in Zonta International’s 16 Days for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. The club raised a yellow flag every day through Monday to signify a problem and raise awareness. According to Mower County Sheriff Terese Amazi, the timing is right, as local authorities see a spike in domestic violence this time of year.

“It couldn’t come at a more appropriate time,” she said, and cited reasons of holiday stress and financial strain. “We do see a spike during the holiday season.”

Domestic violence is defined as any act that causes fear of harm in either a family member or person who lives in the same household, regardless of whether it becomes physical.

Amazi and others want people to know domestic violence is prevalent in Mower County.

A common problem

Fifteen open cases involving domestic assault or abuse charges passed through Mower County Court in just one week, from Nov. 30 to Dec. 7, which was a week with far fewer court cases than average, as well.

During the past year, domestic assaults have run the gamut in Mower County. Among the common cases such as a man hitting a girlfriend or wife, men have assaulted their brothers, mothers, fathers, children and stepsons; women have assaulted sisters, mothers and husbands. Cases have ranged from a man throwing a burrito, another breaking a broom over one’s head and one man assaulting a woman during a church service.

“These are all things we encounter right here in Mower County, and we encounter them frequently,” Amazi said.

While the Bureau of Criminal apprehension tracks specific crimes by county, it does not break down domestic assault related crimes. In the city of Austin, however, the Austin Police Department reported 156 domestic assault related arrests in 2011. That number is up from 154 in 2010 and 137 in 2009. Those numbers may not prove that domestic assaults are on the rise across the board, but officials know the problem isn’t declining.

No single cause

After nearly 27 years on the force, Austin Police Sgt. Joe Milli has responded to more verbal and physical domestic assaults than he cares to remember.

“I’ve dealt with domestics involving gunshots, people being stabbed, physically being beaten very badly, pretty much the gamut,” Milli said.

Yet the causes are never the same, which makes curbing domestic violence a daunting task, if not impossible. Sheriff Amazi says about 85 to 90 percent of the calls the county receives involve drugs or alcohol. Then there are marital problems, finances, roommate squabbles and a list of other potential causes.

“Can you fix all these things?” Milli asked. “That’s what you’d have to do, and there are just so many of them.”

Milli said a majority of the domestic dispute calls the Austin Police Department receives start as verbal arguments. Often, when officers arrive at the scene, tensions have already eased, or people involved are already gone. A 911 call itself sometimes prevents the aggressor from becoming violent. Still, the situation is highly unpredictable.

Milli recalls one time where the presence of officers may have escalated the issue: “We were going to arrest him,” Milli said about the suspect. “He became combative. The next thing I know, we have the daughter jumping on an officer’s back.”

The thought of a family member going to jail is hard for victims to stomach.

Amazi and Milli both said it’s very common to respond to 911 calls involving the same suspects repeatedly, too.

“We go to homes frequently, over and over,” Amazi said.

That fact often angers family members and friends, who wonder why victims of domestic violence routinely get back together with those who assaulted them.

A recurring theme

Without the resources to help themselves, domestic violence victims often go back to live with the aggressors. When people hear that, they think they have the solution: Don’t go back. According to Tori Miller, director of the Crime Victims Resource Center in Austin, it’s not that simple.

“Until you are in that situation, you really don’t know what you would do,” Miller said.

She added, “They don’t have the resources. They don’t have the options, so a lot of times people are stuck.”

Miller said she worked with one victim who came to her office nearly every day the week before Thanksgiving. Sometimes, situations are too complicated to fix right away. Many victims have children to watch or other commitments.

Furthermore, Miller says, there are two general categories of domestic violence victims: those who get involved in the one-time flare-ups and those who are stuck in toxic relationships. The latter, she says, live in fear and are controlled by their aggressors, such as men who won’t let women have any money, leave the house or wear their choice of clothes.

Miller adds many of those aggressors learn that behavior from previous generations, something Ed Schmitt agrees with. The Mower County probation officer runs a domestic violence intervention program in Austin and has taught about 40 men so far. Those convicted of domestic assaults are sometimes required by a judge or probation officer to attend the class. People can voluntarily take the class as well, but don’t expect that to happen.

“It hasn’t happened yet,” Schmitt said.

Schmitt added many of the class attendees show learned behavior and have a very skewed perception about what domestic violence is. They believe controlling and sometimes violent behavior as OK.

While it may be difficult to stop people from committing violent acts in the first place, Schmitt at least tries to prevent them from repeating those acts.

“We don’t let them sit and try to put blame on the women,” Schmitt said.

Still, even that is tough. One man who completed Schmitt’s class three weeks ago allegedly committed another assault.

And plenty of people are going to assault family members and those who live with them for the first time — or continue to do so and get away with it.

More than meets the eye

Because of the nature of domestic violence, it is a highly unreported crime, according to Amazi. Victims don’t want to incriminate their family members. Views often change when people settle down, sober up or whatever the case may be. Children play a big factor, as well.

“That’s very difficult, because we are putting kids right in the middle of this situation,” Amazi said. “It’s no wonder it is one of the major underreported crimes.”

Mower County Attorney Kristen Nelsen sees her fair share of domestic assault cases roll through the system. The causes concern her, as well.

“I think the truly scary thing is a very large percentage of them involve drugs, involve alcohol, and a large percentage of them involve children present,” Nelsen said.

She added, “People like to think it happens other places. It does happen in your neighborhood or in your social circle.”

Convictions, jail time and classes may all help prevent domestic violence from recurring. Keeping others from committing domestic violence in the first place, however, that takes awareness.

Perhaps Schmitt’s advice to people in his class is the answer for those who believe someone else made them angry.

“No one can make you anything,” he said. “It’s your choice to become angry.”

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