New Domestic Violence Unit Stems from Surge in Cases
By Gina Gallucci-White. Photography by Turner Photography Studio
Domestic violence cases that came into the Frederick County State’s Attorney’s Office before this year were routed into two different categories: felonies and misdemeanors. That system created a problem.
“The prosecutors who may see misdemeanor violence [cases] didn’t necessarily interact with the prosecutors who would see the felony violence [cases], and the cases had kind of a breakdown of how it would go through the office,” says Assistant State’s Attorney Brett Engler. “[This] meant you were not having what is called vertical prosecution—a prosecutor staying with a case from the beginning to the end, being able to make charging decisions to make sure it went into the right level of the court. It just wasn’t as effective as it could have been.”
A majority of the domestic violence cases seen in Frederick County are classified as misdemeanors. This includes certain types of assaults, violations of protective orders, harassment and even stalking. Felonies involve more serious crimes like murder or attempted murder. In 2020, the Maryland General Assembly made strangulation a felony offense after years of classification as a misdemeanor; in recent years, the legislature has also criminalized other domestic violence-related conduct such as revenge porn, sextoration and committing a crime of violence in the presence of a minor.
The broader scope of domestic violence offenses, in addition to factors related to the COVID-19 pandemic, led to a sharp increase in criminal cases. In 2020, there were 325 misdemeanors and 57 felonies related to domestic violence, but that number was surpassed through just the first nine months of 2021, with prosecutors often double- and triple-booked for sex offense trials. As a result, the State’s Attorney’s Office received approval from the county to create a separate Domestic Violence Unit to handle the surge in cases.
“We have had the need for a unit for many, many years,” says Frederick County State’s Attorney Charlie Smith. “We recognize that domestic violence units are really a best practice within a prosecutor’s office and that is a practice that we had not been engaging in. … What we realized was a majority of domestic violence in Frederick County and, quite frankly across the United States, is really on the misdemeanor level. We had not been effectively addressing that so we found the need for a much more focused unit for domestic violence prosecution one that focused not only on felonies but [also] on the misdemeanors.”
Engler notes domestic violence cases are different than any other type of crime in the way prosecutors interact with victims. A specialized unit allows prosecutors to know the survivors because many cases, sadly, occur again. “You will have a case where something low level happens and then all of the sudden—sometimes within weeks, sometimes within years—the relationship will have progressed to something that is potentially deadly,” she says. “So, if we can intervene at every stage, particularly those early stages, the theory is you can intervene and intersect and stop the violence from becoming lethal, hopefully, as much as you can.”
The unit aims to be a resource for survivors not only during prosecution but if they need help later as well. Engler notes “sometimes as the prosecution is happening, the victims are not able to fully participate. They are either still in the abusive relationship or they are trapped in a cycle of violence with the abuser and the abuser is calling the shots from behind the scenes, and as a prosecutor that can be very difficult.” The need for the prosecutor and victim witness coordinator to build trust with survivors is crucial as the victims work through their own process to realize that the relationship is dangerous to them.
Survivors will, in many cases, reach out again to prosecutors. “So, whereas in the beginning of a prosecution when we originally see them, you may not be connecting, but they remember how you treated them, they remember the resources you were able to give them and the time you were able to take with them,” Engler says. “Several years later, the victim will call and say, ‘This has been going on. He is on probation. I am ready to leave and I need help.’” When they reach out, the victims can discover the resource they have in the domestic violence unit, which consists of two full-time prosecutors, two victim witness coordinators, a staff member who works with body camera and digital evidence review and an investigator.
One critical aspect to the unit is getting out into the county and addressing domestic violence as a community health problem. “I think people need to know that the role of the prosecutor is not just to hold criminal offenders accountable but to go out and liaison and cooperate with other partner agencies to ensure that we reduce it, not just address it as it comes to us,” Smith says. “I think that it is critical that people understand that the role of prosecutor goes far beyond the courtroom.”
Last year, the Frederick County Domestic Violence Coordinating Council was created, with Engler serving as chair. The group includes a diverse array of county institutions and local organizations advising government agencies on ways to stop domestic violence and help survivors and their families.
Pam Holtzinger, a registered nurse and supervisor of forensic nursing services at Frederick Health Hospital, notes she has seen how healthcare has changed over the years. There was a time when there wasn’t much collaboration across multiple organizations as they each worked on their own areas. “Really where the good work happens is when we work together,” she says. “… The importance of this is that truly for the first time in our history, and I will speak specifically for Frederick County, that the formulation of this Domestic Violence Coordinating Council legitimizes the importance of teamwork that is going to be able to recognize and implement best practices or promising practices that is going to result in meaningful impact because violence is a healthcare issue. But it goes beyond just Frederick Health Hospital. It goes into every facet of our community, every aspect of our community is touched by it, but people don’t see it because it is what I call a hidden epidemic.”
Holtzinger believes the domestic violence unit as well as the council is the best approach to that epidemic. “There are so many components to understanding and impacting all of the concerns in a domestic violence or intimate partner situation,” she says. By working together, she says, they can hopefully address the many issues facing survivors.
Smith wants survivors to know they did the right thing by calling authorities. For many years, he has seen domestic violence reporting shunned. “They feel theyTe are at fault for their own abuse and that is not the case,” he says. Authorities have found if abuse goes unreported, many times the abuser will move on to other victims. “[Survivors] have to understand not only are they a part of making themselves well but preventing it from happening to others.”
Engler hopes survivors will “realize that the criminal justice system in the community, as a whole, is here to help them and it is here to promote their safety and empower them to participate in the process,” Engler says “… Domestic violence isn’t acceptable and they deserve a healthy and happy and safe relationship.”