- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 5, 2006

“You’d think that after everything that has happened in the county with domestic-violence cases that judges would take a little more time to think about these things more carefully,” says an “outraged” Denise C. McCain, executive director of the Family Crisis Center of Prince George’s County.

Ms. McCain was reacting to yet another death of a Prince George’s County domestic-violence victim, who reportedly sought help from the court system before her boyfriend killed her and then himself this week.

“It’s nonstop. It’s unbelievable,” Ms. McCain said. “I’m completely at a loss for words.”

Not really. She found plenty with which to vent.

Ironically, Ms. McCain and Prince George’s County State’s Attorney Glenn F. Ivey were on their way to appearances Wednesday morning to promote this weekend’s public events highlighting Domestic Violence Awareness Month when they were confronted with the latest tragedy.

Jackie M. Lewis, 57, was killed by her boyfriend, Arthur Comer, 57, who then killed himself after calling 911 to come to the home the couple shared in Fort Washington, police reported.

Based on reports about the protective orders she unsuccessfully sought, Miss Lewis had tried to get Comer to leave because she was so frightened for her safety that she couldn’t sleep.

As in other highly publicized cases in the county, Miss Lewis sought protective orders that were denied by District Court Judge Crystal D. Mittelstaedt six weeks ago. This plea for help was rejected twice by the judge, who has been on the bench for little more than a year.

Here’s the rub: Another judge wrote on the first temporary peace order that he granted in August that Comer was “to be removed from [Miss Lewis’] home immediately.” Yesterday, Mr. Ivey said he had not read the orders, but he cautioned against a rush to judgment about Judge Mittelstaedt’s ruling. She has not commented publicly.

However, Mr. Ivey suggested that state legislators may want to reconsider changing the legal standards required for issuing protective orders and to find ways to make the judicial process easier for domestic-violence victims and their advocates.

“This is clearly a tragic situation,” Mr. Ivey said. “We need to make a careful review to see if things could have been done differently to avoid this.” For starters, Mr. Ivey and Ms. McCain agree, more resources should be made available to victims, including someone to help them navigate the system.

To deny the orders and then “send them out in the street without helping them to develop a safety plan is irresponsible,” Ms. McCain said.

Domestic-violence incidents in Prince George’s, second in the state only to Baltimore, have become such a hot topic that this month’s issue of Essence — a magazine geared primarily to black women — published “The Secret Shame of Prince George’s County.”

The article presents a negative portrayal of the county, comparing its designation as the most wealthy enclave of blacks in the country with its high domestic-violence rates.

But Ms. McCain says the county, especially under the leadership of Mr. Ivey, may be a victim of its own efforts to address this issue, which was once swept under the rug.

The increased numbers of domestic-violence calls and cases can be attributed to more victims feeling safe enough now to come forward given the county’s initiatives to reduce this problem.

After the brutal death of Ernestine Bunn Dyson, who was killed at her Oxon Hill home in March 2003 in a murder-suicide — hours after her estranged husband’s court appearance on domestic-violence charges — county officials formed a task force that made recommendations that were put into place to help women and men seeking refuge from volatile relationships.

Mr. Ivey’s office now has a prosecutorial unit devoted to domestic-violence cases. The sheriff’s department instead of the police department handles all such calls now, and there is a special court to handle cases.

To further their public awareness efforts, Mr. Ivey has enlisted the help of the faith community with this month’s Project Safe Sunday campaign, which begins this weekend. With more than 800 churches in the county, the prosecutor is asking them to devote at least one sermon to the topic of domestic violence.

Today, for example, Mr. Ivey and Yvette Cade — the woman who was badly burned last October when her estranged husband doused her with gasoline and set her on fire — will discuss domestic violence with a coalition of churches at the First Baptist Church of Glenarden.

Mr. Ivey was so upset by Mrs. Cade’s case that he took the rare step of being the co-prosecutor.

Tomorrow morning, Ms. McCain’s organization, which provides what little shelter the county offers for abused homeless women, expects about 300 people to participate in its annual 5K walk from their administrative offices at 3601 Taylor St. in Brentwood to the courthouse in Hyattsville.

“We can’t keep [domestic violence] behind closed doors anymore,” she said.

In view of this week’s tragedy in Fort Washington, Ms. McCain expressed concern that cases are still not taken seriously in the criminal justice system. They need to “dig deeper, ask more questions” rather than accept what’s presented on the surface, she said.

Most of all, Ms. McCain wants judges held accountable for what happens to domestic-violence victims. Insensitive judges such as Richard A. Palumbo, who was forced into retirement after the Cade case, “don’t get it,” as Ms. McCain said.

In fairness, at least some judges “get it” some of the time.

But Mr. Ivey acknowledges that throughout the judicial and legislative systems, “We still have work to do.”

Ms. McCain asked, “What’s it going to take? More women like Jackie Lewis losing their lives?”

For more information about the Family Crisis Center walk, call 301/779-2100 or go to www.familycrisiscenter-pgco.org. For more information about Project Safe Sunday, call 301/952-3933. The national hot line for domestic violence is 800/799-7233.

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