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ASHEVILLE — Tuesday afternoon, a group of Buncombe County leaders introduced a far-reaching plan to reduce domestic violence through better coordination, protection of victims and enforcement.
According to a recent N.C. Department of Justice report, in 2013 Buncombe had its record number of domestic violence homicides, eight, and the third most among the state’s 100 counties. In the same year, 1,760 women in Buncombe sought official help to escape violence at home.
“We have thousands of citizens that don’t feel safe and are not safe, the majority of which are women,” Buncombe County Commissioner Holly Jones told the crowd of about 40 people that showed up for the announcement, which was made in the Board of Commissioners’ meeting chambers.
“The reality of these statistics is nothing new, but last year in Buncombe we felt the devastating effect of domestic violence harder than ever,” she said.
The plan has been in the works for about a year. While officials had considered changing approaches for some time, Jones said the effort took on a new urgency after a particular local tragedy: The daughter of a Buncombe County employee was one of the domestic violence victims murdered last year.
“It was close to home, within our workplace, our family,” Jones said. “The conversation needed to start.”
A multi-pronged approach
Former District Court Judge Rebecca Knight, a major architect of the plan, presented a map of domestic violence calls across the county.
“It’s everywhere,” she noted, showing 7,230 domestic violence-related 911 calls and 400 Child Protective Services investigations logged from July 2012 to July 2013.
The plan aims to use six connected initiatives to tackle the problem, many drawing on programs that have had a measure of success in other areas of the country.
On the communication end, an “eNOugh” campaign featuring posters and an information drive, will seek to increase public awareness. And a “cross-system dialogue” will try to improve coordination among the nonprofits, local governments and agencies that deal with the problem. For example, law enforcement will now promptly contact the Asheville nonprofit Helpmate in cases where a victim needs emergency assistance.
On the enforcement side, electronic monitoring will track offenders and notify victims (as well as law enforcement) if offenders come into proximity. Meanwhile, a “lethality assessment” is supposed to improve law enforcement’s ability to know which victims are most at risk, and a new “high-risk team” will intervene before their situation worsens.
“It’s a unique crime, where more often than not we know the identity of both the perpetrator and the victim before the crime is ever committed,” Knight noted. “If we can identify the victims early on, we can stop that murder.”
Turning the tables on offenders
After an offender is arrested or convicted, a “focused deterrence” program will aim to make it clear that there will be dire consequences if they re-offend — and that they’re on law enforcement’s radar.
The aim, Knight said, is to reverse the existing situation in domestic violence, to “turn the tables on the offender; he remains under strict scrutiny while the victim remains free.”
Buncombe Sheriff Van Duncan recalled that last year, during one four-hour period, “I went from one scene where a husband had killed his wife and killed himself to another where a man had killed his wife, left and was eluding the police.” He said his department stands ready to help with the enforcement side of the plan, “so we never have another year in Buncombe County like we had last year.”
District Attorney Ron Moore said his office has made strides on this front in recent years, but that the plan’s programs will bolster those efforts. He added that he’s pushing to get a dedicated judge for domestic violence court.
Helpmate Director April Burgess-Johnson said the plan, once it goes into motion, will be a major help to domestic violence victims and send the right point to offenders.
“We could have done any one of these six initiatives and had a major impact,” she said. “But we’re doing six. We want to send the message to offenders that we’ve had enough. … The message we’re sending to the people that reach out for help is that you’re not alone.”
The county will fund the new plan by reallocating existing resources, though the electronic monitoring program will require about $100,000 in additional funds. The six initiatives will roll out in stages between now and October.
Buncombe isn’t the only WNC county grappling with the problem, according to the state’s figures. In 2013, Henderson County had four domestic violence-related homicides, Swain And Rutherford counties had two, and Yancey and McDowell had one each.