Rutland Advocates And Police Work Side By Side To Reduce Domestic Violence
Sunday, hundreds of people, many tottering on red high heels, are expected to take part in a special fundraising walk in downtown Rutland.
The Walk a Mile in Her Shoes campaign has raised more than $50,000 for the Rutland County Women’s Network and Shelter.
Organizers say a series of eye catching photographs of local leaders in red pumps in promotion of the event have done even more to raise awareness for an issue that has hit the area hard over the last few years.
In 2013, Rutland had the highest domestic violence fatality rate in the state. And per capita, more people seek out protection from abuse orders in Rutland County than in other parts of Vermont.
But advocates and local law enforcement say stronger collaborative efforts to fight domestic violence are helping.
Jenn Firpo is an advocate with the Rutland County Women’s Network and Shelter and for the last three years, she’s spent part of every week working at the Rutland City Police Department.
Her office at the station is warm and inviting, and Firpo makes sure she to always have plenty of candy on hand. She says the welcoming environment is by design.
“Officers come in here to grab a snack, then they plop down into one of my comfy chairs and that’s when we start talking,” she says. “Maybe it’s what happened over the weekend when I wasn’t here, or a case that’s been bugging them. They wonder what could they have done differently.”
“And sometimes they come in here and say, ‘So Jenn, what are you doing? Wanna go for a ride?’” Firpo added.
Firpo says she doesn’t go with police to active domestic violence incidents but goes on follow-up visits, and gives advice or shares information about a family the shelter may already be familiar with.
Sgt. Matt Prouty has been with the Rutland City Police Department more than 20 years, and values Firpo’s contributions to the team.
“Having an imbedded advocate is incredible,” he says, “because there’s that personal relationship. You could say, ‘hey we were at this house and it didn’t go well for us so we gave them your number, can you reach out to them?’”
Besides creating relationships, Firpo has also helped usher in procedural changes that help police assess the potential danger of a domestic situation.
When officers feel a victim faces an imminent threat, Prouty says officers now call an advocate and hand the phone directly to the victim, at the scene.
“It’s amazing,” he says. “You think, ‘hey we’re being really kind and we’re trying to be as empathetic as possible.” And (then) we follow the procedure and make the phone call. The next thing you know, they’re packing up their stuff (and) they have a hotel that they’re going to. All the things that we tried to do earlier.”
But Prouty says, “It wasn’t 'til they go on the phone with the advocate - who met those needs that victims have - that the police just can’t meet.”
Avaloy Lanning, executive director of the Rutland County Women’s Network and Shelter, says they’re not only working more closely with police, but with Rutland Mental Health, the state’s attorney and other local support services.
“We have per capita a higher number of protection orders that are requested than anywhere else in the state. But,” says Lanning, “I don’t believe Rutland County has more domestic violence than anywhere else in the state. I believe it’s a reflection of the positive work that’s happening here through our partnership with mental health providers, with law enforcement and getting the word out that there is help.”
Rose Kennedy, Rutland County State’s Attorney says fighting domestic violence is incredibly difficult and she agrees a team approach is important.
Kennedy says she has just hired a part time domestic violence investigator with money from a federal grant to help with the high number of domestic violence cases her office handles. She also reassigned deputy state’s attorney Ian Sullivan, to work exclusively on domestic violence cases.
She has asked Sullivan to try to meet with clients within thirty days of an arraignment. Kennedy says that helps reassure victims that they’re a priority as well as reminding them of the importance of holding abusers accountable.
“You have the conversation that you’re not trying to send their loved one to jail forever but you want to hold them accountable,” Kennedy explained. “And that may mean probation or counseling or things like that.”
She says people are beginning to understand that we are not dismissing cases, but instead are taking them to trial.
“That’s a big change,” she says. “People are starting to realize that if they take the plunge and call the police it might actually result in something.”
Jenn Firpo says unfortunately, these new efforts were not fully in place in 2013 when four Rutland County residents lost their lives to domestic violence.
“But we’re hoping that these programs and partnership are going to mean that we’ll catch these things before they become an issue.” And hopefully, adds Firpo, “that will be the last time that we lead the state in domestic violence homicides.”