Domestic Violence Treatment Challenged 

Her Sister's Keeper: A woman says that a justice court judge is not protecting her abused sister.

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In 2006, West Jordan Judge Ronald E. Kunz received the “Freedom Award” from the Salt Lake Area Domestic Violence Coalition, an award given to a business or member of the judiciary “for their contribution to assist in enhancing services to victims.” He was also named the 2008 Advocate of the Year by the Utah Domestic Violence Council.

All that praise, however, rings somewhat hollow in Pamela’s ears. At a monthly meeting of the Salt Lake Area Domestic Violence Coalition in early July, the former court clerk told the assembled crime-victim advocates about her sister. She said the woman—a mother of two children, ages 3 and 6—was a domestic-violence victim whose rights had been ignored by the court system while the convicted abuser had been “coddled” by Kunz.

“Who’s my sister’s voice in all of this?” she asked the advocates, mostly women, employed by city police departments across the Salt Lake valley.

“You,” said one.

Now Pamela, whose last name, along with that of her sister and her ex-brother-in-law, were withheld to protect the victim’s identity, is wondering, after sending a 10-page letter addressed to Kunz and copied to legislators, government, West Jordan officials and media outlets, if anyone is listening to her pointed criticisms of a system that “is severely broken on many counts.” Loopholes, she writes in her letter, lead to a “substantial shortage of voice, accountability or advocacy” for her sister and Pamela’s nephews. The charges are not only of the system but also of the judge, whom she feels is determined to shepherd the perpetrator even while the victim and children languish.

Pamela’s complaint stems from an incident on Jan. 3, 2009, when her sister’s now-ex-husband tried to choke his wife on the stairs in front of their children. He pleaded guilty March 19, 2009, to one count of simple assault and one count of domestic violence in the presence of a child, both class B misdemeanors. Kunz suspended a 90-day jail sentence along with $900 of a $1,500 fine, as long as Pamela’s former brother-in-law served a one-year probation and completed domestic-violence counseling.

Wherever Pamela looked as she followed her sister’s case through the West Jordan Justice Court, she found problems, notably with Sandy Counseling Centers (SCC), which she says serves two masters: victims and rehabilitating abusers. SCC director Velda McDonald disagrees, however, saying in an e-mail that research shows that “the treatment of perpetrators, victims and children is far more effective than ‘blaming,’ ‘confronting’ and ‘getting even,’ as believed in the past. Anyone who will follow best practices will treat the family.”

SCC provides couple counseling to perpetrators and their victims, a controversial approach to domestic violence that last year saw heated debate among advocates and treatment providers. Pamela says SCC contacted her sister to offer her couple counseling shortly after her abusive spouse was ordered to begin treatment, even though Utah’s licensure requirements require that an abuser finish a minimum of 12 sessions before couple counseling. (McDonald says her company complies with that rule.) Pamela’s sister, who declined the offer, did not hear from SCC again.

Many justice courts have close relationships with private treatment and probation providers, and West Jordan seems no exception. SCC has provided treatment for offenders sentenced in Judge Kunz’s court, along with other justice and district courts, McDonald says, since the mid-90s. In 2006, she nominated Kunz, along with a Sandy City police officer, for the Salt Lake Area Domestic Violence Coalition’s Freedom Award.

Pamela says her sister’s ex-husband found a receptive ear in Kunz, much to her disappointment. “I expected more authority from the judge,” she told the domestic-violence coalition. “He spoke to him like a bishop. [Kunz] made me feel like he was putting his arm around him.”

Kunz declined to comment on this case, Utah State Courts’ spokeswoman Nancy Volmer wrote in an e-mail, but will be addressing some issues raised by Pamela in open court Aug. 5, when Pamela’s former brother-in-law will have an order-to-show-cause hearing.

Pamela says her ex-brother-in-law pleaded guilty to the theft of Lortab in Sandy Justice Court in 2008, information her sister had put in a statement to the court in March 2009 for the domestic-violence prosecution. On a drug test on Aug 10, 2009, the ex-brother-in-law tested positive, which he blamed, according to the court docket, on a prescription drug he took for a leg injury. Despite the prior conviction, Kunz did not find the defendant in violation of his probation.

Her ex-in-law’s legal problems relating to drugs got worse. On April 9, 2010, he pleaded guilty to a felony charge of heroin possession in the 5th District Court in St George. Two weeks later, Kunz talked to Pamela’s ex-brother-in-law through a video hearing while he was in the Washington County Jail on the heroin charge. Despite the defendant to failing to “pay [his court-ordered] fine, comply with SCC and comply with [a private probation service],” the West Jordan docket notes, he was nevertheless given one more chance, even though, Pamela points out angrily, one of the probation requirements Kunz had imposed upon sentencing was “no criminal offenses.”

On June 17, SCC recommended their client for “completion” of treatment because of his “excellent progress.” Five days later, Kunz approved SCC’s recommendation that the man forgo parenting classes. Whether the court informed SCC of his drug conviction or not, Pamela says, “The fact that it was recommended and approved [by Kunz] that he forgo parenting classes is a disgrace.”

She knows there is little she can do for her sister, but, “I’m worried about the thousands who come after her,” she says. She is not sure what help to expect from crime-victim advocates. Many shook their heads in unsurprised sympathy and frustration at Pamela’s story at the Salt Lake Area Domestic Violence Coalition meeting. Yet when she asked why something wasn’t being done, one said they couldn’t speak out against the cities that employed them.

Pamela has begun a Utah court-watch program, asking for supporters to wear something purple in Kunz’s court on Aug. 5. That’s the date Kunz has set to review her ex-brother-in-law’s probation on the domestic-violence convictions in light of his heroin conviction. She will be waiting to see, as she wrote in her letter to Kunz, “who will stand as the victims’ voice, act as their advocate, and provide them with protection under the law? Will it be you?” 

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