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Underfunding stalls efforts to protect victims of domestic violence

Smurtą patyrusios moterys priverstos bijoti, ar pareigūnų išvežti ir paleisti jų vyrai negrįš namo.
„Scanpix“ nuotr. / Violence victims often look out with fear if their abusers are not coming back.
Šaltinis: 15min
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The Law on Protection against Domestic Violence has been in effect for over a year and has confirmed a bitter truth that we knew all along – that agitated Lithuanians often raise their hand against the ones closest to them. The threat of being evicted from their homes did not deter all abusers.

The law on domestic violence, which came into effect in mid-December 2011, hit the police like a tsunami wave. It suddenly turned out that Lithuanians were a nation of violence perpetrators. During the first month after adopting the law, the police have filed 3,483 reports about domestic violence cases, opened 1,149 preliminary investigations (including two murder probes).

In all, 22,229 cases of suspected domestic violence incidents were reported to the police by 3 April 2013, translating into 10,867 opened investigations. According to the Police Department, in most cases (9,226) violence was perpetrated against women. In 1,096 of the cases, men were the victims and in 836, children. Vast majority of perpetrators were men.

“There has always been much violence. Before, however, one needed to write a statement before a preliminary investigation could be opened,” Saulius Skvernelis, general commissioner of the Police Department, tells 15min. “By the time officers arrived to the site, the statement would be gone. Under current regulation, the statement is not necessary, hence the numbers. Before, they were skewed and now more accurate.”

Tragic lesson

When police officers arrive at the site and separate the victim from the perpetrator, they must contact one of a number of specialized help centres. There are now 16 of those in the country.

Upon receiving a notification from the police, staff at a help centre get in touch with the victim, provide consultation, and offer psychological and legal assistance. They also put together a customized recovery plan.

At the moment, most victims have little idea of what to do once the police leave.

At least that is how things should work according to the law. Vilana Pilinkaitė-Sotirovič, programme manager at the Centre for Equality Advancement, says that the police favour a loose interpretation of what it means to contact a specialized help centre with the victim's consent. According to her, officers wait until victims give their written consent or decide to seek help themselves.

Help centres and non-governmental organizations could be of great assistance to law enforcement – they could help victims defend themselves, help enforce a court ruling to evict the perpetrator, prevent repeated assaults so that the police do not have to visit the same household over and over again. At the moment, most victims have little idea of what to do once the police leave.

It would be also useful to maintain municipal crisis centres able to shelter victimised women with children as they are usually the ones who prefer to leave the home they have been assaulted at.

Pilinkaitė-Sotirovič says that the current handling of the issue is a ping-pong game of everyone passing responsibility on to someone else.

“They take the first step and then stop. It is not enough to take the perpetrator away from home. If a court issues a restraining order, the police should check how it is adhered to – but they do not have the capacity. They should cooperate with help centres that should be informed about restraining orders and who is banned from approaching a house. When a woman sees that her perpetrator has returned, she should immediately call the police, have the information where she can turn for help or hide from her abuser. But there is no framework whatsoever – victims are left to fend for themselves.”

Last February, a woman in Klaipėda District was killed by her spouse who had previously been evicted from home for assaults. The man had been ordered to stay away from the house – but he simply ignored the ruling and came back. The woman, frightened, called 112 and said she was afraid her intoxicated spouse could hurt her. The police, overstretched as always, decided the call was not of prime urgency and by the time officers knocked on the door, the woman was dead.

Police let perpetrators go

For years, the police have claimed they were helpless to fight domestic violence. Before, they had no legal authorisation to do anything without first receiving a written statement from the victim, while the perpetrator would, in a best-case scenario, be taken to spend the night in cell but return home the next morning. The current law allows to evict perpetrators and ban them from coming anywhere near their victims.

The Ministry of Social Security and Labour, which authored the bill, hoped it would make it easier to tame perpetrators and protect victims. It turned out, however, that good intentions were not enough.

It often happens, though, that victims themselves take their abusers back, because they share a source of income and have children together.

Police officers usually take the abuser to a police station, where he can be kept for up to 48 hours, and carry out a stepped-up investigation. Then a court can order to temporarily evict the perpetrator and restrain him from approaching the victim. The police is in charge of making sure that the order is carried out.

“The law says that the perpetrator cannot live with or approach the victim, but in reality, things are different,” Skvernelis admits. “We cannot send an officer to keep watch outside the house. We do selective check-ups. We share information on court orders with local inspectors, but they have many functions and do not have the capacity to drive up and check daily.”

According to Renatas Požėla, deputy general commissioner, the police consult victims and agree on the time and frequency of check-ups. “It often happens, though, that victims themselves take their abusers back, because they share a source of income and have children together,” the officer tells 15min.

When the police take the perpetrator away from his home, they are obliged to inform him about the nearest motel. However, if he is reluctant to stay in a motel and no relative agree to take him in, the perpetrator is often simply released in a street. “We need to think about their re-socialization. We cannot simply discard to the margins of society everyone who slips – we must work with the man,” Požėla deliberates.

Human rights organizations see this issue as one of particular complexity. “Even if a person violates someone else's rights, he does not cease to be a human being and doesn't lose his human rights,” says acting director of the Human Rights Monitoring Institute Dovilė Šakalienė. “We must consider what will happen to those people and where they'll go. Without proper support, the problem is only aggravated. Despair, frustration, other negative feelings that drive towards violence do not go away.”

There are only a few crisis centres for men and the help provided there is quite fragmentary, based on good intentions rather than systematic programmes.

Extra load for the police

The Ministry of Social Security and Labour had previously claimed that implementing the new law would not require any additional direct funding. It emerged quite soon, however, that it constituted a considerable extra burden for the police.

With stricter sanctions against perpetrators, the police have observed a slight drop in domestic violence.

While calls from domestic violence victims poured in, no money was assigned to hire more staff, buy fuel or other means required to adequately respond to the situation.

“Everything comes from the same purse. We get what we get,” Skvernelis says. “You can do the math. One simple preliminary investigation costs some 1,800-2,000 litas (520-580 euros). We do not open an investigation after each report. But there are also other forms of response that require people and resources.” In other words, implementing the law must have cost the police at least 2 million litas (580 thousand euros).

There is a bright side to the story, too, according to Skvernelis. With stricter sanctions against perpetrators, the police have observed a slight drop in violence: “We hoped that the law would serve as a prevention, too. Perpetrators had not realized that if they treated their wives badly, the police could come and evict them. Numbers are dropping.”

The police chief stresses that the law is a good first step, but lawmakers must follow up with programmes to tackle related issues. “The figures have shown that the law was needed. But now, one year since it was introduced, we must solve certain problems in order to achieve better results,” Skvernelis says.

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