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Domestic violence court, funded by original Violence Against Women Act, to open in October

BEMIDJI – There will be no new courtroom or freshly-hired judges.

But there will be a specific and finely tuned focus: domestic violence.

And according to Deb Miller, Coordinator of the Beltrami County Domestic Violence Court, Bemidji needs it.

“Right now it’s about 55 a month,” she said.

As in 55 cases of domestic violence, ranging from physical abuse, to assaults, to threats with deadly weapons.

“That’s more than one a day.”

Cases that make it to court, however, are not representative of the totality of the crime. According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, one-quarter of all physical assaults, one-fifth of all rapes and one-half of incidents of stalking against women are reported to police.

“I would hope those numbers increase,” Miller said.

The Office on Violence Against Women, born of the 1994 act of the same name, is responsible for funding the court, expected to open in October.

“We just saw a need,” Miller said. “What we have, our ratio of population to domestic violence, it is high.”

The court, which is more policy than physical place, will focus on continuity for cases and, most importantly, Miller said, holding perpetrators accountable for their actions.

“They will be appearing in court in front of the same judge every three weeks, who will be given updates,” she said. “Whatever those orders are, the probation officers will be given updates. It’s a one-family, one-judge model.”

The judges – Paul Benshoof, Shari Schlucter and John Melbye – are the same who hear cases every day at the Beltrami County Courthouse, but in their new roles, they will see domestic violence cases through from beginning to end.

Miller is optimistic that this approach will result in increased safety for victims, and reduce the number of repeat offenders.

“We have perpetrators who are here two, three, four times and they keep coming back,” Miller said. “My hope is that the number of victims coming forward will increase, because they will be safer than they were before.”

A grant of $455,000, to be used over the next three years, will pay for training for judges, coordination with stakeholders and at least one trip to view an operating domestic violence court.

Miller recently travelled to Louisville, Ky. in order to observe a court that has been in operation for ten years.

“It’s a well-oiled machine,” she said, noting rates of domestic violence that have dropped since the creation of the court.

As with any program funded by taxpayers, Miller knows her court, and others around the country are under close scrutiny.

“This grant isn’t paying for a $17 muffin; it isn’t paying for $1 muffin,” she said.

Miller was referring to a 2011 Justice Department Inspector General audit that detailed lavish spending by government employees at conferences.

That won’t be the case for her court, Miller said.

“The Office on Violence Against Women does a great job of monitoring. If we can show them our numbers are dropping, our chances of a continuation of this grant increase greatly,” she said. “It’s no frills.”

And while the funds are provided by a federal agency almost 20 years old, the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act on Thursday is a boon to Miller’s work.

“It gives credibility to these efforts,” she said. “Any time you can have exposure to these issues in any way so people, they’re thinking about it, they’re reading about it, they’re knowing that it’s out there, that’s a good thing.

“We need to quit walking on eggshells. We need to call it like it is and not be afraid. If you’re an offender, we’re going to call you that.”

At 55 a month, Miller has a challenge.

“My vision is that Bemidji can be a model for the nation.” 

Justin Glawe
Reporting on crime, courts and Beltrami county government. Follow me on Twitter @JustinGlawe.
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