Domestic violence grant prohibits Washington County from forcing victims to participate in criminal cases

WASHINGTON COUNTY, TN (WJHL) – The grant Washington County uses to prosecute domestic violence cases prohibits the First Judicial District Attorney’s Office from forcing victims to participate in criminal proceedings, according to a review of records by News Channel 11.

The $216,000, three-year STOP Domestic Violence Against Women grant funds the district’s domestic violence prosecutor through June 30, 2018.

“Requiring victims to report sexual assault, stalking, or domestic violence crimes to law enforcement or forcing victims to participate in criminal proceedings” is listed under the grant’s unallowable costs relating to activities that compromise victim safety and recovery.

“There is one of the special conditions that identifies that they not force prosecution on the victim and they’re well aware of that at this point,” Tennessee Office of Criminal Justice Programs Director Bill Scollon said. “You identified what the main issue is, what the big issue is and we are continuing to work with them, but we think that it’s been rectified.”

According to Scollon, the state wants prosecutors to be able to continue using the grant money, since the agency is successfully prosecuting hundreds of other domestic cases and “doing good in other ways.” Scollon says he doesn’t doubt that prosecutors previously had the best intentions at heart, but he says his office’s primary focus is victim safety. He says his office has since offered guidance, not just to the district attorney’s office, but to others involved in the process in hopes that everyone can come to a consensus about the best way to hold offenders accountable, but more importantly, protect victims and make sure their needs are met.

“We feel that the victims will be better served as of today and these agencies, prosecutor’s office, victim’s service agencies, will continue to meet and improve what they have going as of today,” Scollon said.

Our Community Watchdog investigation previously found more than a dozen victims who were held in contempt of court after they failed to obey a subpoena to appear and testify.

Earlier this month, District Attorney Tony Clark defended his office’s rare involvement in jailing victims, including some of the most serious cases where victims alleged significant acts of violence.

“How do we do our jobs if any and all witnesses or any and all victims say, ‘I just don’t want to come to court?'” Clark asked. “Those are the cases that we most want people to come to court on. We want that individual to come to court even if they don’t want to. We want that individual to come to court to help us stop that cycle and it could be to prevent harm to them or another individual at some point.”

Safe Passage Program Director Lynn Armstrong says she’s still in shock from our original discovery, but the domestic violence shelter director thinks over time the situation will now improve.

“I am relieved,” Armstrong said. “I’m hoping this situation maybe brought to light something before it ballooned into a horrible, horrible mess for a lot of families. It is never okay to arrest victims for not showing up to court, because we don’t know what’s going on behind closed doors. Progress takes time and I hope that the community is looking at it from the perspective of what it would be like to be in a victim’s shoes.”

In addition to improved communication, the Office of Criminal Justice Programs expects more police officers in our area will receive more training to investigate domestic violence as a result of this.

Clark opted against commenting about the grant, because he says he wants to first talk directly with the Office of Criminal Justice Programs. The office’s assistant director said the DA’s desire to fix the issue is “huge.” Jennifer Brinkman said the Washington County community has made a significant effort in recent years to fight domestic violence and this is “an unfortunate side effect.”

“While this particular incident was not wonderful, they’re doing more than a lot of other communities are and that needs to be celebrated,” Brinkman said.

Copyright WJHL 2016. All rights reserved.

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