Huntersville, Davidson drag feet on paying their share
Elected officials and police departments in north Mecklenburg County have said time and again that bringing a victim’s advocate to the area is a priority. But so far, only Cornelius has allocated the $15,000 for United Family Services to create the position.
The regional victim’s advocate would work to help get an abuse victim away from the abuser, guide the victim through the long warrant and court processes and encourage the victim to stick with the case through the end of a trial.
The number of abuse cases varies month to month, and it varies even more across town limits. Capt. Ken Richardson, of the Huntersville Police Department, reported officers responded to 249 cases of domestic abuse in 2010, while Davidson Police Chief Jeanne Miller reported 25 cases for the same time period.
Cornelius reported 72 calls for domestic disturbance in 2010 but noted that not all were problems between spouses. Cornelius had 33 cases of assault on a female in 2010.
In the past, Davidson commissioners have expressed hesitance to ante up their $15,000, citing the town’s lower rate. But the funding from each town also would pave the way to getting a magistrate stationed in north Mecklenburg.
Kathryn Firmin-Sellers, United Family Services region director for Mooresville and Lake Norman, said recognizing the need is more than looking at raw data.
“Part of the difficulty is that it’s such an underreported crime,” she said, or cases involving domestic violence might get filed under a noise complaint or other code instead. “So when you actually pull the data and look at it, it doesn’t look like it’s an issue.”
“Yes, it is underreported. We’re finding that out,” Richardson said. “There’s more business in that than we thought there was.”
Firmin-Sellers has reported to Cornelius, Davidson and Huntersville town boards that, on the national average, one in four women older than 14 have been victims of domestic or sexual abuse.
Firmin-Sellers met with the towns last March and April, and then Cornelius approved funding more than six months later. She met again with Davidson in January, but the board was still not prepared to make the annual commitment.
Mayor John Woods said the town will continue to try to work out its portion of the funding. Woods also expressed concern with the annual commitment, and he hopes if Davidson allocates its share for the first year, there will be room to renegotiate based on how often the town needs the advocate.
Creating the position will cost $75,000 annually, which includes the advocate’s salary, office space, equipment, mileage and training. United Family Services and the county have pledged $15,000. It’s up to Huntersville and Davidson to cover the remaining $30,000.
Huntersville’s Capt. Richardson said he sees the need for the advocate.
“There’s a lot of victims out there that need help, and I think people forget about that end of it a lot of times,” he said.
Huntersville, with help from a state grant, created a position in its police department called the victim’s advocate in the fall, and Detective Susan Espinoza took over that role.
“It’s amazing what she’s done in this six-month period as far as helping people go through the court system, know what their rights are and know what the system can do for them,” Richardson said.
But Firmin-Sellers and Richardson said Espinoza’s role as a sworn officer is different from the victim’s advocate position at United Family Services.
“We try to stay independent in this,” Richardson said. “Whenever we show up at someone’s house, we can’t take someone’s side. The police department’s job is to get to the truth.(Espinoza) can’t really go down there and be just a voice for the victim. She has to go down and tell exactly what the facts are.”
“You’ve seen a fairly steady documentation from (Espinoza’s) work of the need in the area,” Firmin-Sellers said.
Richardson said there’s something to be said for the number of undocumented cases, too.
“It’s 249 reported – either assault on a female or domestic violence – but now (Espinoza) has dealt with a lot more than that,” he said.
But in Davidson, where there is no specific domestic abuse caseworker, officials still acknowledge the importance of advocating for victims.
“The last couple (of domestic violence cases) that we’ve had, we’ve actually had the detective go down and work with them through the system,” Davidson’s Chief Miller said. “It’s not easy, and it can be intimidating.”
Davidson College hasn’t really been included in the conversation, even though that women who are 18 to 24 and live on a college campus are at the highest risk for sexual assault.
Campus Police Chief Adrienne Murray said she is careful not to underestimate the attacks on campus, even though the campus had only two cases of forcible sex offenses in 2009 – the most recent year data was available.
“We have to look at national data and know that students are more at risk than people their same age who are not enrolled in college,” Murray said. “I think we’d be naïve to think that isn’t the case at Davidson. It’s the case all over the United States at every college and university.”
Murray said she would treat a north Meck victim’s advocate as an additional resource, since the campus already has many ways to help students with problems of abuse.
“I don’t think you can ever offer a crime victim too many avenues for help,” she said. “It would be foolish not to make that office available to a student, just like we would any other citizen of north Meck.”
Richardson noted the need is growing as more people become comfortable with coming forward. “(Espinoza) doesn’t have many minutes to sit around. She stays busy as can be.”
For now, Firmin-Sellers is working to show the need is greater than it appears.
“It’s partly because the local numbers are not that persuasive,” she said. “But it’s terrifically underreported, and we know, based on all the best research, that victims aren’t going to come forward until there are systems in place, because it’s just not safe.”