A close-knit network of law-enforcement officers, justice system officials and social service experts in Ocean County work across municipal borders to tackle domestic violence.
The effort involves a foundation of constant communication, leadership initiatives and specific training both in and outside court, which has resulted in the county touting the lowest dismissal rate of municipal cases in the state.
“What we do is provide immediate contact and services, whether it’s 3 a.m. or 2 p.m.,”
said Lt. Colleen Lynch, of the Ocean County Prosecutor’s Office Domestic Violence Unit. “The bigger picture is about getting individuals safe, keeping a family intact as best as possible and encouraging victims to put themselves first.”
Domestic violence is an ongoing issue nationwide. There may be no one solution to eliminate the problem, but Ocean County officials have found ways to recognize domestic violence in their communities and support victims and survivors in getting justice.
More than 82 percent of all domestic violence cases in municipal courts in New Jersey get dismissed, according to the 2016 New Jersey Courts Domestic Violence Act report. But in Ocean County, the dismissal rate is 49 percent.
The Ocean County justice system saw 1,627 domestic violence complaints in municipal courts in 2016. Fewer than half were dismissed and the majority of all other cases got guilty or merged verdicts, according to state data.
Much of the county’s success, county Prosecutor Joseph Coronato said, is due in part to Catholic Charities’ Providence House in Manchester Township. The nonprofit operates domestic violence programs for Ocean and Burlington counties by providing immediate shelter to victims and families and guiding them through legal, financial and custody matters.
The main focus has been on helping a victim feel supported from all sides, as he or she is then more likely to confidently move forward with personal and legal decisions, officials said.
Complaints or assaults, injuries or violations get dismissed for many reasons, experts have said. A major one is when a victim no longer wants to testify or aid the prosecution in trying an abuser.
Ocean’s lower dismissal numbers are evidence of the strong, long-standing relationships between organizations such as this one and law enforcement, said Mary Pettrow, associate director of domestic violence services at Providence House.
The organization assisted 1,164 people in Ocean County in 2017, Pettrow said, many of them referred by police departments and experts in the justice system.
Since Providence House opened in 1986, Pettrow said, it has held domestic violence training programs tailored specifically for law enforcement so they better identify and understand victims and their cases.
Through grants, the organization has advocates and experts regularly stationed in municipal courts and Superior Court to help victims go through the process. For some people, that may mean going to both courts multiple times for restraining orders and charges against an abuser.
“We never tell someone what they should do, but we give them enough for them to make informed decisions,” she said. “The layouts for the courts can be very different, so we’re able to explain what they can expect when they get there, and if they feel intimidated or threatened, we can arrange security.”
Pettrow said advocates also talk with victims who want to consider dropping a restraining order and make sure they understand their options and final decisions.
“It’s not a perfect system,” Coronato said. “There’s always room for improvement. We need to drill down and treat people as true victims, accommodate their needs. It’s heartbreaking to see what families go through, and even going through the justice system itself is difficult.”
The prosecutor’s Domestic Violence Unit oversees and prosecutes all non-indictable contempt cases heard by the Superior Court, Family Division. The majority of those include restraining order violations, said Assistant Prosecutor Samantha Tucker.
Working together in the unit are Lynch, Tucker and other assistant prosecutors, two detectives who investigate and prepare cases for court, and a police sergeant who oversees cases of domestic violence cases involving law enforcement officers or weapons charges.
The unit also is staffed with a victim’s advocate, who helps families going through trauma by offering emotional support, connections to immediate assistance such as housing, and information on their legal options regarding an abuser.
Although unit members do not prosecute municipal complaints, they do advise many of the same people who appear in both courts, help victims get support services and advise on the some of the cases that return to the municipal courts.
The unit meets with Providence House, local law-enforcement domestic violence liaisons, Superior Court Domestic Violence staff and others quarterly, at minimum, to discuss issues in domestic violence cases and how to resolve them.
“It’s a checks-and-balances system between the justice system and the service providers for the victims,” Pettrow said. “We’re constantly working to improve it and do an even better job. The county is passionately committed to try and prevent the community from being harmed from situations.”
While the county has shown success in attending to domestic violence victims and cases, leaders said goals still include lowering the occurrence of domestic violence from the beginning, because even a guilty verdict doesn’t stop future violence.
“For every individual domestic violence case, there are two or three kids attached to those people,” she said. “They are watching and learning — during an incident, the court process, the visitation struggles — every step of the way, and we’re trying to teach them that there is a better way.”