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$646K of ARP funds targeted for victims of domestic abuse in county

YOUNGSTOWN — Mahoning County Domestic Relations Court wants to eliminate barriers to domestic violence victims getting a protection order where warranted.

Domestic Relations Judge Beth Smith and her staff recently obtained $646,847 in American Rescue Plan funds from the county commissioners that will enable her to have a full-time magistrate and administrative assistant to handle such cases.

With a full-time magistrate and assistant, the cases can be held throughout the day, which Smith and her court administrator believe will make it easier for domestic violence victims to attend hearings.

The court has been using two part-time magistrates in 2021 under a grant, but the grant ran out at year’s end. The funding the commissioners provided will enable the court to continue offering hearings all day for three years. Before the court received the grant, hearings were held only in the morning.

That may not seem like a major change, but Smith and magistrate Don Hepfner, who is also court administrator, say it could make the difference between someone following through with the process or being victimized again.

FOLLOW-THROUGH

Court statistics show that under the mornings-only system that lasted six years through 2020, about 37 percent of individuals who received an emergency protection order did not show up for the full hearing, which determines whether a protection order of up to five years should be granted. That hearing involves testimony and is attended by both parties.

The initial stage of a domestic violence protection order is a short-term, emergency order that only lasts about a week — until the matter is heard in the full hearing.

But once the court was able to offer hearings throughout the day, the number of people who failed to appear for the second hearing dropped to about 20 percent.

Smith and Hefner said it’s pretty clear evidence that being able to offer the petitioners more flexible hearing times makes a difference. “You’re talking about a 16- to 18-percent drop,” Hepfner said.

“When they don’t show up, the case is dismissed,” the judge said. The court cannot take steps to contact individuals who do not come to their hearing because the court is not allowed by law to provide legal advice.

The domestic relations court currently receives about 800 domestic violence protection order requests per year or more than three per work day.

Smith and Hepfner said people seeking protection orders frequently have scheduling challenges caused by issues such as babysitting, schooling and transportation.

“Funds are tight for people,” Smith said, adding that COVID-19 has made things worse for some people. “So we’re just trying to help the public, do everything we can as a court to keep people safe.”

“So when a person comes in, we can say, ‘Is it more convenient for you to come in the afternoon because the kids are in school?’ After 3 o’clock it might be more difficult because of babysitting,” Smith said. “We’ve had some people who may have just started a job,” Hepfner added.

MONEY

When the $646,847 runs out in about three years, the court will have another talk with the commissioners about funding the positions again, Hepfner said.

The court receives grant funding to employ two domestic violence social workers who help petitioners fill out the paperwork. The social workers also help to walk the petitioner through the process and help with other issues.

“We used to do follow-up phone calls. We would like to continue that in the future when they don’t show up for a hearing,” said Marguerite Heffner Craciun, domestic relations court domestic violence case coordinator / social worker.

She said one concern she would have with making such calls is petitioners sometimes don’t answer their phones. Another issue is that a call from her could reignite tension in the home.

“When you call them up, you don’t know if he’s sitting there,” Heffner-Craciun said of the alleged abuser. “A lot of times you’re hesitant to call because that could really escalate the situation.”

HOMICIDE CASE

A recent homicide case from Austintown seems to point to the difficult position a person can be in when a domestic partner threatens their safety.

Ashley Lockhart, 25, of Youngstown, was shot to death Oct. 8 outside of an apartment at the Compass West apartments. Steve Green II, 25, the father of their child, is accused of killing her during an argument.

She and Green were together many years, but they broke up a year ago, Katelyn Lofaro , a cousin of Lockhart, told The Vindicator.

The Vindicator found a police report from 2018 in which the problems between Lockhart and Green were evident. A friend had called 911, and it led to police talking to Lockhart.

Lockhart told them Green struck her in the head with a gun, so she walked out of the house. But Green got into his car and followed her to the end of the driveway and pointed the gun at her, threatening to pull the trigger.

“Give me one reason why I shouldn’t shoot you?” Lockart reported that he said.

After talking to the police, Lockhart filed for a domestic violence protection order, but she did not attend the full hearing, and the case was dismissed, according to court records.

LEAVING

Heffner-Craciun said it is difficult for a person to leave an abusive relationship for many reasons.

“You’re leaving your home, everything you’ve known, and you take on this role as the victim,” she said. But the No. 1 reason many don’t leave is finances, she said.

The second reason is “the children miss the father so much. The third thing is the whole family could turn on them, like the in-laws.” She said sometimes leaving the home means leaving pets behind.

“Just imagine leaving your home with your children and then you have pets that you don’t want to leave behind because you’re afraid that, now he’s going to abuse the animals. Maybe he owns the animals.

“It’s just a lot of things there, a lot of layers. It takes people years. It takes an average of seven times to move out of a domestic violence situation,” she said.

A couple that has been together a short time can sometimes break up peacefully. “But if they’ve had a long time together, like 10 years and have a lot of children, it’s very hard for them to move on,” Heffner-Craciun said. “They’ve been crippled in many of ways,” she said of a victimized person. “They’ve had finances taken off of them. They’re not allowed to use the car, not allowed to work, a lot of issues.”

VICTIMS

Heffner-Craciun typically uses the female pronoun when talking about domestic violence victims, but court statistics show that 180 of the 799 people who filed for protection orders in 2021 were males.

Smith said statistics demonstrate the danger a person can experience in a bad domestic situation.

About 200 of the 799 Mahoning County petitioners have experienced strangulation. Another 143 more cases involve use of guns or threats with guns.

One of the problems with strangulation is the it can be an “invisible injury,” Heffner-Craciun said.

“They could have severed arteries in their neck. And sometimes in 72 hours they could be dead, but they have no outside injuries.” She said some people have been repeatedly strangled.

“Sometimes their cognition is so screwed up, they don’t know if they are up or down because their thought processes are so jumbled because of the brain damage,” she said. “Strangling is a traumatic brain injury.”

Court administrator Hepfner said the funding paying for domestic violence protection orders apparently has increased the number of people attending their full hearing by at least 100 people.

“There’s going to be a minimum of 100 lives that are going to be touched, as well as maybe 100 potential lives saved per year,” he told the commissioners the day the funds were awarded.

erunyan@vindy.com

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