As 2016 comes to a close, Carroll County is on track for more than one new domestic violence case per day.
The Carroll County State's Attorney's Office handled about 352 new cases that were marked special victims or domestically related between Jan. 1 and Dec. 13, according to Senior Assistant State's Attorney Brenda Harkavy.
It's an increase of about 119 instances from the previous year. In 2015, the State's Attorney's Office handled about 233 cases, Harkavy said.
The statistic can be misleading because, while Harkavy said it was a significant rise, it doesn't necessarily mean that there were more cases of domestic violence in 2016. Instead, the rise can be attributed to more victims reporting instances and law enforcement filing more reports.
The 352 cases also do not include any in which the incident occurred in 2015 but was prosecuted in 2016, Harkavy said.
One of the 352 cases was the August killing of Kandi Gerber. Gerber's boyfriend, Bret Wheeler, is charged in her death along with their former roommate, Robert Bosley.
Another alleged domestic violence murder landed on a prosecutor's desk Friday, after Robert Charles Schech Sr. was arrested and charged with arson and first-degree murder in connection with a November fire that killed his wife.
The rise does not mean domestic violence hasn't had an extensive history in Carroll, but instead there's more awareness on the topic now, Harkavy said.
"I think domestic violence is a huge problem out here, but it's been hidden behind doors," she said.
Carroll is not alone. Harkavy said it's a public health problem affecting the entire country.
"It's an epidemic," Harkavy said.
Not reporting domestic violence can also skew the amount of reported instances in Carroll County, and with domestic violence, not every victim is ready to press charges or cooperate with prosecutors, State's Attorney Brian DeLeonardo said.
"It's eerily similar to drug abuse in that you don't always know when they want help," DeLeonardo said.
Challenges with reporting
According to the most recent statistics available from the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, there were 16,817 domestic violence crimes in Maryland in 2014. The coalition and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that about one in three women and one in four men have experienced some type of violence, including sexual or physical, by an intimate partner in their lifetime.
According to 2015 Census data, there were about 66,074 women and 64,507 men older than 18 in Carroll County. Based on the national averages, about 21,804 women and about 16,127 men in the county are likely to experience intimate partner violence in their lifetimes.
Victims of domestic violence cases do not always call the police or report when an assault occurs. Victims are trying to do whatever they need to in order to stay alive, Harkavy said during a June training session for law enforcement officers on responding to strangulation. According to her presentation, victims might scream or call for help but later change their story because of a variety of reasons, including that they might not feel safe.
"It's really hard to report a crime against a person you love," Harkavy said in a later interview.
Victims will call police and report a domestic violence incident, but third parties will also report some instances. Usually it's a family member, a neighbor or a child who is witnessing the attack, Harkavy said. In most third-party reports, it was a child who reported the assault.
Victims might not report the first time an assault happens because they are hopeful it'll get better or won't happen again. They are also often concerned about economic stability if it's the breadwinner who is arrested. There's a fear of retaliation for the person being arrested, and retaliatory threats might come from family or friends rather than the abuser. The victim or witness also might be afraid of what happens when the accused person is released, Harkavy said.
Then there is also the fact that the abuser is someone the victim loves.
"Imagine having to call the police on your own loved one," Harkavy said.
Even when there is an arrest and a person is charged — often with second-degree assault — a District Court commissioner may release the alleged abuser on their own personal recognizance. The State's Attorney's Office will work to help the alleged victim get a no-contact order or protective order, Harkavy said, but those can be violated.
Harkavy said that when a case lands on her desk, she or Gabby Butler, a State's Attorney's Office victim's advocate for domestic violence, will try to reach out, but it is a race to who will get to the alleged victim first — the State's Attorney's Office or the alleged abuser.
Although there are unreported cases, the amount in Carroll in 2016 was enough that the state's attorney created a domestic violence docket, through which a District Court judge will hear only domestic violence cases that day. They originally started with three dockets but expanded to four.
An average of 15 to 18 cases are on each of the four dockets.
The State's Attorney's Office has a conviction rate of about 75 percent for the domestic violence dockets, but the rate does not include cases that go to the Circuit Court. The rate is also affected by plea deals, in which the State's Attorney's Office might include the dismissal of one case in order to get a guilty plea in another, Harkavy said.
Statistically, it's not unusual to see recidivism in domestic violence cases, or even people who are charged in more than one domestic violence case in a year. Recidivism is high in Carroll and throughout the country, Harkavy said.
Law enforcement's role
For law enforcement, the perception of domestic violence didn't change much in 2016, but rather over the past decade, Sheriff Jim DeWees and Westminster police Chief Jeff Spaulding have both said.
The Carroll County Sheriff's Office receives an average of 350 to 400 domestic violence calls each year, DeWees said. Nationally, domestic violence makes up about 15 percent of crime, according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence.
DeWees said his office gets involved in cases and works to follow them all the way to the end, which wasn't always the case. It wasn't unusual to see law enforcement leave a scene in the 1990s without arresting anyone because no one wanted to press charges, he said.
But over the past decade, that has changed.
"I do think we do a good job tracking these cases to their finale," he said.
Part of the changes to law enforcement is also connecting people with the resources they need. If a person said they didn't want to press charges, the responding officer would just leave, DeWees said.
"Now we make a call at the scene and, at times, put victims on the phone with Family and Children's Services," he said.
Spaulding said a focus was put on strangulation this year, especially with training done by the State's Attorney's Office and the introduction of alternative light sources for bruise detection. The strangulation training taught officials what they should look for when conducting strangulation investigations, from when they first arrive to deciding whom to arrest.
"There are a lot of things happening on the domestic violence front," Spaulding said.
Challenges in domestic violence
For Harkavy, the most difficult aspect of prosecuting domestic violence is explaining to someone why an alleged victim might go back to the alleged abuser.
It's also hard for people to understand why someone might protect their alleged abuser, DeLeonardo said.
"They struggle to understand why someone who was abused would stay and continue to be abused," DeLeonardo said.
Statistically, it can take a person up to seven instances of abuse before they decide to leave. Leaving can be the most dangerous time because the risk of homicide increases significantly. Victims are also vulnerable as they're potentially leaving with only the clothes on their back and sometimes with children in tow, Harkavy said.
"People are starting over, and where do they go, what do they do?" she said.
This challenge extends into the courtroom, where Harkavy has to produce a case in order to show beyond a reasonable doubt that a person abused the alleged victim.
Harkavy said she doesn't do her job just to change a juror's mind, and when there's a not guilty decision, it's also on the prosecution. With criminal cases, the burden of proof is high, but that doesn't mean the crime didn't happen, she said.
"Domestic violence cases are not just about convictions," she said.
Sometimes the case allows the person's story to be heard, Harkavy said. Even if the jury doesn't believe the story, DeLeonardo said, bringing the case still tells the victim that someone believed them. His office does not prosecute cases in which it questions whether a crime happened, he said.
Allowing an alleged victim to testify gives them back a voice that's been silent, Harkavy said.
"[It says] no, this person abused you, and we believe you; even though the defendant is saying you caused it," she said.
The cases can be tough because the victim might be back with the alleged abuser or they might not want to go forward with a case. The State's Attorney's Office is exploring ways to introduce more evidence in domestic violence trials so they can go forward with trials with an unwilling witness or a victim who does not want to go forward with a case.
Carroll Hospital recently bought a camera that uses alternative light sources, such as UV light, to show extension of bruises or where a bruise might form, including under the skin. In strangulation cases, bruising does not always appear to the naked eye.
In 50 percent of strangulation cases, there is no visible injury, according to a presentation by nurse Rosalyn Berkowitz during the strangulation training. In 35 percent, the injuries are too minor to be photographed, leaving 15 percent for which a photograph can be taken. A person can have no physical marks but still die from strangulation, according to her presentation.
When the camera is used, the forensic nurses who use it can only say that there is a bruise when they can visibly see a bruise, said Tracy Yingling, coordinator of forensic services at Carroll Hospital. If there isn't a visible bruise, they can still point to a darkened spot, but they can't identify it as blood pooling to form a bruise, she said.
They haven't testified in court with the camera yet, she said, adding that the first case is likely in the spring, Yingling said.
Working with a victim after a trial
Even in cases when she doesn't get the guilty conviction, Harkavy said the alleged victim isn't left out to dry.
Throughout the case, the office, including its victim's advocates, works with the victim to come up with a safety plan, she said. And even if the alleged victim hasn't left the alleged abuser, they work on a plan for if they have to leave suddenly.
The office can also help an alleged victim with filing for a protective order, DeLeonardo said.
"A protective order can do a lot," he said.
After a case has been closed, Harkavy said they always make sure there are protective measures in place, and work with Family and Children's Services.
There are also laws that went into effect in October to help with domestic violence cases. Harkavy worked on additions to stalking and peace order laws. Language was adding to the stalking law to consider emotional impact, and language was added to the peace order law to include more ways someone can violate a peace order.
While there were legal advances, Harkavy said there's still room for improvement. In Maryland, strangulation is not considered as a first-degree assault offense, despite the potential fatal consequences, she said. She'd also like to see a law address people who commit another domestic violence crime while out on bail or probation for a previous domestic violence case. If that happens, she'd like to see the person held without bond until they see a judge, she said.
Looking back on 2016, Harkavy said, "We've done a lot, but I'd be remiss if I didn't say there's more to do."
Progress made in 2016
June 22: Harkavy helped to lead strangulation training for officers. It was one of three sessions they held for officers.
Oct. 1: New laws go into affect to address emotional impact of stalking and more ways to violate a peace order.
October: In Domestic Violence Awareness Month, the State's Attorney's Office partnered with Terry's Tag and Title to collect items for domestic violence shelters and raise awareness. They collected about 750 bags of items.
Nov. 1: Carroll Hospital's alternative light source camera was ready for use.
Carroll County Breaking News
Nov. 10: State's Attorney's Office started a domestic violence program in Carroll County high schools.
Domestic violence hotlines
If you or someone you know is in a relationship with intimate partner violence, you can call these numbers for help.
National hotline: 1-800-799-7233
24-hour Carroll County Domestic Violence Hotline: 443-865-8031
Family and Children's Services Office: 410-876-1233
Rape Crisis 24-hour hotline: 410-857-7322