Mesa sees rise in domestic violence - East Valley Tribune: News

Mesa sees rise in domestic violence

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Posted: Friday, June 27, 2008 8:02 pm | Updated: 10:27 pm, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

He sat on her chest, pushed his legs onto her arms and duct-taped her mouth shut. The abuser then choked his girlfriend to the point where she passed out twice. Later this month, a man choked his pregnant girlfriend and threatened to drown her in the pool.

AZ lawmaker booked on domestic violence charge

And on the same day in another home, a man grabbed his girlfriend around the neck, took out a folding knife and chopped off large pieces of her hair.

On average, one person is seriously hurt in a domestic violence incident each day in Mesa and at least three people are injured every day, according to Mesa police statistics.

Domestic violence is up 8 percent in Mesa from 2006 to 2008, and although it went down 2 percent from 2007 to 2008, the problem is continuing.

While Mesa police Chief George Gascón has launched a pilot domestic violence reduction program aimed at reducing the number of incidents, the department is still trying to figure out what it will take to have an impact.

And experts say as the economic downturn continues, women in abusive relationships will have fewer resources to leave and abusers could become more controlling as they lose their grip over finances.

"As they continue to lose power and control in other areas of their life, they might feel a need to exert more power and control over their partners," said Allie Bones, executive director of the Arizona Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

And Alesha Durfee, a domestic violence expert and professor at Arizona State University, said if a woman's job is in jeopardy, it may be harder for her to leave.

"One of the elements of domestic abuse is isolating the victim," Durfee said, "so they don't feel like they have resources from other people or resources themselves."

STOPPING THE CYCLE

Mesa domestic violence specialist Andrea Sierra and Mesa police detectives Tom Serenka and Ryan Douglass work together to tackle domestic violence from both sides - helping and empowering the victims, and arresting and educating the abusers.

"I believe in it," Serenka said of domestic violence enforcement and education. "I believe that some people are in situations and if they don't get someone to help them, they never get out of it."

On average, Serenka and Douglass said they get about five cases a day to work on.

They follow up with witnesses, interview victims, occasionally respond to calls and arrest suspects.

"You'll have days where you catch many and days where you don't catch any," Douglass said.

The detectives and Sierra generally see the worst of the worst cases of domestic violence. Patrol officers usually handle the minor incidents.

Sierra's job is to advise the victims on how to get an order of protection - commonly called a restraining order - and how to access any resources Mesa's Center Against Family Violence can offer.

"I've seen many older sons assault their moms," Sierra said. "I even saw one son sexually assaulting a 72-year-old mom."

Sierra said the job is fulfilling to her, because although people don't always seek help right away - nationally it takes seven times on average before someone gets out of an abusive relationship - she feels that she's helping people get there.

Last week, the group went out in search of a man they believe struck his live-in girlfriend in the lip and ear and left marks on her neck from choking her.

Robert Conley, 28, of Mesa told the detectives his girlfriend was hurt in a "freak accident," when they were horsing around.

"Just tell them exactly what happened," Serenka said.

But instead, Conley cried. He also screamed. He told police "it wasn't like last time."

Conley was arrested and taken to Mesa City Jail.

His girlfriend told detectives she loved him and didn't want him prosecuted, Serenka said.

A MANDATORY ARREST

Cases like Conley's are common, officials and experts say.

Because victims are scared, have no where to go, may feel guilt or believe their abuser will change, they don't always want to prosecute after they're abused.

But victims don't have a choice. Unlike regular assaults - which aren't domestic in nature - a victim of domestic violence doesn't have to agree to prosecution. In fact, Arizona law states that the police must arrest domestic violence suspects, inform the victim that they can get an order of protection and give them emergency phone numbers and contacts for emergency services in the community.

Durfee said this "mandatory arrest policy" has lead to an increase in women getting arrested in connection with domestic violence, even in cases where they may be defending themselves.

"Abusers are getting more savvy, so they get to the phone first and they know what to say to police officers," Durfee said.

Also, Durfee said that statistics repeatedly show that about 8 percent of men are victimized by an intimate partner at some point in their lives, and that while that number remains unchanged, more women are being arrested.

Still, Durfee said the law, passed in 1987, has been successful in helping police take domestic violence more seriously.

"And it alleviates some of the responsibility of the victim," Durfee said.

But another scary trend regarding domestic violence has also emerged, experts say. And that is homicides.

Bones said that in 2005, Arizona had 95 homicides related to domestic violence. In 2006, that number rose to 111, and in 2007, the number reached 126.

"We're also seeing an increase in murder-suicides," Bones said.

Maricopa County currently has 644 beds for women who choose to leave abusive relationships.

Bones said they're all nearly full.

"I think that there were large numbers of women who were seeking help before and we were just turning them away," Bones said, "but now that the beds are out there, they're accessing them."

Bones said that her organization initially thought the economic downturn was playing a role in keeping families together, but since Arizona currently has among the highest foreclosure rates in the country, it could be causing more families to separate.

"While the economy isn't causing domestic violence, it may be exacerbating a situation where domestic violence is already present," Bones said.

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