Martha’s Vineyard is not immune to domestic violence

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Photo by Ralph Stewart

Early in the morning of March 23, Cynthia Bloomquist wrestled with her husband, Kenneth Bloomquist, for control of a pistol he carried, just after he had shot her with a shotgun in the house they owned at 19 Skiff’s Lane, West Tisbury. Mr. Bloomquist, 64, died at the scene. Ms. Bloomquist, 63, was hospitalized. She had been shot in the torso, and she is recovering.

Before the violence occurred, Ms. Bloomquist had sought an emergency restraining order against her husband. She had visited the West Tisbury police station on March 1, seeking the order. Such orders must be approved by a judge, who must find that there is reason for the applicant to fear imminent bodily harm. Superior Court Judge Robert Kane denied Ms. Bloomquist’s request.

Martha’s Vineyard Times writer Pat Waring examines the issues that arise from efforts to prevent domestic violence and the part played by judicial orders of protection.

Martha’s Vineyard is a community of multiple images. The popular picture is that of a summer resort island populated by celebrities, a presidential vacation spot known for beautiful beaches. But there is another island, one that more closely reflects reality in communities across the country.

Still, Islanders were shocked when on the morning of March 23, a West Tisbury woman killed her estranged husband in self-defense during a violent struggle over a pistol in their West Tisbury house.

“Domestic violence doesn’t discriminate, it happens everywhere and can happen to anyone,” said Christina Costello, program director for CONNECT to End Violence (formerly Women’s Support Services), an agency of Martha’s Vineyard Community Services. In a telephone interview, Ms. Costello said that while many were shocked at the fatal shooting it is a common misconception that such things don’t happen in safe communities and quiet neighborhoods.

According to Ms. Costello, domestic violence has specific qualities and can include a wide range of behavior. Domestic violence is characterized by an ongoing pattern of one person exerting power or control over the other in a relationship. There are many forms of violence, she said, and not all of them cause physical injury. They range from verbal, mental, emotional, and financial abuse to stalking, sexual assault, rape, and murder. Warning signs may include name calling, belittling, threatening, or isolating the victim, as well as threats to harm pets, or manipulation of children or other loved ones. Extreme jealousy, highly controlling and possessive behavior, threats of murder or suicide, and stalking are considered “red flags” suggesting that physical danger is imminent.

“As a team at CONNECT to End Violence, we try to build awareness in the community that domestic violence is learned behavior,” said Ms. Costello, stressing that substance abuse or genetics do not cause a person to become violent but societal conditioning plays a major role. She added that angry behavior is not the same as domestic violence. Anger management is not the appropriate rehabilitation strategy for a perpetrator, who instead would require specialized techniques.

Clients seeking help at CONNECT are offered a range of free, confidential services, including short-term counseling, referral to other MVCS agencies, and supportive accompaniment to court, or to the hospital if sexual assault has occurred. Help is always available through a 24-hour crisis hotline.

According to Ms. Costello, victims often become so accustomed to an unhealthy relationship, ridiculing, and controlling treatment they are not sure if they are being abused. “They have been victimized and emotionally beaten down and manipulated so they question their own sanity,” she said. “They ask ‘Is this my fault.’” And some victims are reluctant to seek a protective court order even though it may appear to be an appropriate step.

“Our work with victims/survivors of domestic and/or sexual violence is to provide them with support, advocacy, and options,” said Ms. Costello. “We want all victims to know that they deserve a life free from abuse and violence and that there are systems in place to help achieve this.

“Part of our work is to understand the individual, unique barriers that deter some individuals from going to the courthouse to request such orders,” she said. “We believe that victims know what is best for them and their family and they have the right to make decisions about their relationships. We do our best to complete safety planning with all victims, both those who seek orders and those who do not.”

Seeking protection

Many clients who come to CONNECT with domestic violence issues file for protective court orders, and they are assisted in the process by staff. While CONNECT’s services are available to both men and women, the very large majority of clients are female.

Two types of protective orders are the Restraining Order, also called Abuse Prevention or 209A Order, and the much newer Harassment Prevention or 258E Order, instituted in mid-May, 2010. Both are based on provisions of the Massachusetts General Laws.

CONNECT counselors saw 274 clients in 2010 and assisted 66 in obtaining protective orders. In 2011 the agency assisted 74 victims in getting orders out of the 225 served. Through March of this year, CONNECT staff members have seen 25 clients and worked with 14 to obtain court orders. According to Ms. Costello, the court order totals reflect 209A Restraining Orders and 258E Harassment Prevention Orders combined.

As part of the intake process, abuse victims may indicate whether the perpetrator has access to firearms but a fairly small percentage say this is the case. In fiscal year 2011 the number of CONNECT clients citing firearms was 12; to date in fiscal 2012 it is 18.

Ms. Costello commented that CONNECT’s client visits often increase in summer, “however the majority of our clients are year-round individuals.” She said she has noticed a trend towards CONNECT staff providing an increased number of medical accompaniment services during summer months.

Statistics provided by Liza Williamson, Clerk Magistrate of the Edgartown District Court, show protective order statistics remaining strikingly steady from 2005 through 2010. She attributed the significant increase in 2011 to the addition of the 258A Harassment Prevention Order. The totals are: 2005, 97 orders issued; 2006, 99; 2007, 98; 2008, 88; 2009, 96; 2010, 100. The number climbed to 149 in 2011. According to Ms. Williamson at the Edgartown District Court, there is an increasing number of requests for this newer form of protection.

The process explained

Ms. Costello detailed the provisions of these orders and the filing process. During business hours, an application can be filed at the Edgartown Courthouse. CONNECT counselors are available to accompany the victim through the court process, providing guidance and moral support. The victim provides personal data and must complete a complaint form briefly citing the nature of the abuse and specifying what protections are requested from the court. The plaintiff also must submit an affidavit describing both the most recent and any past abuse in detail. The request can also include issues related to children such as custody and visitation if relevant. An additional form must be completed giving information on the defendant and how the individual can be found to assist police in serving the order.

If court is in session, the judge will consider and act on the complaint immediately. Once an order is approved both plaintiff and defendant must appear in court together within 10 days. The judge reviews the case, may hear testimony from both, and determines whether and how long to continue the protection, typically three months to one year or more.

Outside of business hours, a person who fears she is in danger and that physical violence is imminent can go to the local police department to seek an Emergency Restraining Order. Police officers will gather the application information and contact an on-call judge by telephone for an immediate decision. If the judge turns down the request, the victim can re-apply as soon as the courthouse is open again.

209A Restraining Orders are issued in situations where the individuals are married or formerly married, live or once lived together, have a significant dating relationship, share a child, or are otherwise intimately related. Victims must indicate that they are in fear and need protection for their physical safety.

The victim may seek a No Abuse order, in which the perpetrator may remain in contact and on the premises but stop behaviors such as causing or threatening fear or physical injury or forcing sexual relations. More commonly the defendant is required to vacate the shared home and have no further contact with the victim. The defendant may be ordered to stay away from the plaintiff’s school or place of business. When children are involved, the victim may seek temporary custody. A restraining order can also revoke the defendant’s license to carry and require the surrender of firearms, effective for the duration of the order.

To obtain a 258E Harassment Prevention Order, unlike the 209A, the plaintiff need not be in a family, living-together, or dating relationship with the defendant. As spelled out on the complaint form, this order is issued against someone who has “committed three or more acts of willful and malicious conduct [aimed at the plaintiff] …with the intent to cause fear, intimidation, abuse, or damage to property,” and did cause those results.

Victims are asked to provide a record and preferably documentation such as threatening email or text messages or letters. Other grounds as defined by statute include a single incident of forced sex, or a number of specific acts, including indecent assault and battery, rape, statutory rape, assault with intent to rape, enticing a child, criminal stalking, criminal harassment, or drugging for the purpose or sexual intercourse.

A 258E Harassment Prevention Order can require the defendant to refrain from abuse, harassment, and/or contact, and can prohibit that individual from going near the victim’s home, school, or place of business. The complaint process is similar to that for a 209A Order and, just as in that case, the plaintiff and defendant must return to court within 10 days. Both orders can require the defendant to financially compensate the plaintiff for losses caused by the abuse or harassment. Both can be sought at the police department when the courthouse is closed.

“An Abuse Prevention Order or Harassment Prevention Order is not always granted,” said Ms. Costello. “Reasons for denial could include whether or not imminent fear is identified, whether or not the judge feels the requirements qualifying a person for an order are fully met, as well as how the judge interprets the law which he or she is dependent on to grant the order.”

Is it effective?

Violating any order is a criminal offense. The defendant can be picked up and detained by police and brought before a judge for punishment.

“The restraining order is as effective as the perpetrator makes it be,” said Ms. Costello. “It’s there as a protective measure. It speaks loudly to the perpetrator that the court system is involved. But whether a person does or does not adhere to it is up to the perpetrator.”

She said she and her staff will encourage a victim to seek a restraining order, “but whether it protects the victim I can’t say.”

If a client at CONNECT raises the idea of getting a gun for personal protection, Ms. Costello said the counselor would neither discourage nor encourage it, but would suggest the individual seek further information and licensing details from police.

“That’s certainly an option,” she said. “Everyone has the right to carry [a weapon] if they go through the training and are eligible.”

While counselors can support a victim through the process of seeking help for domestic abuse, Ms. Costello said it’s equally important that they receive community support, and know they will not be shamed because of being abused.

“As a community we can each be part of the solution to ending violence by helping the victim/survivor to overcome the barriers of isolation, shame, and fear that put all of us at risk,” she said.

Detailing protective orders

Assistant District Attorney Lisa Edmonds, chief of the Domestic Violence Unit of the Cape and Islands District Attorney’s Office, offered further details about restraining orders and protections for abuse victims. She said she would advise any victim to go to a domestic violence center — such as CONNECT — and explore what services and options are available. She too commented that the large majority of those seeking protective orders are women.

“Depending on the nature of the situation, a restraining order is an option,” she said.

Ms. Edmonds broke down the restraining order into three types, depending on circumstances in which they are issued: the Emergency Restraining Order, the “ex parte” or Temporary Restraining Order, and the 209A Order issued following the two-party hearing. An Emergency Restraining Order can be issued outside of court hours through a local police department upon order of an on-call judge. Not only does the victim submit an affidavit and information which police convey to the judge on the phone, the judge may also in some cases speak with the victim to get more detailed information, Ms. Edmonds said.

Ms. Edmonds stressed that in order to issue a protective order the judge must find the plaintiff has shown she is in fear of “imminent serious physical harm,” further defined as “bodily injury.” The emergency order remains in effect until the end of the next business day that court is opened.

A victim coming to the court for protection also must indicate there is a “substantive likelihood or immediate danger of abuse, that is, bodily injury,” said Ms. Edmonds. The judge may issue a Temporary Restraiing Order, also termed an “ex parte” restraining order, meaning it is one-sided, based only on the plaintiff’s testimony without the abuser present.

That order is effective for only up to 10 days by which time the defendant and plaintiff are ordered to appear at court together. During that appearance, termed a 209A hearing, the victim must once again indicate fear and substantive likelihood of abuse. The defendant may testify as well and both may be cross examined and be represented by counsel. At that point the judge can issue a 209A restraining order good for up to one year.

While an ex parte order automatically revokes the defendant’s gun license or firearms identification card and requires surrender of all firearms, the hearing order does not do so automatically, Ms. Edmonds explained. However, the judge may order the continuation of these conditions if warranted, “if it is shown there would be likelihood of abuse to the plaintiff if the guns are returned and/or the license or firearms identification card is reinstated.”

The newer 258E Harassment Prevention Order is used somewhat less frequently, Ms. Edmonds said. She emphasized that the significant difference between the Harassment Prevention Order and 209A Restraining Order is the relationship between plaintiff and defendant. While in the standard restraining order they must be married, living together, share a child, or in a significant dating relationship or other family relationship, such intimate connection is not called for in the Harassment Prevention Order. Ms. Edmonds said this order was created because previously there was no protective order available for victims of criminal harassment in danger of abuse by someone not closely related.

Legally an order is not effective until the defendant is served notice. Although there can be situations where the defendant cannot be located and served, Ms. Edmonds said there are usually ways to prove he is aware of the court order and this allows the order to be in effect. For example, she explained, the defendant might mention knowing of the existence of an order in a letter, text, or e-mail. However, if the defendant has been notified of the 209A hearing and does not appear, the judge can continue the restraining order based on testimony from the plaintiff alone.

Ms. Edmonds said that violating a protective order, which is a criminal offense, is punishable by up to 2 1/2 years in a house of correction. The severity of a violation can vary widely, as can the punishment, which is determined on a case-by-case basis. “There’s a big difference between sending a note or making third-party contact and causing bodily injury,” she said.

Punishments are determined by a District Court judge. But even in cases where the Commonwealth seeks the maximum sentence, the defendant can submit a plea seeking leniency. In response, the judge may sentence the defendant to a shorter jail term over the objection of the Commonwealth.

Despite the strong language, formal legal process, criminal penalties, and good intentions, Ms. Edmonds admitted that restraining orders may not always do their job.

“If you have someone with criminal intent to stalk or hurt, I’d be hard pressed to say a piece of paper will make a difference,” she said. “It’s a court order. People violate court orders all the time.

“I don’t know how effective a piece of paper can be for every type of person.”