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N.C. Taking a Step Toward Fighting Domestic Violence

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RALEIGH — Officials in North Carolina took a big stepMonday afternoon in the fight against domestic violence. Now the state hasa special court focusing strictly on violence within families.

The first day in the court went fairly slowly, but that shouldn't bethe case for long. There are thousands of domestic violence cases on thebooks in Wake County and, once the court catches up on the backlog, thingsshould move more quickly.

The court system's goal is to allow workers to become more involvedwith families in trouble. The theory is that if court workers get to knowthe people involved, they can become more familiar with patterns ofviolence.

In an effort to promote more consistency, one district attorney and onejudge will be assigned to see cases through the system.

Couples who want to have their cases dropped will find it harder to doso. The Marshalls say they have had some trouble figuring out where to go.

The reason it is more difficult for people to drop charges once they'vebeen filed is that many repeat offenders attempt to have their casesdropped. Court officials say they need to keep such families in the systemas they try to stop violent trends.

Offenders can be fined and sentenced up to 150 days in jail formisdemeanor assault on a female. First time offenders are likely to besentenced to the Domestic Offenders Sentencing to Education program(DOSE), which provides 98 hours of counseling over 26 weeks.

The more aggressive approach in handling domestic violence cases isn'tlimited to Wake County.Across North Carolina, police departments are increasingly take a toughstance with people who beat their spouses, even incases where spouses later decides they don't want to pursue criminalcharges.

A growing number of police and prosecutors are adopting ``pro-arrest''and ``no-drop'' policies when it comes to domesticabuse charges.

Durham's prosecutors now operate under a ``no-drop'' policy, meaningspousal abuse cases are prosecuted even if the victimchanges his or her mind and wants to drop the charges.

And in 1995, Durham implemented its ``pro-arrest'' policy, in whichofficers are expected to make an arrest if they havesufficient reason to think an assault has occurred or the spouse hasviolated a court order.

Raleigh police have also been given more discretion, but are encouraged tomake arrests in specific circumstances and arerequired to arrest if a trespassing or harassment court order has beenviolated.

The pro-arrest protocol has been on the books in Chapel Hill since 1989.

``Before that, we were following what was popular at the time, which wasto mediate and not make an arrest,'' said JaneCousins, a police spokeswoman. ``Then we realized that assaulting somebodyis a crime. It doesn't matter if it's your wife, yourgirlfriend or a stranger.''

Police are also becoming more meticulous about documenting evidence indomestic violence cases, and several departmentshave created special domestic-violence units.

Rather than take a brief report or none at all, police officers are nowbeing trained to thoroughly document injuries frombeatings and to assess the emotional state of the victims. They are takingphotographs of assaulted spouses, interviewingneighbors, securing copies of 911 calls and records of previous policereports and tracking down restraining orders.

``All of these pieces of evidence can really make a difference when itcomes to getting a conviction,'' said Elizabeth Froehling, aDurham prosecutor who also works only on domestic violence cases.

Studies estimate that one-third of all women treated in emergency roomsare domestic-violence victims and that the leadingcause of workplace death for women is domestic homicide.

- Reporting by WRAL-TV5's Amanda Lamb and the Associated Press