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Domestic Silence: The truth about abuse in Ohio

(November 27, 2011) — Just five months after Cindy Trudeau was murdered, her 4-year-old niece, Brooklyn Price, wanted nothing more than to be her aunt’s angel for Halloween.

“She’ll throw her hands up in the air and say: ‘Hi Cindy!’” said Columbus resident Joyce Price, Cindy’s mother. “She loved her aunt. … She knows (Cindy’s) in heaven.”

The day she died May 21 will be seared forever in the minds of the tight-knit family. It’s the day Brian Trudeau, 48, shot and killed his 42-year-old wife and then himself.

“When I first heard about it, I had no emotion; I couldn’t believe it,” Price said. “But I’m crying more and more. I miss her.”

“She was always happy, always smiling,” her brother Michael Price said, his eyes wet with tears.

But that happy face concealed a life of abuse at the hands of her husband.

“I knew he was beating her,” Joyce said. “You could see bruises on her face at the funeral, under the makeup.”

Cindy’s story ended like that of many other victims of battery.

About 22 percent of the 476 Ohio homicides last year were the result of domestic violence, compared with 4?percent of the 519 homicides in 2009 and 13 percent of the 543 in 2008, according to the FBI.

Increased risk

The official number of reported domestic-violence deaths in Ohio increased to 105 last year from 22 in 2009, a jump attributed in part to how they are being reported.

Annie Murray, the head of the domestic-violence unit of the Columbus city prosecutor’s office, said that she has noticed increased violence since 2008 in the misdemeanor cases she handles.

“Victims are much more scared,” Murray said.

But Alice Robinson-Bond, the crime victim’s section chief for the Ohio attorney general’s office, said the seemingly dramatic increase in deaths likely reflects an increase in the number of agencies reporting the crime. About 40 of the 105 fatalities last year were reported by agencies that had not reported their statistics previously.

For example, Hamilton County, which includes Cincinnati, reported 37 deaths last year, compared with zero in 2009. However, Cincinnati police did not report at all in 2009.

The increase in deaths also could be attributed to an uptick in multiple-victim domestic homicides, said Ron O’Brien, the Franklin County prosecutor. That would include deaths such as Cindy Trudeau’s, in which her murderer took his own life as well.

Statistics are spotty at best. Dispatch archives show that Columbus had 16 deaths in 2010 and 17 in 2009 that could fit the domestic-violence statute. Yet the city reported nine in 2010 and just four in 2009, according to the attorney general’s statistics.

Sgt. Rich Weiner, spokesman for the Columbus Police Division, said the discrepancy could be because the deaths were listed as a homicide over a domestic-violence incident and then filed as such.

If reporting was more consistent and the state had a fatality-review board to look more closely at the deaths, the statistics would provide greater insight, Robinson-Bond said.

Insight from tragedy Six Ohio counties have domestic-violence fatality-review boards, as do 23 states and the District of Columbia. Experts on those boards study the particulars of each death to determine whether there were chances to intervene. Then they make recommendations to judges and law-enforcement and human-services agencies.

“They work if you do it without a scapegoat,” said Kate Foulke of the Ohio Department of Youth Services. “There can’t be any blaming.”

Franklin County received about $166,000 from the Columbus Coalition Against Family Violence to run a review board in 2002, but the funding was not renewed, said Foulke, who is the former coordinator of the board.

“There were some questions with the validity of the answers the board was producing, so we pulled the funding,” explained Karen S. Days, president of the coalition that is now known as the Center for Family Safety and Healing. “We hope we can reinstate it someday.”

Wood County in northwestern Ohio started a review board in 2006 that operates without a budget. It recently finished reviewing all domestic-violence fatality records from 1991 to the present, said Kathy Mull, the chairwoman. “Our space is donated, and if we need any supplies, it gets donated from the participating agencies and businesses in the county.”

The findings were sent to judges, police officers and others who deal regularly with such cases, Mull said.

Last year, the board published a report on cases from 1991 to 2007. It found that half of the 12 people killed because of domestic violence during those years had sought help.

A bill introduced in the Ohio House in January last year would have allowed county commissioners to create review boards, but the bill didn’t make it out of the Criminal Justice Committee.

Robinson-Bond said a statewide fatality-review board is something the attorney general’s office is looking into, but funding is a concern.

Review boards “re-create the case through the eyes of the victims to see how they perceive the services offered,” said Neil Websdale, director of the National Domestic Violence Fatality Review Initiative. “To us, it’s a lot of great programs. To them, it’s an alienating maze.”

Preferred arrest In about 11 minutes, the breathless 911 caller went from begging police for protection from her husband to pleading with them to ignore her call. It was July 11 this year. The caller was Delaware County Recorder Melissa Jordan; her husband, state Sen. Kris Jordan.

“He’s had some drinks,” she told the dispatcher. “He was pushing me around, throwing stuff. Because I called you, he wants he says it’s over.”

Delaware County deputies responded to the couple’s home in Powell but left without an arrest. Melissa Jordan did not press charges.

Some women beg police not to file charges. Others can’t prove the abuse, especially if there are no physical marks.

In Franklin County, 26 percent of domestic-violence calls ended in an arrest last year, down from 29 percent in 2008. Statewide, 43 percent of calls ended in arrests last year and in 2009, down slightly from 46 percent in 2008, according to the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation.

Ohio has a preferred-arrest law that requires officers to make an arrest when there is probable cause that an attack or threat has taken place even if the victim doesn’t want charges.

Nancy Neylon, executive director of the Ohio Domestic Violence Network, said law-enforcement officers might be frustrated that arrests without a victim willing to testify often don’t lead to convictions, which could be a factor in the decreased percentage.

“I don’t know if it’s just a longer slide away from the passage of preferred-arrest laws or if it’s because the police are frustrated because they don’t have anything to go on,” Neylon said.

But Sgt. Lisa Cammelleri, supervisor of the Columbus police domestic-violence unit, said officers do their best to make an arrest.

Melissa Mathis of Cuyahoga County filed a police complaint last year after being hospitalized for injuries she said were caused by her live-in boyfriend, Daniel Ginley.

But just before trial, she recanted her story.

The Cuyahoga County prosecutor took the case to the Ohio Supreme Court after the trial-court judge denied his request to call Mathis to the stand as a witness, even though she didn’t want to testify. The high court decided in October not to hear the case.

A favorable decision would have helped prosecutors who become frustrated when domestic-violence victims recant before trial a common occurrence, Days said.

Flimsy shield

A piece of paper is expected to stop violence.

Protection orders were created to help victims leave an abusive relationship and provide protection for five years. They can be completed without an attorney, and a judge decides whether to approve the petition after testimony from both sides.

But the paper shield didn’t stop Jack Blake Jr., 32, from killing his 28-year-old wife, Jennifer, in July on the Far East Side. After being held at gunpoint for two hours, Jennifer took out a protection order. Three weeks later, Blake shot her dead.

And it didn’t keep Ashley Powell’s boyfriend, 27-year-old Quentin Walker, from breaking into her Far East Side apartment on a September night and coming at her with a crowbar. The 27-year-old woman said she shot and killed him that night in self-defense.

One problem is that offenders sometimes dodge officers and aren’t served with the order, making it unenforceable, said Murray, of the Columbus city prosecutor’s office. “Staffing issues make it even more difficult to serve them.”

And a section of Ohio’s budget that is designed to cut the prison population makes it difficult to ensure that protection-order violators are punished.

The new law states that those convicted of a fourth- or fifth-degree felony, if it is not a violent offense, will be sentenced to at least one year of probation. Domestic violence and menacing by stalking are considered violent offenses, but violating a protection order is not.

“With this change, it’s better to keep this violation as a misdemeanor instead of bumping it up to a felony, because at least they’ll get jail time,” Murray said.

Stalled legislation Three bills were introduced in the Ohio General Assembly this year to help curb domestic violence. As in previous years, they have garnered little support:

  • House Bill 103 would allow victims of repeated domestic violence or stalking to file a court affidavit to keep their addresses confidential in Bureau of Motor Vehicles and voter records. Thirty-seven other states allow this.

A similar bill passed the House last year but didn’t make it to the Senate.

“It’s going to cost the secretary of state money, and he just cut his budget, so it won’t go anywhere,” Neylon said.

  • House Bill 105 would allow public employees and employees of private businesses that employ 50 or more people to take unpaid time off for legal or medical purposes related to domestic violence. It also would permit a tenant to terminate a home or apartment lease if he or she is a victim of domestic violence. The bill passed the House last year but not the Senate and was reintroduced.
  • House Bill 25 would include companion pets in protection orders and require juveniles convicted of animal cruelty to receive individual or family counseling. A similar bill stalled in committee last year. The House passed the new bill in May, and it is parked at the Senate door.

“Ohio passed (domestic violence) laws in 1979, among the first states to do so,” said Mike Smalz, senior staff attorney for the Ohio Poverty Law Center. “But there are areas that need stronger legislation.”

Some gains were made in helping teens escape dating violence when two bills became law last year. One allows a civil-protection order to be filed against a juvenile, and the other requires schools to teach about abusive relationships.

But Becky Westerfelt, executive director of the Columbus teen shelter Huckleberry House, said the laws aren’t helping what she calls the invisible women.

“The girls that really need help skipped dating and went right into a dependent relationship,” Westerfelt said. “They found a man who is willing to feed and clothe them, so they won’t leave, despite the abuse.”

Alex Stuckey is a fellow in the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism Statehouse News Bureau.

NOTE: This is a one of a three-part series. A Dispatch investigation of domestic violence in 2009 found flaws in Ohio laws and policies that created a culture of tolerance. Two years later, more agencies are reporting more abuse and deaths, yet reform legislation remains stalled.