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franklin county times

Groups fight to end domestic violence

Domestic violence is always in the news.

It’s everywhere we turn, and no matter how hard we try, we can’t get away from hearing about it.

Alabama state law defines domestic violence as actions taking place in the place where one resides.

Franklin County District Attorney Joey Rushing said he prosecutes approximately 75 to 100 domestic violence cases each year.

“The domestic violence cases we see are misdemeanor charges because of the extent of injury and weapons are not generally used during this type of violence.”

Rushing said domestic violence is only a felony if a weapon is used or serious physical injury or near death is caused.

“The problem is the definition of serious physical injury,” Rushing said.

“The victim almost has to become blind or lose hearing or something like that to prove serious physical injury.”

The Code of Alabama defines serious physical injury as physical injury which creates a substantial risk of death, or which causes serious and protracted disfigurement, protracted impairment of health or protracted loss or impairment of the function of any bodily organ. Rushing said the problem with that definition is that bones are not considered a bodily organ.

“If the law was to be changed to include bones, our caseload of felony domestic violence charges would most certainly double and possibly triple in the county,” Rushing said.

In his 12 years in the district attorney’s office, Rushing has seen less than 10 felony domestic violence cases. Two of which have been recent.

“We have one case pending now where a woman shot the man she was living with, and we had one a few years ago where a woman poisoned her husband, and he almost died,” Rushing said.

Rushing said under the current law, domestic violence cases are tried as misdemeanors in district court or municipal court, depending on where the violence occurs.

“Third-degree domestic violence charges are a Class A misdemeanor,” Rushing said. “Those found guilty of these charges can receive up to one year in jail.”

Rushing said the most minor domestic violence charge is harassment and the most serious is assault.

“They are all treated the same under the law,” Rushing said. “Because they are misdemeanor cases, they are all treated the same.”

Rushing said there was a case recently where a woman had her face completely bruised, but her attacker only got six months in jail for beating her.

Rushing said another problem with domestic violence cases is the victim’s willingness to cooperate.

“A lot of times, the victim tries to get the charges dropped or just disappears before court, which makes the cases hard to win,” Rushing said.

Domestic Violence Investigator David Hester is also a member of the Franklin County District Attorney’s team against domestic violence. He and Safeplace Rural Victims Service Coordinator Suzanne Fuller, along with Safeplace Hispanic Liaison Cristina Dixon and Peace Assessor Carla Belue, work out of the domestic violence program’s rural office.

Fuller said fear plays a major role in why victims of abuse are afraid to cooperate with law enforcement and the judicial system.

Fuller said interrelationship violence encompasses so much more than just physical abuse.

“No one act constitutes domestic violence,” Fuller said. “It is a pattern of behaviors. It may include intimidation, economic abuse, isolation, using the children, to name only a few forms of abuse. All of these tactics form a cycle of abuse that changes a victim’s perspective. The abuse victim begins to believe the threats and feel that they have no one to turn to.”

Fuller, who facilitates two support groups each week, one in Florence and one in Hamilton, said the emotional abuse creates wounds that seemingly never heal.

“Many victims of abuse have said to me that the bruises fade and broken bones heal, but the emotional scars never go away,” she said. 

Experts in the field of interrelationship violence state that the key component is power and control. When the victim tries to leave the relationship they are at a much higher risk of danger. It is reported that a victim of abuse will try to leave the relationship five to seven times.

“We tend to always say, why does she stay,” Fuller said. “This puts all of the responsibility on the victim. We should hold the person who is committing the crime accountable for their behavior.

“Victims stay with their abuser out of fear, for the children, for love, financial support, faith, the list is seemingly endless. But you rarely hear anyone say “Why does he do that?”

Hester said the domestic violence laws mandate that if there is any evidence of physical abuse, an arrest of the primary aggressor must be made.

“When an officer responds to a domestic violence call, and there is evidence of abuse or other crime related to domestic violence, an arrest must be made,” Hester said. “If an arrest is not made the officer has to ask himself this question; what is going to happen when I leave.”

Fuller said Safeplace offers a 24-hour crisis line for victims of domestic violence, 1-800-550-9215 or 256-767-1610.

“There is always someone ready to listen and offer assistance and information.”

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