Programs offer aid to domestic abuse victims

In all too many cases, domestic disputes escalate from harsh words to violence.

The victims in these instances – usually women – are often repeatedly assaulted by their significant others and sometimes end up fearing for their lives.

According to national statistics mentioned by Chisago County Attorney Janet Reiter at the Oct. 17 Chisago County Board of Commissioners meeting, domestic violence is widespread and affects over four million people each year.

One in three Americans has witnessed an incident of domestic violence.

In Minnesota last year, 31 women were murdered in domestic homicides.

The statistics are staggering, but there are resources available for those in abusive relationships.


Determining lethality 

In Chisago County, the Victim Witness Program and the Refuge Network work closely with the county attorney’s office to offer victims help in order to break the cycle of abuse.

Chisago County Victim Witness Program Coordinator Wendy Stenberg explained to the county board that her office works with victims who need to attend court hearings in domestic abuse cases.

“I contact the victim in person and let them know what their rights are and what the court process is,” she said. “As the case goes through the court system, myself and the prosecuting attorneys will work to go over any questions they might have to prepare for jury trial if the case looks like it’s going to head that route.”

In addition to the legal aid, Stenberg has also worked with Assistant Chisago County Attorney Jennifer Bovitz to draft a “lethality screen,” which is a list of questions officers ask domestic abuse victims to determine if they should be directed toward additional resources.

Some of those questions include: Has he/she ever used a weapon against you or threatened you with a weapon?

Has he/she threatened to kill you or your children?

Does he/she have a gun or can he/she get one easily?

If victims reply in the affirmative to any of the questions on the screen, they are directed toward the Refuge Network.


A refuge for victims

The Refuge Network is a multi-community organization whose primary purpose is to provide supportive services for people who are currently involved or have been involved in an abusive relationship, according to the organization’s website.

The Refuge Network has offices in Chisago, Isanti and Kanabec counties.

Associate Director of the Refuge Network Shellene Johnson told the county board the network is looking to expand its services and bring in two more full-time advocates, a part-time advocate and a paralegal.

The network is also expanding to provide sexual assault services in Isanti and Chisago counties.

Those additional employees will likely be heavily utilized.

“Since we opened the shelter in Chisago County in 2009, we’ve had over 500 women and children find safety there, with an average stay of 29 days,” Johnson said. “Almost every single day our shelter is full. The vast majority of those residents are coming from our service areas of Chisago, Isanti and Kanabec counties.”

She noted that every year the Refuge Network is receiving close to 2,000 unduplicated contacts.

Commissioner Lora Walker, who served on the Refuge Network’s board, commended the organization for all of the work it does for the betterment of the community.

“I remember the board meetings we had where pictures of victims were shown,” she said. “It was the most difficult board to serve on, but also the most rewarding.”

At the end of the board meeting, Reiter read a proclamation, which noted October as Domestic Violence Awareness month and drew attention to the need for community partnerships to reduce the amount of domestic violence.

“Only a coordinated community effort will put a stop to this crime,” she said. “Each of us can promote healthy relationships; speak out when we see injustices in our community, stand with survivors we know and change attitudes that perpetrate the cycle of abuse.”

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