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Domestic violence less deadly this year in Baltimore

The Baltimore City Domestic Violence Fatality Review Team had good news and bad news for criminal justice leaders Wednesday during its annual report, trumpeting a significant drop in homicides but bemoaning slow progress on policy recommendations the team made in past years.

“The number of domestic violence homicides is plummeting,” declared Julie Drake, chief of the Baltimore City State’s Attorney’s Felony Family Violence Division and vice chair of the team, which is a committee of the city’s Criminal Justice Coordinating Council.

There were 13 such killings in 2007 and 14 in 2008, but only four in the first nine months of 2009, she reported.

“Obviously, we’d prefer to see none but I think the numbers are moving in the right direction,” Drake said.

On the other hand, the team’s idea in 2007 for a Family Justice Center in the Baltimore has gone nowhere, while one-stop centers for victims have been created in Montgomery and Harford Counties.

And last year’s call for more assessment of children who have watched a parent suffer serious or fatal abuse was not answered by the Governor’s Office of Crime Control & Prevention or the Avon Foundation, both of which rejected grant proposals earlier this year.

The team, which is led by House of Ruth Legal Clinic Director Dorothy Lennig and is composed of members of the local law enforcement and medical communities, presents its analysis of deaths in the previous year and fresh recommendations every October, which is Domestic Violence Awareness Month.

This year’s recommendations are:

* Create an enhanced response protocol for identifying and responding to victims in highly lethal relationships. This would involve encouraging a victim to move to a shelter — maybe in another jurisdiction — but may not involve a protective order, since such an action could push the batterer to lethal abuse.

* Include human bites as an example of domestic violence for medical screens and court orders. (Last year’s emphasis was on strangulation.)

* Create a tracking system for abusers who violate their probation within the Division of Parole and Probation.

Such a tracking system would prevent situations where a defendant on probation violates the terms of his release, somehow remains on the street, and then kills his wife or girlfriend. By keeping an eye on these defendants, “you can see how many times people get put on probation when they’re already on probation,” Lennig explained.

Despite the mixed progress on their past recommendations, Lennig and Drake seemed particularly pleased with the cooperation of the Police Department.

Drake said her office has worked “hand-in-glove” with the responding officers of the Family Crimes Unit. The 31 cases completed this year have resulted in 72 years of prison time, which compares favorably with just 15 years of prison time for the first 31 cases of 2008, Drake said, adding that it is “totally due to the high quality investigation that we’re getting from the Family Crimes Unit.”

Similarly, Lennig noted, the Police Department created a specialized domestic violence arrest warrant squad in 2008 and warrants served have increased 29 percent — from 1,751 to 2263 — in the first nine months of 2009, compared to the same period last year.

The Police Department also has received a grant to begin a lethality assessment pilot project in the Northern and Northeastern Districts, Lennig said, which adds to the related training already underway.

Baltimore City Clerk of Court Frank M. Conaway Sr., who often asks pointed questions of the police commissioner, echoed his concern of previous years that the presenters and their offices focused on battered women to the exclusion of male victims.

Drake conceded that men can be too embarrassed to seek help; but if they do, she said, their cases are treated just like women’s. Lennig said the same is true at the House of Ruth, although battered men are placed in hotels whereas women, who constitute the vast majority of the clientele, share a communal space on site.

“I think there should be a House of John because men get beaten, too,” Conaway said after the meeting.