Oxford County collaboration targeting domestic violence, sex assault cases

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PARIS — Domestic violence and sexual assault crimes are increasing, but a collaborative effort is targeting prosecutions to increase convictions in Oxford County.

Launched in December 2013 through a $781,800 grant to Lewiston-based Safe Voices, law enforcement, prosecutors and community groups in Oxford County are collaborating to increase the number of convictions and bring relief to victims. 

The three-year grant paved the way to hire Assistant District Attorney Alexandra Winter, the county’s newest prosecutor, to specifically target cases of domestic violence and sexual assault. 

“We went for the grant because we had been hearing the police departments (express) their frustration that the domestic violence caseload was so large,” Winter said. 

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On a monthly basis, Winter said she reviews between 20 to 30 new cases. Crucial to prosecuting those, she said, are bail conditions separating the parties to allow time to interview the victim. Sometimes victims call to report abuse and want to see the cases prosecuted; just as often though a bystander calls police, only to have the abused person reluctant to speak. 

“We see a lot of victims who don’t recognize themselves as victims. It becomes an opportunity to step in,” Winter said.

That doesn’t mean that cases always run smoothly or go according to plan.

Winters said one of her challenges has been watching cases slip by.  She recalled one case where an individual beat a spouse on three separate occasions. Advocates tried to provide help, but ultimately the victim chose not to testify. 

As a result, Winters is gearing up for cases where the victim might be uncooperative by procuring 911 calls, photos and forensic evidence. 

“It’s really not for us to question one. It’s hard for the public to grasp that sometimes,” she said.

Jane Morrison, executive director for Safe Voices, an anti-domestic violence nonprofit, said Winter’ presence has already made a big difference in raising the profile that abusive acts will not be tolerated.

In addition to Winter’ position, the grant has created a sexual assault advocate position in South Paris and Rumford, helped expand hours at Safe Voices’ South Paris location, extend education and community outreach programs and establish a review board to find ways agencies can work together to protect victims, Morrison said.

The grant has also strengthened the inter-agency Oxford County Domestic Violence Task Force, a monthly round table attended by Winter and a host of community support groups, she said. 

Kim Wilson, the grant coordinator with Safe Voices, said it’s still too early to statistically prove the grant is working. Nonetheless, it bolsters hopes the crimes will be met with stiffer penalties. In 2011, the last year for which statistics were available, 390 cases of domestic violence cases were referred for criminal prosecution. In 233 of them, deals were struck to have the charges dropped. 

“Coming into the grant, we needed to create a coordinated community response of the courts, victims advocates and support groups to give victims the resources they needed,” Wilson said.  

A nine-year veteran of the Oxford County Sheriff’s Office, Lt. Tom Harriman is the county’s specialist for domestic violence and sex-based offenses.

Harriman follows up with “hundreds” of victims every year after law enforcement makes an initial response, talking to the victim, handing out his cellphone number. Not all cases go to court; sometimes people need an outlet to talk.

The nature of the cases makes it “more than a position,” Harriman said. 

“In the heat of the moment, initial law enforcement responds and arrests the offender, and the victim is barraged with requests for statements and other services. It’s a lot for them to stomach at the scene of a crime,” he said. 

Most homicides in Maine have their roots in domestic violence; reduce one, and you prevent the other, he said. 

“These coordinated community responses and task forces are huge in that collaborative effort,” he said.

Victims or those who know of victims of domestic violence or abuse may use the 24-hour Safe Voices helpline at 1-800-559-2927. 

Victims of sexual assault may use the SAPRS 24-hour hotline at 1-800-871-7741.

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