SOUTH BEND — St. Joseph County Sheriff Bill Redman said Wednesday his police department has received a $400,000 grant to create a two-person team dedicated to responding to domestic violence incidents, an announcement that comes amid an increase in domestic violence-related deaths.
Redman said the county police department will partner with the St. Joseph County Family Justice Center to form the team, which will consist of a police officer and a social worker.
The sheriff said the U.S. Department of Justice awarded the grant to 22 agencies around the country. The grant totals $407,000 over three years, and will cover the salaries of both team members, along with training, supplies and emergency needs for domestic violence victims.
“This program will put St. Joseph County Police on the leading edge of modern policing,” Redman said in a news release. “This model of officer and social worker … will increase the safety of all parties.”
The team will respond to the scene of domestic and sexual violence incidents, once police determine the scene to be safe, and provide victims and families with advice on “services or protective options” that are available. The team will also handle case management and referrals to social services, as well as training for county police and other local departments.
One of the goals is to begin connecting domestic violence survivors with services more quickly, said Dayna Baxter, the Family Justice Center social worker who will be assigned to the new team. Police have traditionally referred victims to service providers within a couple of days, Baxter said, but the new team will seek to make those referrals within 48 hours.
“Research shows the sooner you engage victims with domestic violence services, the better the outcome is going to be,” Baxter said. “The more likely they are going to be to stay with prosecution, to get the support they need to leave that relationship.”
The handling of local domestic violence cases is under scrutiny after a Tribune report that chronicled a long history of alleged abuse that preceded the stabbing death of Catherine Minix, 37, last month. Her alleged abuser faced multiple criminal charges and was convicted in two cases this year, but he never served jail time and was free on probation when he allegedly stabbed and killed Minix.
The YWCA of North Central Indiana says it will review the handling of Minix’s domestic violence complaints, at the request of St. Joseph County Prosecutor Ken Cotter, after The Tribune’s reporting “raised questions” about how the legal system responded to the cases.
At the same time, experts say domestic violence on the whole has risen during the coronavirus pandemic. Last week, the Indiana Coalition Against Domestic Violence said deaths related to domestic violence in the state increased by 85% through October, compared with the same period last year.
Family Justice Center director Amy Stewart-Brown said the center had seen a “dramatic increase” in the demand for domestic violence services over the past six months, due to “isolation and stress” amid the pandemic.
“Unfortunately, our community has experienced the worst-case scenario for a domestic violence situation,” Stewart-Brown said. “We have lost community members to domestic violence recently, and our hearts are broken.”
At a news conference announcing the grant Wednesday, Redman and officials with the Family Justice Center said they had been working on the plan for the past year, before coverage of Minix’s death.
Redman also said the plan was unrelated to calls by some protesters to “defund the police” after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Some critics of police violence have suggested replacing police officers with social workers.