Watchdogs keep eye on domestic abuse cases

"Over the past four years, Rocky Jastak and Betsy Cave have seen a big change in how domestic abuse cases are handled within the court system.Cases are less likely to be dismissed. The system has been streamlined for domestic abuse cases. Judges or court commissioners seem more compassionate and understanding toward the victims.Jastak and Cave have been tireless watchdogs of Oak Harbor Municipal Court, which is also Island County District Court. They have served as volunteers for Citizens Against Domestic and Sexual Violence's Courtwatch program since 1997. In that time, CADA Executive Director Valerie Stafford says the two women have indirectly helped improve the system.The changes are partly because of them, Stafford said. If the people in the court system know the community is watching, they are quicker to take action.Stafford recently announced that Jastak and Cave have been named CADA's volunteers of the year for their diligent work behind the scenes. It's quite an honor coming from an agency that has relied heavily on many hard-working volunteer.Both women were reluctant to be interviewed and say they were a little embarrassed by the honor. But they say they decided to come forward and speak about their work because CADA is such an important organization that the community needs to be aware of it.The women volunteer three to six hours of their time each week to sit in court for one simple reason, said Jastak: Somebody has to help break the cycle of domestic violence.Cave said she decided to become involved in the program after she retired as a high school teacher and took paralegal classes at the Skagit Valley College. She met Halley Smith-LaBombard - who works for CADA - in the class and was really impressed with her. When Smith-LaBombard asked her to volunteer for the then-new CADA, she immediately jumped at the chance.Yet the job can be emotionally taxing.At first I would leave the court and I would be a basket case, she said. My poor husband. I was getting so emotionally involved, but now I've learned to be more detached.Jastak started about six months later. She retired from a long career as a doctor, most recently at the Navy Hospital on Whidbey Island. During that time she says she saw so many women and children who were victims of abuse.I decided it was time to do something about it, she said. Domestic abuse is an insidious poison in your life.According to Stafford, the women's work has helped do something about it. The women fill out forms for each of the 20 or more domestic abuse cases they sit through each week. The information is used for annual CADA Courtwatch reports that point to trends and problems in the court's handling of domestic abuse cases.Stafford said the reports have been valuable when she meets with law and justice officials at the island's Domestic Violence Task Force meetings. She said the information has helped convince officials of the need for change.For example, Stafford said the relatively new position of a probation officer dedicated to domestic violence cases was a result of the Courtwatch program. Their data showed that too many abusers weren't following through with their sentences, which usually includes mandatory domestic violence treatment from a counselor.Also, Stafford said, CADA's new grant-funded Strategic Outreach Services was the result of an analysis of Courtwatch data. Compared to how it used to be, Jastak said the court hearings and much more organized. Domestic abuse cases used to be lumped in with drunken-driving cases, fishing violations and other misdemeanor crimes. But now court officials have adjusted the court calender so that all the domestic abuse cases are heard during the same three to six hour period each Wednesday.Cave said fewer convicted abusers are dropping through the cracks because the probation officer follows them closely and judges hand out serious penalties to people who don't comply with the terms of their sentence.The most impressive change, Jastak said, is in the judges' and court commissioners' attitudes about the cases.(District Court Judge Peter) Strow has become the defender, the watcher, she said. I am so impressed by the change in him. Before he didn't seem aware of the problem, how persistent it was. Boy has he come a long way.But there is still work that needs to be done.Cave said there is still seems to be a disparity in sentences between domestic abuse and other types of misdemeanor and gross misdemeanor cases. She says a driving-with-license-suspended case recently got her stirred up.The typical sentence for someone convicted of fourth-degree domestic assault is 365 days in jail with 365 days suspended, plus mandatory counseling. But in the driving case, the person got five days in jail.It's like the bumper sticker says. Kill a stranger and go to prison. Kill your wife and get therapy, Stafford said.Stafford points out that there have been unusually high arrest rates of women in both Oak Harbor and Island County. She says the problem could be that officers are having trouble distinguishing between injuries from assaults or defensive wounds on men.Jastak said the ridiculously overworked, underpaid prosecuting and defense attorneys who handle the cases need more support.What I would love to see most is more funding for the programs CADA has had in place ... Cave said.CADA has relied on grants, but the programs go away after the funding goes away. They need consistent funding.You can reach staff reporter Jessie Stensland at or call 675-6611. "

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