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Melissa Green has a new role at the St. Mary’s County Sheriff’s Office, and she hopes those who need her will reach out and call. The deputy started last week as the coordinator for domestic violence issues.

Her goal is to “make somebody’s life better, even if it’s just for that day,” she said. Green started her career with the sheriff’s office in 2003 and, since then, she said, has investigated numerous domestic violence assaults, talking with victims and suspected offenders.

In her new job, she will introduce victims to resources available throughout St. Mary’s. Those connections could include anything from helping them leave an abusive situation, understanding their options for getting a protective order, locating counseling and more.

It’s an important role,” she said. Domestic violence affects more women than car accidents and rape. One in four women will experience some form of it in their lives. And she said, about one-third of female homicide victims were killed as a result of domestic violence.

“But I don’t want people to think the domestic violence coordinator is out there to target men,” Green said. “In my patrol career, I have locked up just as many women for assaulting men. We’re here to help victims in general.”

The National Network to End Domestic Violence conducts a 24-hour census each year, reviewing the services that victims needed on a particular day nationwide. In Maryland, on Sept. 12, 2012, 1,016 people were served, with 440 of them needing refuge in an emergency shelter or transitional housing.

About 74 percent of services provided by programs that day included emergency shelter and legal advocacy. Other services included therapy and counseling for adults and children, transportation and bilingual advocacy. There were 134 unmet requests in Maryland that day for several reasons, including not enough staff on hand, no available beds and limited funding.

In St. Mary’s, there was at least one death caused by domestic violence in 2011 and another in February this year, when Kimberly Dawn Carter, 38, was killed by her estranged husband, who was later sentenced to life in prison.

Laura Joyce, executive director of the Southern Maryland Center for Family Advocacy, also talked Tuesday about Tyneesha Erica Johnson, whom Joyce said the system largely failed last month. Johnson, of Lexington Park, “did everything we asked her to do,” Joyce said. She called law enforcement. She applied for a protective order. “But she wasn’t protected.”

John Otha Dickens Jr., 24, was accused of a second-degree assault against Johnson. He was arrested and released on bond, and Joyce said, “rapidly returned” to Johnson’s residence. He allegedly cut another woman and a child in the home and beat Johnson again. Police said they had to shoot him to stop the assault.

Johnson was flown to a hospital for treatment. After leaving the hospital he was charged with the second assaults and released again.

Court commissioners both times had set the bond; after his second release a judge ordered that he be held in jail without bond.

Joyce said she had been on the phone with police to notify the victim that her alleged attacker was out on bond. “It made no sense that he was released,” Joyce said. “I think that was my lowest point in 11 years of doing this.

“It’s a reminder that we’re only as strong as our weakest link and the system can be very fragile if there’s someone in the system who doesn’t get it,” she said.

When asked if she thinks the court commissioners, who set bond for suspects after they are arrested on criminal charges, “get it” now, Joyce said, “No. I don’t. We can’t get answers to what was considered in making those decisions. And how we can make sure that doesn’t happen ever, once even, ever again?”

A group of advocates, called the Family Violence Coordinating Council case review team, meets every two weeks. They’re from Walden, Patuxent River Naval Air Station, police and sheriff’s deputies, Three Oaks Center, social services workers and more. They discuss domestic violence cases in St. Mary’s and make referrals to get victims and their children in services that will most help them — from emergency shelter, to food stamps, child care and counseling.

“If you’re only addressing one part of the problem, typically the problem is not going to be solved,” Joyce said. “The really important work often gets done between those meetings, after hours, by picking up the phone.”

Recently, the Dickens-Johnson case was all they talked about. “We met the next day and discussed that ... And we came up with a plan to address it,” Joyce said. “The phones were buzzing all over the county that night. They really were.

“There are absolutely more stories where the system works,” Joyce said. “Or you’d be hearing about a lot more murders ... I think we’ve come such a long way.” The group also is working to set up an Internet site with links and create a video to spread the word about services.

Working with agencies in St. Mary’s is key, said deputy Elizabeth Croyle, who had the role at the sheriff’s office before Green was appointed, and is now training her. “We all come together and have a collaborated approach to helping the victim come out of these situations.”

Victims should know there are several options. Some don’t want to talk to the police, they just want a counselor. Others might not want counseling but need help securing a protective order.

Offenders are looking to maintain power and control, she said. As a result, some victims are isolated from family and friends, cut off from making financial choices, limited from advancing in education or professionally. “Leaving can be devastating,” Croyle said. “It takes an average of seven to 10 times for a woman to leave her abuser.”

But, victims shouldn’t feel guilty about calling the sheriff’s office that many times or more, Croyle said. “We know that’s part of the cycle.”

“It’s a cycle of violence,” Green said. And, it’s one where children, especially if they see the assaults, can be hurt as much as an adult being abused. “If you don’t stop it, at some point ... they think that it’s OK.”

Dickens’ father is serving life in prison after being convicted of a 2004 murder of his estranged wife as she knelt on the floor of her mother’s home in Lexington Park. He had been granted pretrial release before the homicide.

“We don’t judge. We’re not here to chastise people for decisions they’ve made in their lives,” Green said. “We just want to help.”

nclark@somdnews.com



To learn more

For information about domestic violence services or violations in St. Mary’s County, contact Deputy First Class Melissa Green at 301-475-4200, ext. 1996, or email melissa.green@stmarysmd.com. The Southern Maryland Center for Family Advocacy can be reached at 301-373-4141.