Assignment 13: The fight to end domestic violence

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(WEAU)-- As the days go by and fall turns to winter year after year, there is one night that forever haunts Sarah Engle.

“He broke into my mother’s home. He hid his car. He cut the phone lines,” Engle said.

In September 2008, Sarah Engle’s ex-boyfriend, James Lahoud, shot and killed Sarah’s mom Charlotte and then waited for Sarah to come home.

"He raped me all night and thought he shot and killed me," Engle said.

The bullet shattered Sarah’s cheekbone paralyzing the left side of her face.

"I just found out this summer, it was a hair line away from hitting my upper spine," Engle said.

Sarah's story is heart-wrenching which is similar to so many Wisconsin women whose names have appeared in headlines. Those names include: Alisha Sidie, killed in 2008 in Jackson County; Theresa Still, killed in 2010 in Eau Claire County; Zina Houghten- killed in 2012 in Milwaukee County.

“I'm one of the lucky ones,” Engle said.

We hear name after name and story after story, but domestic violence homicide rates are still on the rise.

In the last year, 52 people died in Wisconsin in domestic violence related murders and suicides. Fifteen more people than in 2011.

“We know how dangerous this is for the victims, for police and other family members,” said Ray Maida, a former police investigator.

Maida trains police departments to investigate domestic violence crimes.

“This is really about homicide prevention,” Maida said.

He says one Wisconsin law that helps hold an abuser accountable is the ‘Mandatory Arrest Law.’ The law basically says if an officer has reason to believe that domestic violence occurred and will continue to occur; the officer must arrest the person who committed the act.

But an arrest is rarely ever an end to the story. Former Dane County Prosecutor Judith Munaker says the court system has to hold abuser accountable after arrest.

“A 9 month sentence for a battery or a 90 sentence for disorderly conduct are really rare. But what we are seeing more of is felonies, which happen all the time in domestic violence crimes, like strangulation or false imprisonment are getting charged,” said Munaker.

Tony Gibart with the Wisconsin Coalition Against Domestic Violence says people really need to understand domestic violence to fight it.

“By definition is a pattern of abuse that’s directed at the victim to control and terrorize the victim. So if you remove that pattern what judges and juries see is not the reality of domestic violence,” Gibart said.

A bill in the state legislature would create a law to allow prosecutors to show a jury an abusers pattern of abuse in court. The bill passed in the House and is waiting for a hearing in the Senate.

"What’s important is that the system demonstrate accountability and follow through," Gibart said.

But tools to prosecute and arrest abusers are just part of the bigger issue. The question is how do we stop domestic violence in the first place?

"The reality is that until men embrace that domestic violence is their issue and that they are the ones that are repeatedly causing-based on the fact that they are the batterers and they choose to make the change it's going to continue to happen," Victim Advocate Pat Stein said.

“It starts out small so you don't realize it’s bad. I think that’s how a lot of domestic violence relationships work,” said Engle.

Engle says speaking out against violence has helped her heal. Her abuser is serving life in prison with no chance of parole. But Engle says she hopes one day her words will no longer be needed and the cycle of abuse will come to an end.

Stein says it’s important to remember that some women are abusers and some men are victims as well.

She says if you know are or know someone being abused, there is help.