Most abuse goes unseen, Covington wants to change that

The city and police see success in a partnership with the nonprofit DAWN

Editor’s note: This is part one of a two-part series on Domestic Violence Awareness month

Domestic violence, it’s an uncomfortable thing to talk about or speak about. But it’s more than one spouse physically hurting another or their children. It can also involve mental, emotional or financial abuse. For many communities, neighbors and friends don’t realize how domestic violence can saturate their community.

October is Domestic Violence awareness month, and the City of Covington, local nonprofits and residents are hoping to shine a light on the issue.

This lack of awareness is just one of many things about domestic violence the city of Covington is trying to fight against. Through partnerships with local domestic violence resource shelters, annual events and proper law enforcement training, the community of Covington is trying to break the silence surrounding an issue usually left for victims to face alone.

Creating a more reassuring police presence

Covington Police Chief Andrew McCurdy would love to see changes made in how police everywhere respond to domestic violence situations.

“When I arrived as the chief of police over four years ago, one of the gaps of service I saw was we didn’t have any advocacy for victims of domestic violence,” McCurdy said. “Our prosecutor was put in a position where he had to prosecute cases but also had to play the role of advocate.”

This wasn’t a great way to help victims, and for McCurdy sometimes the role of police officer in these cases can be adversarial.

“The way the system works often creates almost an adversarial relationship between the different pieces of the system,” he said. “As an example, the police respond and investigate, maybe we make an arrest, the prosecutor prosecutes the accused, the public defender defends the accused, the judge is supposed to make these independent decisions and the advocates play a role of support for the victims typically. But what ends up happening, as an impartial investigator, is … to do an independent investigation. That investigation may clear the accused of wrongdoing or it may result in arrest.”

In a lot of these cases, the accused abuser may have done nothing illegal in the eyes of the law but are still harming their victims.

That’s when the Kent-based nonprofit DAWN steps in and helps create a system of resources and advocacy for abuse victims.

Almost two years ago, the domestic violence shelter and resource nonprofit DAWN began a full-time relationship with the City of Covington and sent over a mobile advocate.

“Our mobile advocates, they really do what I phrase as ‘bring the access to the survivor,’” DAWN Executive Director Angela Dannenbring said. “They are out in the community, following through on a request or need from our crisis line but also through types of referral processes as well. Our mobile advocates are scattered in places across King County and really what they do is more of a community-based approach with the survivor, identifying resources, navigate through the systems survivors of abuse will experience and being there through the whole spectrum.”

Advocates help support victims find housing if needed, through their court cases and create a more stable home life after surviving domestic violence.

The full-time mobile advocate in Covington has a permanent office in city hall near the police station. McCurdy says this is a great resource because when a victim comes in to possibly file a domestic violence report, they may find their situation isn’t covered by any local, state or federal laws. Sometimes a victim can be from Covington but the actual crime happened outside the Covington Police’s jurisdiction. Instead of just turning the abused away, police can now turn them to the advocate who is able to help them fight for their right to live a peaceful existence.

The numbers from both the Covington police and DAWN (who assist victims all over south King County) speak loudly.

In 2018, Covington Police had 112 reported domestic violence cases. At DAWN over 9,000 individual shelter nights have been provided in just one year and the nonprofit’s crisis line received 5,700 calls. And that’s still not enough. For every one victim or family DAWN is able to take in, 57 more are turned away.

“The numbers are complicated,” McCurdy said. “One of the issues we have in our society right now is (domestic violence) has very little meaning. Sexual assault and domestic violence both are terms that are thrown around a lot. And for the police it’s very specific. It has to do with when it happened, who was involved and the type of violence that was involved. It’s hard to pull data from calls that may have been family disturbances or child custody issues that are more of what DAWN would help someone through versus what the police would take care of. We’ll try to mediate or protect somebody, but a vast majority of them are not criminal matters or something we would even write a report on.”

In some of these cases, McCurdy said, having the police arrive could create a more dangerous situation for the victims because it adds an extra level of intensity to a situation.

“Calling the police raises the risk for you often times. When you call, what is going to happen until we get there and what is going to happen to you after we leave?”

To help create a better response, McCurdy has his officers train on how to properly interview someone who is a victim of a traumatic event including sexual assault and domestic violence. Officers also train on deescalation tactics, and on how to provide and interact with resource advocates such as DAWN.

“The first thing comes from fixing the way we respond, all the way from my level as the way I supervise all the way down to the patrol officer response,” McCurdy said. “Typically, in the middle of the night, when you call 911 we are the first ones who get there, and we are the only ones available for most issues. That puts us in the mindset that we need to fix everything, but we can’t fix everything … for example if one of my officers respond to a DV call, but we get there and it’s not a crime the tendency is to say ‘sorry there is nothing I can do’ whereas if officers have better training they can collect better information on where to send (the victim) that may be more helpful than us.”

While the DAWN crisis line is open to anyone, regardless of age, gender identity or sexuality, the shelter is specifically used for women and children. The nonprofit also provides a “marketplace” where victims can come and shop for food, books and other household items as needed every Saturday. DAWN helps women relocate, sometimes into other states, while fleeing their abusers. They give legal advice and provide a warm relationship to those seeking reassurance.

“We have a holistic, wrap around care model,” Dannenbring said.

If Dannenbring had a magic wand, she’d fix a few things. One of the biggest ones is the lack of accessibility in the criminal justice system.

“By the time we wrap around a survivor, there is multi-level systems and we’d like to help with navigation … many times my staff and myself are trying to find sustainable means. We are fortunate for partnerships that we have … but we watch our survivors have a lot of access issues,” she said.

How can we prevent domestic violence?

It can be as simple as starting a conversation with your teenagers about healthy relationships, Dannenbring said. DAWN networks in many communities and school districts to share information about what an abusive relationship looks like from the inside and the outside.

“There seems to be an all or nothing idea of domestic violence,” Dannenbring said. “But someone may be experiencing domestic violence and not have a physical appearance as such. It does affect men and women. It does affect all genders, all walks of life. Its not comfortable to hear the stories, or hear that it is in your backyard.”

For Dannenbring, many victims see the “red flags” but still lack knowledge to learn how to leave early, before things get drastically worse. Some of these red flags include isolation from family or friends, financial restrictions, if a partner is quick to anger, if a partner uses control techniques like gas lighting. Family or friends may notice a victim is withdrawing from social groups, or will become more secretive.

“Our advocates have expanded into youth prevention and working into school districts and college campuses,” Dannenbring said. “DAWN does provide that service, we have had scenarios where we have had youth come in as a walk-in … we have children at our shelters and have children advocates. We team up with mental health advocates too. Our advocates are requested to come do prevention training. A lot of our prevention training is to look for these signs.”

For McCurdy, he likes to try to teach healthy relationships to young men and women so they don’t become abusers in the future. He does this by showing examples of positive leadership, positive male attributes and more.

“All things an abuser does runs counter to that,” McCurdy said. “Gender roles are changing now a days, but I like running programs for students because we talk about what roles are in a relationship and what that looks like in a positive way.”

The relationship created between DAWN and the City of Covington has provided great resources and has helped many local victims find shelter during a tragedy in their lives. Dannenbring hopes sharing a message of holistic care and concern will make neighbors and friends want to be a better lookout for their loved ones.