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Domestic Dispute

University of Memphis finds problems with local handling of domestic violence cases.

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When a local woman reports domestic violence, she may have to deal with a poorly managed emergency shelter, cramped quarters in the Memphis Police Department's domestic violence unit, and unsympathetic officials charged with issuing orders of protection.

These are just a few of the problems uncovered by a new assessment of domestic violence in Memphis and Shelby County, conducted by the University of Memphis' Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice. The Memphis Shelby County Crime Commission asked for the report.

The study, which was released last week, also shows that cases of domestic violence are on the rise, despite the general crime rate decreasing. Wayne Pitts, an associate professor of criminology who worked on the study, said that might not represent an actual increase in domestic violence but rather an increase in people reporting.

"I think there may be less stigma now for a woman to disclose that she's been a victim of domestic violence," Pitts said. "There have been several media campaigns — like "Chill. Don't Kill." — that may have had some subliminal effect."

The report also found that the current response system is not handling domestic violence cases as efficiently as possible.

Seventeen people who work with victims were interviewed for the report, and several expressed concern that the commissioners who issue orders of protection don't have enough experience dealing with domestic violence victims. One said the commissioners were "unaware of the dynamics of abuse and control."

"They're appointed to this position for a period of a year, although they can sometimes go beyond that," Pitts said. "In some cases, they may not have a massive amount of experience working with domestic violence."

Interviewees also said that one of the shelters dedicated to domestic violence was inadequate and poorly managed, and women were unlikely to go there. Pitts would not reveal the name of that shelter.

The MPD handles about 25,000 domestic violence cases each year, but the domestic violence unit's office is so small that the offender and the victim often are only a few feet away from one another.

Similarly, the Shelby County District Attorney's office, which prosecutes 500 new cases a month, operates in a small area offering little to no privacy for victims.

"It would not be uncommon for two different victims to be in the same room talking about their experience," said Jennifer Donnals, a spokesperson for the DA's office. "It might be embarrassing for them."

The study suggests that some of these problems might be solved when the Family Safety Center's new facility is opened. The center, a nonprofit, public/private partnership, would house city and county domestic violence services under one roof. The county is still negotiating a location, but Family Safety Center director Connie Ross hopes to have the facility open some time in 2011. So far, the MPD, Shelby County Sheriff's Office, and DA's domestic violence units have agreed to move into the building.

"The Family Safety Center will provide supervision of children, and they won't have to tag along with their mom and hear the stories of abuse," Ross said. "It's a much more supportive environment, and that will help more women follow through. They'll be able to feel more like they can remain separate from their abuser and not have to be intimidated any more."

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