It’s Everyone’s Business: Domestic Violence in Fargo-Moorhead


 

He tried to make it look like a suicide. After shooting his wife, Elizabeth, in the head in February 2013, Ronald Rogers, Jr. carefully placed the gun near her hand and called the Fargo Police Department. Rogers told officers that he and Elizabeth had been arguing when she pulled out the weapon and unloaded twice in his direction. He tried to disarm her, Rogers said, but before he could take the gun away, she turned it on herself and pulled the trigger. The thing is, Rogers was lying. He’s serving 30 years in prison.

Nine months later, David Stevens showed up at his ex-girlfriend’s apartment in Fargo to pick up some personal items. When Stevens discovered his ex and her new boyfriend at the apartment, something snapped and he pulled out the serrated knife he’d been carrying. Stevens methodically stabbed the couple, leaving the knife lodged in his ex’s head. When he called police, Stevens calmly admitted to the murders. “She’s out in the parking lot dead,” he told officers.

Fargo recorded three homicides in 2013. All of them were victims of domestic violence. Domestic violence can look, sound, and feel different each time. Extremely violent or deadly incidents that include severe beatings or the use of weapons, grab the most attention. Subversive or less-visible domestic violence like emotional abuse, coercion, isolation, and intimidation is equally gut-wrenching. Even though the Fargo-Moorhead community is generally thought of, and referred to, as “safe,” we are not exempt from the harsh realities of domestic violence (as evidenced by the trio of murders last year).

The Village Family Magazine compiled statistics from several local law enforcement agencies and advocacy groups to demonstrate the prevalence of intimate partner violence in our region. Here are the numbers of domestic violence calls to 911 that area police departments responded to in 2013.

Fargo Police Department: 2081
West Fargo Police Department: 334
Moorhead Police Department: 635
Dilworth Police Department: 96

“There isn’t a certain age, race, gender, or economics behind domestic violence,” says Lt. Duane Sall, a 22-year veteran of the West Fargo Police Department. “Every situation is different because domestic violence doesn’t happen to one type of person and isn’t perpetrated by one type of person.”

The majority of victims, however, are women. For this article, we will refer to victims as women, but we acknowledge that men are victims of abuse, too (see sidebar on page 41). The National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey from 2010 states that “more than one-third of women in the U.S. have experienced rape, physical violence, and/or stalking by an intimate partner at some point in their lifetime.” Most cases are never reported to the police. FBI data gathered from police records shows that one-third of female homicide victims are killed by an intimate partner.

DOMESTICS
The bulk of domestic violence calls to which F-M area police officers respond result in charges of simple assault. Yet there is nothing simple about policing and prosecuting a domestic violence incident. These service calls are among the most challenging for law enforcement officers because they are turbulent, unpredictable, psychologically demanding, and heartbreakingly sad.

“It’s got to be one of the least favorite calls an officer goes on,” says Tod Dahle, a former longtime Fargo police officer who is currently earning his doctorate in criminal justice at NDSU. “You know you’re going into a volatile situation that can often be dangerous to everyone involved. It’s one of those things that officers have to learn to deal with and some of them struggle with it their entire career.”

Domestic violence service calls, or “domestics” as they’re referred to in police culture, are broken down into several categories. These categories are relatively similar in North Dakota and Minnesota.

Threats of intimidation are just that—when your intimate partner uses coercion or threatens violent action against you or your loved ones, or damage to your property.

Simple assaults involve things like slapping, scratching, and hitting that leave a person with minor injuries that don’t require medical care.

A misdemeanor assault results in more significant injuries like cuts requiring stitches, swollen or black eyes, or maybe a broken nose.

An aggravated assault leaves a person with serious bodily injury. They might suffer a permanent disfigurement or a broken bone or are repeatedly struck in the same place (like the face or stomach). If anything was used as a weapon, it’s an aggravated assault.

One of the biggest changes in domestic violence laws in the previous decade is making strangulation a felony. Minnesota upped the charge from a misdemeanor in 2005; North Dakota followed suit a couple of years later. Under the new definition (we’ll use Minnesota’s wording), strangulation is considered the “intentional impediment of normal breathing or circulation of the blood by applying pressure on the throat or neck or by blocking the nose or mouth of another person.” In other words, strangulation doesn’t just mean grabbing someone around the neck with two hands and choking them until they black out. It could mean covering their mouth and preventing them from calling for help.

Due to the delicate and complicated nature of domestics, officers go through an extraordinary amount of training to help them communicate with victims and collect evidence. Officers now try to spend more time learning the backstory of the domestic abuse situation, how often it escalates, why it is happening, and what occurs when it does.

“We try to ask more open-ended questions like, ‘What was happening before he got violent?’ and ‘How did it make you feel?’ so victims have an opportunity to tell us about themselves,” says detective Chris Nichtern, a domestic violence specialist with the Fargo Police Department. “If we only concentrated on the injury we could see, like a black eye, we’d be missing the whole rest of this victim’s story.”

WHEN VICTIMS LEAVE 
In the Red River Valley, female domestic violence victims needing shelter are referred to the YWCA Emergency Shelter (men are referred to Churches United for the Homeless). This secure and anonymous facility offers women and children a safe place to live while they transition into their next stage of life. In 2013, 665 women and 664 children considered the Y Emergency Shelter their home for part of the year; 54% of those women sought shelter because of domestic violence.

Victims arrive on the YWCA’s doorstep at all hours of the day and night and in every condition imaginable, says Angela McKibben, shelter services director at the YWCA Emergency Shelter in Fargo.

“We see people who strategically plan their escape. We see women who show up at 3 a.m. with only the clothes on their backs. We had one woman visit us during the day while her husband was at work, so she could work out her exit strategy for her and her children,” explains McKibben. “She hired a cab to bring her and her children over to us so her husband would still see her car in their driveway. Whether they’ve planned it, or are leaving from the emergency room, or because law enforcement helped them, they arrive in crisis.”

WHY DO THEY STAY?
It’s not the first time many of them have left, though. In fact, says McKibben, many victims attempt to leave up to ten times before it sticks. Many people wonder, “Why do victims stay?”

McKibben suggests the question needs to come from the other direction and examine the perpetrator. “We need to challenge ourselves. Why does the abuser hit? Why does he use verbal abuse? Emotional? We need to look at these situations through a different lens.”

Understanding why victims stay may be crucial, however, in building a greater understanding of the barriers toward leaving an abusive relationship. Until you can grasp what prevents a battered woman from escaping her abuser, it’s hard to build compassion for her as a victim.

Domestic violence victims stay for reasons the rest of us don’t understand—like because they still love him or he promised to change. But more than that, it’s about fear. Women are afraid what will happen if he catches them trying to leave. They are afraid they won’t be able to support their children. They’re afraid they’ll end up on the streets. They are afraid they’ll never find another man who will love them. For women who have been beaten down and not allowed to make decisions, these are very real and compelling fears that don’t have easy solutions.

Children are also a huge part of the equation. Victims are often concerned their abusers will hurt their kids or try to take them away if they find out they’re planning to leave. Some victims are also worried they won’t be able to care for their children on their own, especially if they’ve been prevented from having a job and earning money.

Children who grow up in violent homes, though, have a high rate of continuing the cycle of abuse. Break the Cycle, a nationwide nonprofit agency that provides dating abuse education, reports the number one reason that abuse transfers generations is because of kids seeing violence between their parents or caretakers. One study suggests boys who witness domestic violence are twice as likely to abuse their own partners and children when they become adults. Anna Frissell, Executive Director of Red River Children’s Advocacy Center—an FM area agency devoted to preventing and treating child abuse victims—says kids who see their moms stay in an abusive relationship develop long-lasting characteristics that are hard to reverse.

“A common theme we see in parents from violent households is this sense that their children aren’t affected by the abuse because maybe they don’t directly see it. Maybe it happens behind closed doors,” explains Frissell. “But most, if not all, children who live in a home with violence are aware of it. Toddlers are not too young. They will eventually take on roles and responsibilities to try to keep the peace, and in turn, are often put in the middle of the fight.”

Despite these long-lasting side effects, and regardless of why a woman may choose to stay, it’s important to remember the abuse is not her fault. She is the victim of a crime.

BUILDING A CASE
The way officers approach the scene of a domestic has changed dramatically in recent years.

“In the old days, if police would’ve shown up and found the guy knocked out, she [the victim] would’ve gone to jail no matter what,” says Nichtern.

Victim blaming, where people would ask, “What did you do to provoke him?” was common and there was widespread misunderstanding about abuse. Thanks to education, advocacy, training, and changes to laws, police and court systems are much more understanding of the circumstances that precipitated an event like this and investigate further.

Now, law enforcement always has digital recording devices and squad car cameras running to capture all the sound and video when they arrive. In most cases, they keep these devices running as they separate the perpetrator and the victim and begin interviewing key witnesses. Officers take multiple pictures of the victim’s injuries and of the scene to corroborate what the victim tells them. They use worksheets designed to help them assess the victim and the situation. If warranted by the information gathered, the officers will recommend victims seek counseling and services from area agencies.

When you consider that 70% of all domestic violence victims will take back their story, you begin to understand why advocates to prevent domestic violence lobbied federal and state governments and law enforcement departments to beef up their protocols.

“Recanting is the most frustrating thing I encounter,” confides Nichtern. “You know it’s so bad for victims. But I get calls every day from victims who want to take back a police report. They don’t want their husband, boyfriend, whatever in trouble.”

There is one case in particular that haunts Nichtern to this day. When he showed up on scene, a woman was beaten to a pulp and just coming back from the throes of unconsciousness after being knocked out from a vicious sucker punch. He talked with her several times a day for weeks, visited her at home, showed her pictures from the attack, and offered her advice and support.

“I really thought I was getting through to her and she was finally feeling that it was OK to make a change,” he says quietly.

But then she started putting his calls directly to voicemail. She wouldn’t answer her door. She refused to cooperate in court. One day, she mistakenly answered her phone and Nichtern could hear her in the background telling her abuser that, “this Fargo cop won’t leave me alone.” Now Nichtern was the bad guy.

“That really sucked,” is all he can say about it now, although the disappointment and sense of failure reflects in his eyes.

The changes that investigators have made are paying off in the courtroom, though. Even if a victim recants, the video and audio recordings, photographs, and documents and questionnaires that a victim fills out on scene, can all be entered into evidence. No longer does a victim have to testify against her abuser (although she is guaranteed that right by law if she wants to). Juries can hear the hysterical 911 calls, the shouting as officers arrive on scene, and audio interviews of the victim and abuser.

The process seems to be working. Law enforcement recognizes there are still an extraordinary number of victims who recant, but more abusers are pleading out and heading to jail because they can’t dispute the evidence. Nichtern says, as a nation, law enforcement and the court system have come a long way in protecting victims and charging abusers. Every state now has a mandatory arrest law that requires officers to make an arrest if they find evidence of domestic violence.

Even still, there are countless incidents that police never hear about. According to the National Violence Against Women survey, only about one-quarter of all physical assaults against women are ever reported.

EDUCATION/AWARENESS
Domestic violence isn’t kept behind closed doors anymore, either. Besides changes to cops and courts, public awareness campaigns are paying off. One attention-grabbing concept puts images of victims onto billboards throughout Fargo-Moorhead with the tagline, “It’s Everyone’s Business.”

Nichtern says more domestics are being called in than ever before, whether from victims or witnesses.

“I think it’s working,” he says. “If our numbers are going up, maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe everyone is making it their business.”

Of course, the other way of looking at it is that more domestic assaults are happening in Fargo-Moorhead. There isn’t a way (yet) to quantify a correlation between the campaign and the numbers of domestic violence incident calls and subsequent arrests.

A groundbreaking awareness program, pioneered by Rape and Abuse Crisis Center in Fargo, is called “I Wish the Hitting Would Stop,” and it educates kids about the issue of domestic violence. It’s available to 4th and 5th graders in Fargo and West Fargo schools and Dahle, who has studied this program extensively, says very few places in the country have attempted elementary education on domestic violence.

“It’s right before they’re entering into dating relationships and it’s the perfect time to start introducing this issue,” says Dahle. “Some of them might have been exposed to violence at home and they’ll bring that into their own relationships if they’re not taught otherwise. This program, hopefully, can break the cycle in some homes.”

The sad truth is that domestic violence will always exist. And stories about the victims will continue to shock and sadden us. Even after 17 years as a police officer, Nichtern doesn’t understand why it happens.

“I’m 40 and I get mad sometimes. But it’s never, in my entire life, entered into my mind that it would be OK to hit a woman in the face or push her down. How does that happen for people? How do you get to the point where physical violence against someone you love is OK?”

That is an impossible question to answer.

After a decade spent in Fargo-Moorhead, freelance writer Patricia Carlson now calls Florida home. She writes for publications across the country and crafts strategic website and marketing content for small businesses. Check out her work at www.patriciacarlsonfreelance.com.

Men Get Hit, Too: Domestic Violence Isn’t Just Against Women

By Patricia Carlson

It was the elevator fight seen around the world. When singer Solange Knowles kicked and punched her brother-in-law, Jay Z, following a famous ball in New York City last May, the internet lit up with comments. Most notable among them, “What did Jay Z do to her?” You may not think of that as domestic violence, but ask yourself this: “How would you feel if their roles had been reversed?”

While many victims of domestic violence are women, abuse of men happens more often than most people realize. The statistics are alarming: 28.5% of men have experienced rape, physical violence, and/or stalking by an intimate partner at some point in their lifetime. 4% of men have been injured as a result of intimate partner violence in their lifetime. An estimated 835,000 men are physically assaulted by an intimate partner annually. 5.5% of male homicide victims were murdered by a spouse, ex-spouse, boyfriend, or girlfriend. Men and boys are much less likely to come forward if they’ve been victimized by violence.

The National Center for Victims of Crime reports men and boys share many of the same emotions that women and girls who’ve been abused feel: shame, guilt, humiliation, anger, anxiety, and depression.

“There’s a real gender divide between men and women on how to deal with violence,” says former Fargo police officer Tod Dahle. “Some men even see it as OK and they’re less likely to seek help.”

Men don’t want to admit they’re being abused for a number of reasons, including:

  • Failing to fit the “macho” stereotype
  • Fear of not being believed
  • Lack of support.

The Rape and Abuse Crisis Center has trained advocates who can help men and boys who are victims of, or affected by, violence. Men who are trying to escape an abusive relationship are referred to Churches United for the Homeless. Statistics provided by the National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey, National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, National Violence Against Women Survey, Bureau of Justice Statistics, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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