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DA's new program to address domestic violence

Date: 4/17/2012

April 16, 2012

By G. Michael Dobbs

SPRINGFIELD — A new effort to address domestic violence will formally link law enforcement officials in Hampden County with the two shelters that assist victims.

Hampden County District Attorney Mark Mastroianni announced on April 11 that two grants will help fund a new approach to prevent new incidences of domestic violence by identifying high risk offenders, increasing support services to victims and creating priority prosecutions.

The two state grants total $220,000 and are being split between the Hampden County Sheriff's Department and Womanshelter / Compañeras in Holyoke and the Springfield YWCA in Springfield.

The grant money will allow the YWCA to provide greater victim assistance at Palmer District Court and more programs to treat offenders at the county house of corrections. Hampden County Sheriff Michael Ashe said there has been a "tremendous rise in domestic violence" and noted in 2011 there were 321 offenders in domestic violence counseling programs and 411 inmates today. There are an additional 130 inmates on a waiting list for the two eight-week programs.

The $45,000 Ashe will receive from the grant will pay for an additional counselor.

He added that 80 percent of the women incarcerated in the women's jail have a connection to domestic violence. Many times either drug or alcohol abuse is part of their experience.

Mary Reardon Johnson, executive director of the Springfield YWCA, said that the shelter's domestic violence hotline fielded 8,000 calls last year and housed more than 100 women and their families. She added the shelter turns away six women for every one they accept "because we don't have the space."

Karen Cavanaugh, executive director of Womanshelter / Compañeras, explained that she has been working informally with all of the people gathered for the press conference, including Springfield Police Commissioner William Fitchet and Holyoke Police Chief James Neiswanger.

"This will allow us to formalize the process and communicate regularly," she said.

Womanshelter / Compañeras will be able to hire an advocate to work with victims through the grant.

Although two of the area's police chiefs were present for the announcement, Mastroianni said another goal of the new initiative is to reach out to the police departments of smaller communities in the county and help them better deal with domestic violence cases as well.

He explained that having additional resources to advocate on behalf of the victims is important as what often happens in such cases is the victim is subject to extreme pressure not to pursue prosecution because of his/her situation and the influence of the abuser.

High-risk abusers will be identified not just for convictions of domestic violence charges but also whether or not they have a history of being the subject of a restraining order. They can also be labeled a "high risk" by the "aggressive" nature of the offense, Mastroianni added.

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