Regional Summits on Domestic Violence and Firearms held in four locations

By The West Virginia Record | May 4, 2009

CHARLESTON -– West Virginia's domestic violence laws became stronger with the recent passage of House Bill 2739.

The new law, which goes into effect July 9, requires law enforcement officers to attempt to serve protective orders within 72 hours of their issuance, and to continue trying to serve them until they are successful. Law enforcement officers also are authorized to seize all firearms possessed in violation of protective orders, both emergency protective orders and final protective orders. Respondents listed in protective orders are prohibited from possessing any kind of firearm.

The new law also allows protective orders to be enforced based on probable cause. Probable cause may include access to a paper copy of a valid protective order, a law enforcement officer's ability to see an electronic version of the order, or other credible evidence that a protective order exists.

And the new law provides immunity to any state official who acts in good faith while enforcing a protective order, or who detains or arrests someone who is believed to be in violation of a valid protective order.

The new law was one of many topics discussed in April at a series of Regional Summits on Domestic Violence and Firearms held in Charleston, Wheeling, Bridgeport, and Cacapon State Park. The main goal of the summits was to bring together groups of judicial officers, domestic violence advocates, prosecutors, and law enforcement officers who work in the same jurisdictions. A pilot summit was held last fall in Beckley.

In each location, attendees heard from speakers who talked about federal and state domestic violence and firearms laws. They learned how federal and state law enforcement officers can work together to make sure that people who have been convicted of domestic violence crimes do not have access to firearms.

The federal government has primary jurisdiction over firearms. How that jurisdiction can extend to many state convictions for domestic violence, and how it can be used permanently to prevent those convicted of even misdemeanor state domestic violence charges from ever possessing firearms, was discussed in detail.

"How many people think that, if I beat my spouse and I am convicted, the ban against me possessing firearms is not ninety days or 180 days, it is forever?" asked Kanawha County Family Court Judge Mike Kelly. "That is a powerful tool that perhaps we are not using to the extent we should."

"Your Supreme Court is to be congratulated because you have some of the most powerful tools in implementing these new laws and giving teeth in these protective orders and dispossessing users," Fanny Haslebacher, an Assistant General Counsel with the FBI Office of the General Counsel in Clarksburg, said at the summit in Charleston. "You have made yourself as powerful as any state in the country in enforcing every provision of the protective order. The police are now to respond to every single provision of the protective order, from the minute the judge enters it, it is to be enforced. It is really incredible."

"It's about making homes as safe as possible," said Lisa Tackett, the Director of the Supreme Court's Division of Family Court Services. "It's about personal safety. It's about guns. It's about stalking. It's about contacting, harassing.

"Respect for each other is not working. It may be that the fact we take your weapons is what starts to get the word out there that you need to keep your hands to yourself."

Domestic violence is a generational and cultural issue in West Virginia, and so it will take a tremendous effort to stop it.

"We are going to succeed with this because, frankly, everyone is sick to death of it," Supreme Court Administrator Steve Canterbury said at the summit in Charleston. "We are going to succeed not only because the courts are tired of it, but because law enforcement is tired of it, magistrates are tired of it, judges are tired of it, and most importantly – citizens are sick and tired of it."

Participants at the Charleston summit also heard from a domestic violence victim who talked about her own experience and urged everyone not to give up on victims who seem reluctant to leave their abusers.

"Why didn't I just leave?" Krista Fink said is the question she is repeatedly asked. "I thought I could fix him. I thought I could make it all better for him, or for us, and for our marriage."

Before she met her husband, she was an education major at a good college, a top student with high self-esteem. She was not used to failing, and was not the kind of person who gave up easily.

"I thought I could save the man he once was," she said.

She left him four times and went back before she finally left him for good on her fifth try.

She urged those attending the summits not to get frustrated with victims who keep returning to abusive spouses.

"The average number of times a victim leaves is five to seven. Every time a victim leaves she gets a little stronger," Fink said. "Whatever you do to help, even if she doesn't leave right away, it's part of the puzzle. It's right for her, in her own time. If it wasn't for you, the puzzle would not be complete."

Fink is now remarried, has a toddler, and serves on the board of the YWCA, where she received support while recovering from her abuse. She wrote a book, Silent No More, about her experiences, and gives presentations at meetings such as the firearms summits.

At each summit, participants broke up into groups to write protocols for how to handle firearms in domestic violence cases in their individual counties. In September 2009, another summit will be held in Charleston with the goal of writing a statewide protocol for use in the counties that were not represented at the four regional summits.

Supreme Court Justice Robin Jean Davis, the only Justice in the history of the Supreme Court with a background in family law, thanked participants for coming to the regional meetings.

"On behalf of the Court I simply want to say a heartfelt thank-you for the work you do every day. I'm grateful for it because I see the result of it in our courts every day," she told the Charleston attendees.

Chief Justice Brent Benjamin also thanked participants for coming and attended most of one day's session in Charleston. The second day, Justice Menis Ketchum stopped by to talk to Charleston participants.

The regional and state summits are being funded with an $815,000 Grant to Encourage Arrest and Enforcement of Protective Orders from the Office on Violence Against Women, U.S. Department of Justice. The Supreme Court of Appeals wrote the grant proposal, which included a memorandum of understanding signed by the Court, the West Virginia State Police, the Coalition Against Domestic Violence, the West Virginia Regional Community Policing Institute, and the West Virginia Division of Criminal Justice Services.

The grant also is funding the Domestic Violence Registry, training in its use, and paying for ten circuit judges, ten family court judges, and ten magistrates to attend national training on domestic violence.

The summits are modeled on the "Domestic Violence and Firearms: A National Summit for Community Safety" held in Los Angeles in September 2006. The members of the three-person team from West Virginia who attended that meeting and led the summits here in West Virginia are Tonia Thomas of the West Virginia Coalition Against Domestic Violence, Larry Nelson of the West Virginia Regional Community Policing Institute, and Lisa Tackett.

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