WASHINGTON, DC (WUSA) - - One in every 17 minutes. That's how often Metropolitan Police officers respond to domestic violence calls every year and roughly 2 of those cases end in murder.
"I understand when people say the system failed when there's a tragic ending," said Chief Judge Lee Satterfield, "If you make the correct decision you can still come out with a bad outcome."
In a rare interview, Chief Satterfield opens up about the courts' Domestic Violence Unit which began in 1996. The Chief has been on the front lines of domestic violence in the courts. He is even part of a national organization which educates judges on such issues, including sensitivity training.
"Judges are no different from anyone else, we do our job professionally, we uphold the oath of office, " he said, "but we feel sad when something tragic happens to somebody."
And tragedy struck the family of Alecia Wheeler. The mother of 3 was killed as she walked her children home from their NE neighborhood rec center - just 45 minutes after the children's father was served a court ordered restraining order. He has been arrested and charged with the murder.
Wheeler followed the rules, applied for a temporary protective order but never made it to her trial for a permanent order 2 weeks later. She was denied a permanent order in August 2010.
"People get angry over little things so certainly people can get angry over something filed against them," explained the judge (who did not preside over Wheeler's case), "as a judge it's hard to predict which person is not going to follow your order."
"We are devastated by the loss."
Advocates with SAFE (Survivors and Advocates for Empowerment Inc.) say protective orders work 80% of the time. "We have a lot of tools to assess risk, but you never know how intent the abuser is," said Natalia Otero SAFE co-executive director.
The program is designed to reach out to victims immediately after the crime. That's when first responders call advocates who will meet with the victim within an hour. Together they set up an emergency safety plan with a fund created especially for domestic violence victims. "It can be anything from emergency shelter, to a ride to a relatives house, to a lock change," explained Otero.
In April alone SAFE created 585 safety plans.
Relocated 43 families but only provided 15 lock changes.
"A lot of this is the victim trying to gauge her own safety," said Otero, "making a safety plan based on what she knows about this person she is in a relationship with."
75% of victims do not have attorneys in court with them when they are often face to face with their accused batterer. Advocates say unfortunately, many victims never submit evidence that could help their case.
"Access to justice is an issue especially for our low income clients," said Otero. She says there is a need for more attorneys to take on these life or death cases.
Despite the gaps and the lives lost, advocates and the judge say the system is working.
"Of course I don't think our system is broken I just don't think anything is fool proof when it comes to domestic violence," said Chief Judge Satterfield, "in some cases mistakes can have tragic consequences and so you do your best nto to make mistakes at all...and then you hope for the best."
In DC, a victim only needs "good cause" which can be explained as a credible allegation in order to get a permanent protective order. However, in MD a victims needs "clear and convincing evidence" before getting a protective order. Alecia Wheeler was denied a permanent order in MD just days before she received her temporary order from DC.
Written by Delia Gonçalves
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