New Jersey has made strides addressing the interlocking problems of domestic violence and sexual violence, but good intentions still outstrip available resources, according to professionals dealing with the problems.
The state's first "dual conference" on these issues brought 300 social workers, law enforcement, healthcare workers, counselors, and volunteers to the Forrestal Marriott in Plainsboro on September 15. Many cited the turnout as evidence of growing cooperation among those whose efforts often have been fragmented.
But they also pointed to chronically insufficient resources, exacerbated by a June executive order from Gov. Chris Christie sequestering funds for county "rape crisis centers" and related programs until he resolves his dispute with the Legislature over further cuts to state employee pensions.
With consistent need yet shaky funding, "it's so critical for us to be working together" to share strategies and frame responses, said Jane Shivas, executive director of the New Jersey Coalition to End Domestic Violence, one of the event's two sponsors.
In 2014, New Jersey saw 62,055 reported incidents of domestic violence, including 42 murders, Shivas said, citing state police data. Both numbers were down slightly, but arrests were made in only 31 percent of the cases, also down slightly, according to state police.
Last year, reported rapes jumped to 1,311 from 893 in 2014, according to the state police. Through the first eight months of this year, the rate fell to 753 reported cases. Whatever the number, "it's too many," Shivas said.
Carol Bowne of Berlin "did everything she was supposed to do" to free herself from an abusive ex-boyfriend, Shivas said. She got a restraining order, called police to have it enforced, installed security cameras, and applied for a handgun permit. That didn't stop Michael Eitel from repeatedly stabbing her in her driveway last year, "while the security camera recorded the last minutes of her life," Shivas said. Eitel later killed himself.
Annette Torres of Bergenfield called police multiple times, trying to get them to remove her boyfriend Mark Morris from their Bergenfield home. He fatally shot her and then himself in March.
In one week in August, charges were filed in four fatalities: Zachary Tricoche was accused of beating a two-year-old to death in Pennsauken after an altercation with the boy's mother; Timothy Moorman of stabbing his estranged wife to death in Collingswood; Ryan Coles of killing both his parents in West Deptford.
Despite, or perhaps because of, such high-profile cases, conference participants agreed that non-fatal instances of sexual and domestic violence often go unreported. Solid data remain elusive, not only because of the personal trauma and social shaming victims often experience, but because many different agencies — law enforcement, health, counseling — deal with pieces of the problem.
Given this, Sarah McMahon, associate director of the Rutgers Center on Violence Against Women and Children expects the number of cases to rise because many potential victims still are reluctant to come forward, while official response remains fragmented. She said, "We need to have coordinated education and training for many different systems: police, prosecutors, health care providers, counselors."
Events like the conference, bringing representatives of different groups together in one place, are important "to make sure people understand the issues and the perspectives of the victims," said McMahon, who also chairs the state.
With information dispersed among many agencies, researchers are still piecing together an overview of what is happening within the system, both overall and to individuals, she said. Sometimes, simply seeing records compiled from various agencies can be revealing, she said. McMahon noted that "One of the things we find is that in a number of cases the behaviors that led to homicides started in high school."
Deterrence and enforcement are one side of the coin, but professionals responding to cases also need to coordinate their interactions with victims, Shivas said. "We're talking about trauma," which may leave victims unable to fully respond to police, counselors or others trying to be helpful, she said. Rather than get frustrated, investigators, counselors, and others should take the approach that "if I don't understand your behavior, it's because I don't have enough history," Shivas said,
As a practical matter, one useful step would be extending the state's current two-year time limit for sexual abuse victims to file lawsuits, said Patricia Teffenhart, executive director of the New Jersey Coalition Against Sexual Assault, the other sponsor of the conference.
"In two years, many victims are still trying to process what happened to them" and can scarcely talk about it, Teffenhart said. State Sen. Joseph Vitale has tried for several years to extend the statute of limitations to 30 years, to allow abused children to come forward later in life. But, according to Teffenhart, that effort has become entangled in the sexual abuse scandal affecting Catholic priests. That has raised the question of "charitable immunity, and whether we're going to bankrupt organizations doing good works, which is obviously not our intent," she said.
Another way to support victims is to confront the "rape culture" so casually displayed in some areas of the media and society, Teffenhart said. Cases like that of Stanford University swimmer Brock Turner highlight how indifference to rape plus systemic bias can infect the justice system, she said. Turner was convicted of three counts of sexual assault, but sentenced to only six months of which he served 90 days.
"A young, white, privileged male" is far less likely to be held accountable than poorer or minority defendants, Teffenhart said. Similarly, minority victims of violence also can face difficult challenges obtaining support and justice, she said.
The “level of outrage" over the Turner decision is a positive sign that provides "evidence of the culture shifting," said Rob Baran, Teffenhart's deputy and one of a handful of men at the conference.
The two agreed this seems a good time and place to be involved in pressing for change. New Jersey is in a better position than many states, in that it has a full complement of county-level agencies dealing with issues of interpersonal violence.
Some already are trying the coordinated approach advocated at the conference, according to Teffenhart. She and others praised agencies in Essex and Morris counties and the Gloucester Township police department, which is working with many partners. The state Attorney General's Office has fast-tracked meetings to consider policy initiatives.
All that positive activity left participants even more startled that Gov. Chris Christie withheld more than $4 million in funding for county anti-violence programs on June 30.
The funding was collateral damage from Christie's ongoing dispute with legislative Democrats over his desire for further cuts in public employee pensions. Citing "skyrocketing health care costs,"to his proposed budget, including those that merely continued established programs.
"It's difficult for us to see the connection," said Nicole Morella, public policy and communications director for the domestic violence coalition.
While some of agencies are able to ride out the shortfall, at least for now, Morella said others — particularly in rural areas — are already hard-pressed to fill the need. They face significant cuts in services and personnel, she said.