STOPPING THE CYCLE: Special Pima County court tackling domestic violence

Published: May. 16, 2016 at 12:16 AM MST|Updated: Feb. 28, 2018 at 5:15 PM MST
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TUCSON, AZ (Tucson News Now) - Tucson's domestic violence court is marking three years of taking the most serious domestic violence cases and holding offenders accountable.

KOLD News 13 has obtained new numbers that shed light on the program's performance.

According to stats released by the court, 2,100 defendants have been seen by the system. Out of that, 111 have completed probation. That figure may appear small, in part, because many defendants are still on probation.

Of the 111, only eight defendants completed probation and wound up getting arrested again.

The court is not required to keep statistics on how many cases get dismissed, but according to the sole judge that presides over domestic violence court, many get dismissed because the victims don't show up at trial.

Judge Wendy Million invited KOLD News 13 to observe a review hearing where she makes sure domestic violence offenders are doing what they're supposed to. It's a hearing where probation officers and counselors give updates on the offender's progress, or lack of progress.

"If I have seen the victim come to court and come to court, and then she doesn't come to trial, I worry about her," Million said.

Her court, however, does not measure success on a trial or resulting verdict. Million said it's about getting victims the help they need.

"If we've been able to get them talking to Emerge! and be aware that they have resources, to me, that's a victory," she said.

"I put my hands on my girlfriend and it was in front of my children," said Charles Velasco. "It was one of the worst things I've ever done in my life."

Velasco spoke after his review hearing, where he learned his case would be wrapping up in a few months.

"I was really bad on alcohol (and) probation saved my life," he said. "Some people just don't get it until they end up going to jail."

Velasco said he hopes to get back with his girlfriend and is working on rebuilding trust.

"What I always remind myself of is that I have to respect their decisions and what they want to do," said Cindy Garcia, a victim advocate.

Garcia's job is to help victims stick with the court process by providing support and helping them understand what to expect.

The expectation is many victims will reunite with the people who hurt them.

Garcia helps victims dealing with the emotional tug of war, encouraging them to stay through the trial, but above all, make sure they are safe.

"They miss the focus of what actually happened," Garcia said. "Since it was a traumatic experience they don't want to deal with it anymore."

Judge Million said she will hold offenders accountable, even if victims don't show up at trail.

"They're going to have to do what I tell them to do or there will be consequences," she said.

The specialized court not only helps domestic violence survivors get the justice they deserve. It's also interested in helping abusers change their ways, though some survivors do not think that's possible.

"He had me pinned down and I realized that even without intentionally wanting to kill me he might," said Liz Kinsworthy.

She said her ex-husband left for work, and she took that chance to grab her things and get out of town.

"He said 'I think you're up to something, I'm coming back,' so then we had 20 to 30 minutes," Kinsworthy said.

It wasn't the first time Kinsworthy tried to leave, but this time she got a restraining order.

"Seeing him in court rekindled the idea that I was still in love with him when in fact it was just an attachment," she said.

That was decades ago. Today Kinsworthy is a domestic violence educator.

She has never been involved with the domestic violence court, but she strongly believes all domestic violence crimes should be treated as felonies so abusers are locked up.

Everyone in the domestic violence court works together to keep tabs on suspected abusers in an effort to protect victims and make sure offenders are doing what they need to turn a new leaf.

Domestic violence court is unique because it involves only one judge and teams of prosecutors and defense attorneys who work together to handle some of the most serious cases.

In this system, punishment can range from fines to jail time, and because defendants are tracked by the same individuals and answer to only one judge, they can't hide or get lost in the shuffle. The court works closely with probation officers to get updates on their clients.

"What I really want them to do is do their treatment and be able to go back to their family and be better people because the reality is these families end up together most of the time," Million said.

She said she's working on a grant that would help the court focus more on helping abusers change.

That's something probation officer Kathi Follett has personally witnessed.

"You can see it sometimes like the light bulb goes on for them," She said. "They get what they did was abuse and how they want to modify their behavior."

Kinsworthy doesn't buy it.

"Oh I'm shattered because it's uneducated," said Kinsworthy, who insists abusers don't change.

She said they only change the type of abuse to one that doesn't leave bruises or scars.

"It goes underground so a lot of people think it's improved, but it hasn't improved," she said.

Judge Million said she and her colleagues believe justice can happen for victims and abusers.

"I do have people who tell me, 'Wow, judge. Thank you for sending me here. I can't believe I acted like that in front of my kids,'" Million said.

If you or a loved one is dealing with domestic abuse, the Emerge! Center Against Domestic Abuse is just a phone call away and can help with a variety of services. Their 24-hour bilingual crisis line can be reached at 888-428-0101.

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