- The Washington Times - Monday, December 6, 2004

Was Doreen M. McClendon, the 37-year-old Greenbelt mother of four daughters, an “unworthy victim”?

Based on the extensive research of Barbara J. Hart, an expert on domestic violence, many battered women do view themselves as “unworthy victims.” They become disillusioned with a criminal-justice system populated by judges, prosecutors, defense lawyers, law-enforcement officers, as well as court administrators and clerks, who maintain that these victims somehow deserved what they got or “provoked” their battering predators.

The ugly truth is that domestic violence at its core is about control through violence — physically, psychologically, verbally, sexually and economically. But we all have heard the ignorant and insensitive lines before: “Why didn’t she leave him?” or “She’s just a woman scorned” or some other variation that belittles the charge and blames the victim while excusing the victimizer.

Miss McClendon was fatally stabbed Nov. 28, less than 10 hours after a Prince George’s court commissioner denied a protective order that she was seeking against her boyfriend — the father of one of her daughters — after trying to evict him from her apartment.

“This case very graphically displays the risk a woman faces when leaving a violent relationship,” said Lydia Watts, executive director and co-founder of District-based WEAVE (Women Empowered Against Violence), who referred me to Ms. Hart’s research.

“Commissioners need to take that seriously, and to err on the side of caution makes a whole lot of sense.”

The question today is whether Dennis P. Settles, a District Court commissioner, believed these age-old myths about “unworthy” domestic-violence victims when he refused to sign the protective order that Miss McClendon sought.

The larger question is whether Mr. Settles has been relieved of his sworn responsibility to issue protective orders. At the very least, has he been reassigned until he can take another domestic-violence course offered by the State’s Attorney’s Office before another woman stands before him begging for her life? We don’t know because Maryland court officials are too busy running for cover to release any information about this case or this commissioner, other than to state that they are conducting an internal investigation. Shame on them.

What we do know is that a person must have a college diploma to earn $30,000 to $50,000 a year as a commissioner in the Prince George’s District Court. However, there is no requirement for a law degree or any training in the law, which should be a minimum, to issue temporary peace and protective orders, warrant, bonds and other administrative paper injunctions when the court is closed.

Whose bright idea was it to let lay people act as commissioners and magistrates to determine emergency legal issues that some seasoned members of the bar have trouble interpreting? It’s bad enough that domestic violence is society’s dirty little secret, but when the judicial system lets a battered victim down, it sends a terrible message to others: We can’t or won’t protect you, even when you are bold enough to try to break away from your batterer.

And we wonder why they stay in these potentially deadly situations. Anyone who has ever left or been left in a relationship knows it’s no cakewalk on any front. Add to that painful process a volatile partner, and you’ve got a potentially violent situation.

Studies, some cited by Ms. Hart, point out that the most dangerous time for a battered victim is when she attempts to leave, especially if law enforcement and the judicial system get involved. The deaths of 70 percent of the domestic-violence victims occur when they are attempting to separate. During the slow court process, half of the victims are abused again in retaliation.

On Nov. 28, Mr. Settles denied Miss McClendon a protective order that she sought against Kevin M. Tinsley about 2 a.m., according to court records. Miss McClendon was stabbed to death about 11 a.m. outside her apartment in the 6200 block of Breezewood Drive. Before the University of Maryland secretary took her last breath, she reportedly named her assailant to a daughter. Mr. Tinsley has been charged with murder.

Mr. Settles, who is described only as a “cash-flow specialist” on his Web site, checked a box on a prewritten form saying, “No reasonable grounds to believe that abuse (as defined in the statute) occurred.” He curiously underlined the parenthetical clause.

Mind you, Mr. Tinsley is listed as a sexually violent offender on Maryland’s sex-offender registry. Court records indicate that Miss McClendon stated that he physically abused her at least twice, for which she filed previous protective orders. They later was dropped. Because they had a 10-year-old daughter, she stated previously, she stayed with him for the sake of the children.

She wrote that he threatened, “I wouldn’t be living if he had to go” when she tried to evict him from her apartment.

Why was this obviously desperate woman left to fend for herself? Prince George’s County State’s Attorney Glenn F. Ivey yesterday said everyone has to do more to help battered victims navigate the system when they want to leave their victimizers. That goes for judges, who must give stiffer sentences; police and prosecutors, who must treat these cases with the same priority as others; and family members and friends, who must listen carefully and offer aid to those trying to get away.

Maryland state Sen. Gloria Lawlah, Prince George’s Democrat, said denying the protective order “defies the imagination.”

She added, “The system failed [Miss McClendon] because you’ve got to have folks working in the system who are well-educated on the issues and who are sensitive to the fragile mature of the situation. It’s life or death.”

She said the Senate will take up this issue when it reconvenes next month.

Their first order of business should be to pass a law requiring mandatory legal training and extensive domestic violence training for anyone legally bound to issue protective orders when an average of 1,200 are issued monthly in Prince George’s County alone.

After all, Doreen McClendon and others like her seeking help are not “unworthy victims.”

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