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The Department of Corrections took some heat recently over a new victim intervention program it has been using in domestic violence cases, while defenders of the plan insist it’s a necessary tool for minimizing harm.

The plan involves victims and their abusers meeting to discuss the risks of moving back in to the same home, or having some greater level of contact, upon the victim's request. 

Deputy City Attorney Ben Halverson, who prosecutes domestic violence cases for Billings, told lawmakers on the Law and Justice Interim Committee during a recent meeting that he was ready to help formulate a better plan than the intervention tool being used.

In a call after the hearing, Halverson said the intervention could re-traumatize victims by having them relive their abuse in the same room as their abuser. 

“It just kind of puts domestic violence back behind closed doors, and it enables abusers,” Halverson said.

Sen. Jen Gross, D-Billings, questioned whether it was a conflict of interest for the department to tend to both offenders and their victims, asking whether "the DOC’s primary obligation (was) to successfully rehabilitate offenders and get them back into the community, or is it the victim’s safety?"

Gallatin County Sheriff Brian Gootkin told Corrections director, Reginald Michael, to “stay in your lane.”

“Take care of the offenders and lower your recidivism rate," he said. "Allow the county attorneys to deal with the victims and help them.”

In a call after the hearing, Deputy Director Cynthia Wolken said the intervention is narrowly tailored for high-risk domestic violence cases and is used as a last resort to avoid a fatality.

“I don’t think we in clear conscience could look at a situation and know a victim is going to be in a potentially dangerous situation and do nothing to mitigate that risk,” Wolken said.

The Department’s victim liaisons use the intervention in cases where a judge has not laid out any requirements for contact between the victim and the offender, and has not barred the two from having contact, Rogers said. 

“If the court doesn’t specifically restrict it, we can’t stop it from happening,” Michael said.

So far, the department has used the intervention six times, beginning in 2018, Rogers said. 

“Typically (we) meet with victims beforehand, do a lethality assessment, explain the risks, judge whether they actually want to follow through or feel coerced,” Rogers said. “(We) give education on domestic violence, talk about the wheel of violence.”

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The victim creates a safety plan in case of subsequent violence, Roger said, but that’s done without the offender present to keep the plan confidential.

The victim selects who attends the intervention meeting, Rogers said. So far, that has included employers for both the victim and defendant, the defendant’s probation or parole officer, and victim advocates from private organizations, prosecutors’ offices and the Department of Corrections.

Rogers said that in the six interventions the department has done, two have seen subsequent prosecutions for partner or family member assault.

Rogers said the intervention is not expected to end violence but to reduce its severity. In the two cases that saw subsequent charges after the intervention, Rogers said both were based on instances that involved threats or fear of harm but no physical violence.

Rogers said often the victims who say they want to live with the abusers again have young children in the home.  

Wolken said she’d rather defend this program than answer questions on a Domestic Violence Fatality Review Commission panel about why they didn’t do anything to intervene.

“Again, we would be remiss if we did nothing,” Wolken said. “Because that’s the only alternative, really.”

There were 43 intimate partner homicides in 2015 and 2016, the most recent years for which data was publicly available.

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