Domestic Abuse p.

By: Dorothy Giobbe Newspaper's policy of identifying victims of domestic violence from court papers creates a debate in a small Vermont town sp.

THE CALEDONIAN-RECORD, ST. Johnsbury, Vt., hopes to combat domestic abuse by thrusting both victims and abusers into the spotlight.
In March, the 10,500-circulation daily began publishing final abuse orders granted in Family Court; the orders identify victims of domestic violence, their accused abusers, the reason that the orders were requested and the judge's rulings.
The orders are entered into the court record, which is open to the public.
Traditionally, newspapers have declined to publish names listed on final abuse documents, reasoning that the nature of domestic abuse and potential ramifications for both victims and abusers outweighed the value of the information to the general public.
"The court documents are a matter of public record and we are a paper of public record," said Ellie Dixon, managing editor of the Caledonian-Record.
Dixon said that by publishing the documents, the paper can help "save the victim." Once the community
is aware of an abusive situation, she
believes, it may "reach out and be kinder."
"We hope, in our small way, that we are helping," she said. "If neighbors see John Doe going into a house where there is a restraining order, they might call police."
But victims advocacy groups suggest that there are more constructive ways to heighten awareness of domestic abuse.
"All domestic violence cases are not alike," said Judy Rex, coordinator of the Vermont Network Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault.
Rex said that in some cases, battered women actively seek to tell their stories to the media to help reduce the stigma associated with domestic abuse.
But in most other cases, fear of retribution, shame, self-doubt and the confusion that often accompanies domestic abuse makes battered women extremely reluctant to file an initial complaint.
"Most women in an abusive situation think it's their fault," Rex said. "It takes a lot for them to come forward in the first place."
She believes that the Caledonian-Record's policy will deter many battered women from filing complaints against abusive spouses if there is even a remote possibility that their names will be published.
While Dixon hopes that publication of the court papers will inspire "rage in the community to wake up and realize this is happening," victims groups fear that publication will enrage abusers, who will strike out against women requesting protection orders.
Umbrella, a St. Johnsbury-based domestic violence program, has substantiated at least 10 cases in which wom-en backed off from securing restraining orders because they feared that publication would lead to retaliation by their abusers.
"Those are just the cases we know about," said Rachel Desilets, coordinator of Umbrella.
While Desilets believes that the Caledonian-Record "feels empathy for the victims, they have not thought this policy through and do not understand the impact of publicity on the victims."
"These columns revictimize the women," she added.
But Dixon said advocacy groups have "tunnel vision."
She acknowledged, "People might withdraw complaints because of the policy.
"We feel badly and are sorry if that happens, but that's not enough to make us alter our policy," she said.
Rex suggested that the Caledonian-Record's policy might be more helpful if women seeking restraining orders were given a choice whether to have their names published.
"The paper could go through the orders and ask," she said. "For the women not to have a choice in that decision is my frustration."
But Dixon said that even though the column is published sporadically, asking each person is "unrealistic for a newspaper that must meet daily deadlines."
While the Caledonian-Record has a "great deal of compassion for women in these intolerable relationships," Dixon said, the "victims already come public to some extent" by filing with the court and speaking to family, friends and advocacy groups.
Also, while the paper has "gone into details" of incidents of abuse in the past, it now will publish "less descriptive announcements, just like we do divorce [announcements]," Dixon said.
She said the paper may consider publishing names of rape victims and editors have discussed whether "we [are] doing more to hide these things and perpetuate the myth that this is a hush-hush subject by not publishing the names. That may add to the myth that it's the victims' fault."
? (Excerpts from the St. Johnsbury, Vt., Caledonian-Record's Caledonia Family Court section, which identifies victims of domestic violence, their accused abusers, the reason that the court orders were requested and the judge's rulings. E&P has blacked out names of the people involved.
The newspaper's managing editor defends publication of the information, saying it's public record and can help "save the victim." Victims advocacy groups say publication may be humiliating to victims and could provoke abusers to retaliate against their victims. ) [Photo and Caption]


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