Story by: Ben Garrett
When the Scott County grand jury had finished its work late last month, hearing all of the cases that the district attorney general’s office presented, it handed down a brow-raising number of indictments related to domestic violence. In fact, by the time all of the indictments had been signed, the September 2019 term of the grand jury included the largest number of violent cases heard by the panel of jurors in recent memory.
Strangulation. Aggravated assault. False imprisonment. Rape.
The charges read like words out of a B-grade movie plot, the kind of brutal suspense film that is introduced to viewers via Netflix or late-night telecasts on obscure cable networks.
But for the hundreds of Scott County women (and, in some cases, men) who are living in fear of an abusive partner — losing their job, afraid for their kids’ safety, always wondering when something will happen to trigger the next attack and hoping it doesn’t escalate — it’s not a plot cooked up by a struggling film writer in his basement office; it’s reality.
Domestic violence isn’t new, of course. It didn’t start when the grand jury convened last month. And long gone are the days when it was accepted — even approved, to some degree. But it’s still a bit taboo; something we’d rather not talk about. It just makes us uncomfortable. We’ve confronted our community’s drug problem because we had no choice — it was in our face, effecting literally every family in Scott County to some degree. But some of the community’s other problems are a little more out-of-sight, out-of-mind. Besides, the perpetrators of domestic violence are all too often people we don’t want to believe capable of such things. They’re professionals, leading members of the community, in some instances.
And so the stigma that’s still attached causes many women to feel trapped in the cycle of violence. Most cases of domestic violence are never reported to police; just 34 percent of those injured by their partner seek medical care. It’s not because they aren’t afraid, not because their injuries aren’t severe in some cases, not because they don’t want help. It’s because they feel trapped, with no way out.
That’s where the Scott County Family Justice Center comes in. The center, a non-profit that is funded mostly by grants with some taxpayer support from Scott County Government, is located in Huntsville and first opened its doors in July 2018. It’s a relatively new concept; think the Children’s Center of the Cumberlands, but with services that are aimed at adults rather than children. The closest similar center is in Overton County, though Anderson and Claiborne counties have recently received grants to establish their own family justice centers.
That busy September term of the grand jury? No one can say for sure why there was such an uptick in domestic violence cases heard by the jurors — just as no one can say for sure why police are being called more often by women who are seeking help.
But many people who care most about such things have an idea, one that they’re patiently waiting for statistics to bear out: Increased awareness. A place to turn to. A way out.
Christy Harness is the face of the FJC. She was hired in 2017, left a career with CASA, where she advocated for children, to join the fledgling organization. When she speaks about the number of clients the center is serving, she does so solemnly, speaking almost quietly but with purpose.
Appearing before the board of directors at the Scott County Chamber of Commerce last month, Harness read off the statistics, line-by-line:
In the FJC’s first year of operation, it served 184 clients, most of which (156) were women, ranging in age from 17 on up. The oldest client served? Age 90.
“You don’t think anyone in that time of their life would be dealing with abuse but that’s not the case,” Harness said.
In the last month alone, the FJC had serve 20 clients (18 women, two men). Thirty percent of them were referred to the center by law enforcement officers. Twenty-five percent were referred by the clerks offices, such as Circuit Court Clerk Donnie Phillips. Fifteen percent learned of the center by word of mouth.
In all, the FJC fielded 397 calls and had 118 contacts during the month.
“We hate that we’re here, but yet we’re very blessed that we’re able to be here,” Harness said.
Mark Twain popularized a phrase about “lies, damned lies and statistics.” Perhaps, in other words, statistics can be twisted to fit any purpose. The number of clients being seen by the FJC paint a picture of just how prevalent domestic violence is in Scott County — but is a real difference being made in the way it’s combatted?
Jared Effler, who was elected attorney general for the 8th Judicial District, including Scott County, in 2014 thinks so. He has gone to bat for the FJC on multiple occasions, including appearances before the county’s legislative body to appeal for funding. He’s often referred to the way child abuse cases were handled before the popularity of child advocacy centers like the Children’s Center of the Cumberlands, acknowledging that prosecutors were doing it wrong. Family justice centers, he has said, will bring about the same improvements for victims of domestic violence.
To that point, Harness points out that 50 percent of domestic violence victims throughout the 8th Judicial District fail to show up for court so that the cases against the perpetrators can be prosecuted. Since the Scott County FJC opened, she said, 85 percent of domestic violence cases in Scott County have been prosecuted.
From July 2018 to June 2019, Effler’s office handled 121 cases involving domestic violence. Of the perpetrators in those cases, 52 percent entered a guilty plea. Charges were dismissed in 25 percent of the cases, usually at the victims’ request. And in the remaining 23 percent there was a “deferred prosecution,” meaning the case will be dismissed if court-ordered remedies are followed, such as Batterer Intervention Program (BIP) classes, mental health assessments on alcohol and drug use, and counseling.
There will never be a world without domestic violence. Human nature won’t allow it. And those who deal with it on a daily basis understand that. They’ll also admit, privately, that the progress being made isn’t as much as they’d like. But, then, it never is … because what anyone who deals with domestic violence would like is to never sit down across from another person who has been battered by an intimate partner.
For now, domestic violence remains very much a problem in Scott County. Its tentacles reach beyond the home. It results in lost production in work places, poorer grades in school, and it is constantly rearing another generation of abusers — since statistics show that a child who grows up in an abusive home is two-to-three times more likely to be an abuser himself as an adult. But there has been change — domestic violence is now being met head-on, through a coalition of law enforcement agencies, judicial personnel and non-profits who provide services.
And with change comes hope.
October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. For more information, visit the Scott County Family Justice Center website at scfjc.org, or the Scott County Shelter Society website at shelter-society.org. On Saturday, the two agencies will team up to present “Unmasqing the Violence,” a masquerade ball at the Oneida Performing Arts Center. Tickets ($40) are still available and can be purchased by calling 663-6638.