Victims of domestic abuse live in a hidden world where they alone must bear the weight of another's violence, where their freedoms are systematically stripped away until they believe they can't leave for fear of further punishment. “The choice between sleeping in a homeless shelter and sleeping in your own bed next to an abusive partner is a choice no one should have to make, and people make it every day in Vermont,” said Washington County State's attorney Rory Thibault. There are powerful people waiting by their phones for that one quintessential call, when a victim finally decides not to keep enduring the pain of abuse. Those people are prosecutors. "It's difficult to make the victim understand that we really care," said Rutland County State's Attorney Rose Kennedy. "My main goal is to drive that point home that we do this because we care. We bear the burden: it's worth it to me, if it can empower them out of that relationship. " That is, of course, if they're able to make a call at all. “There are people who don't have the means because they're isolated in rural areas, and calling 911 can take a long response,” Thibault said. “There's insufficient opportunity to make a report. The emotional abuse, financial exploitation or limitation creates dependency, and it's incredibly difficult and intimidating for victims to come forward.” And when a victim does come forward, their journey has only just begun. First on scene are officers or employees from aid centers such as The Circle Center of Washington County or NewStory Center in Rutland, who assess the situation. “They'll get a call from someone who was just assaulted, from a neighbor who heard screaming or glass breaking," Kennedy said. “Then we get involved.” Case affidavits go to the on-call state's attorney, who looks into the offender's background and decides whether or not to file charges. “They are priority cases, and are always seen the next business day,” Thibault said . “Each county maintains one prosecutor available to assist law enforcement on these types of calls.” In Washington County, 75 percent of the calls made to the state's attorney's office after hours have some relation to domestic violence, Thibault said. Attorneys can apply for relief from abuse (RFA) orders. “Conditions can include no contact, or limitations on contact. There are a number of things a court can order on a temporary basis," Thibault said. "They can also apply for an RFA without a report to law enforcement.” Last year, 1,400 cases were filed in Washington County criminal court and 120 of those were domestic violence cases. “Safe to say at least 10 percent of our total caseload revolves around the issue of domestic violence,” Thibault said. Kennedy's office has 75 misdemeanor and 73 felony domestic violence cases pending, and six of the felony cases are repeats. “Rutland County gets a domestic assault charge every day on average,” Kennedy said. “Holidays are heavy.” Thibault said the calls come from everywhere. “Unlike other crimes driven exclusively by poverty or addiction, domestic violence is one of the crimes I see that does not discriminate among socioeconomic status," he said, adding that "embarrassment or shame coming forward is an impediment” for those who are more well off. Early in the investigation, Thibault said a domestic violence investigator is contacted to research “prior bad acts,” violence that occurred leading up to the incident when law enforcement was finally contacted, which can last into the court process. “It's seldom that we don't learn something important after the investigator has had the opportunity to speak with (the victim),” Thibault said. The abuser is then arraigned and bail is set depending on a number of factors. After the evidence is received and analyzed by both sides, the prosecution decides whether the crime is a felony. “A misdemeanor is bodily injury,” Kennedy said. “Felony domestic violence is serious bodily injury or the attempt to commit it, or use of a deadly weapon" or strangulation. While this is happening, the victim faces an internal war of inconceivable proportions: Victims of domestic violence have been groomed by their abuser and are convinced they're alone, that they have absolutely no one they can trust, and that if they do come forward, punishment awaits them. Kennedy said in 75 percent of the cases she sees, victims have never heard support or validation that what is happening to them is real, and that they don’t deserve it. The abuse, blame and violence can even be justified by those closest to the victim, according to Rutland Deputy State's Attorney Daron Raleigh. “I remember a case I tried where the victim’s own mother said, 'She can be too persistent; she can push people's buttons,'" Raleigh said. The belittling of abusive behaviors and justification of violence further isolates the victim, which makes facing their abuser in court difficult to do because the victim needs to believe they are safe, supported and right. “It’s a conditioning thing,” said Naomi Ross, a victim’s advocate for Kennedy’s office. “Its a whole manipulation and control tactic: someone punches you in the face and blames you for it. But it’s very infrequent that we see one-time punches.” Getting the victim to remain on the same page with prosecution is a delicate task. Having the victim as a witness to the crime can be instrumental in charging the abuser, and making sure they won’t have the opportunity to hurt anyone else. To do that, prosecutors have to find the wounded person within the public shell who is willing to rely on the law to correct the situation, even when they don’t understand they’re in over their heads and are risking their lives by remaining with the abuser, Kennedy said. “If the abuser is extremely apologetic, (the victim thinks) they can save them,” Raleigh said. "Sometimes, the abuser will cry in front of them," Kennedy added. Ross said the victims often make excuses for their abusers, which then can quickly turn into self-blame. All of the shame and self-doubt surrounding the victims may be visible to veterans like Kennedy, Thibault, Ross and Raleigh, but for a jury, the behavior of an abused person can be foreign. “There should be an expert in trial,” Kennedy said. “For most people, if someone punches you, you’re done with them. For jurors, sometimes it's hard to understand why victims might stay or minimize the situation. Having an expert who explains this dynamic would be invaluable.” “Ultimately, I think most jurors are very fair-minded and open about the case, but every person carries certain prejudices,” Thibault said. “It is a struggle to ensure jurors are making a decision based on testimony and not speculation. One's station in life shouldn't be a determining factor in their credibility." Many believe that if someone is being abused, they have the ability to simply run away. “People always talk about a fight or flight response. A third response we never talk about is freeze,” Thibault said. “Sometimes, someone will just freeze in that situation and just not know what to do. In that moment, it's easy for someone without that stress, anxiety, fear coursing through their body to say, 'Well, I would have got up and left.'" Kennedy said jurors still struggle internally with why abuse occurs, what the victim may have done to bring it on, and wonder whether something is wrong with them. “I knew a woman once who could tell when her husband was going to beat her,” Kennedy said. “So she got drunk beforehand to prepare — to numb herself. All the jury hears is ‘she was drunk.’” Some jurors are quicker to empathize with aggressive violent behavior: Kennedy tried a case in which a paraplegic woman who was completely dependent on her husband for her hygiene was struck after waiting hours for assistance. The abuser defended himself by claiming the stress of living with the responsibility pushed him to hit her. The jury empathized with him. Kennedy said even some judges can’t begin to understand the depth of abuse. “Some will take 'oh, you’re not afraid of him? OK. You can be in contact, then.' But the victim isn’t going to say, ‘Yes, I’m afraid of him,'” Kennedy said. It takes an average of seven to 10 repeated attempts to leave for a victim to finally and permanently leave their abuser. Even while the trial is ongoing, a victim may attempt to sabotage their own case to save the abuser that they still love and return to them. “Eventually, the process becomes scary and we have cases when victims will decline to participate further,” Thibault said. “In extreme cases, victims recant their testimony. I don't think anyone in Vermont can claim to be 100 percent successful in keeping the victim engaged in the process.” The process can be traumatic for a victim, who has had their own control and power meticulously stripped away, and is now being told they need to do something they're terrified to do and which goes against all of their instincts. But once the prosecutor has decided to pursue the case, they are physically taking the crime out of the victim's hands. They are no longer “doing” anything to their abuser — the state is. “Understanding that the state brings the charge is crucial, and we try hard to come to terms with the victim,” Kennedy said. If a victim effectively sabotages the case, they've lost absolutely no credibility with the attorneys who tried to pursue it. The prosecution is still there, waiting in the wings for every case, no matter the victim's fears or history. “People do feel guilty about sabotaging the last one, but we want to help,” Ross said. The key to ending the cycle of domestic violence is preventing it from happening at all. “The likelihood of being killed by a stranger is less than the likelihood of being killed by your partner here in Vermont,” Thibault said. “This isn't a problem we can prosecute our way out of. We need to prevent this from ending up in prosecutors' offices in the first place. Our defendant today is our victim or witness tomorrow.” kate.barcellos@rutlandherald.com

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