By Isidro Camacho

The Rockbridge County Domestic and Juvenile Court is scheduled to hear eight cases involving domestic assault and battery on Monday. This is a high number of cases, but it is by no means unusual. All the local courts, including District and Circuit courts, rarely have that many cases in any category in a given day. Domestic violence has long been the most overlooked crime problem in the Rockbridge area.

In February, the Domestic and Juvenile Court heard 18 cases pertaining to domestic violence. The month before that, there were 10.

Judy Casteele, the executive director of the local domestic violence agency Project Horizon, says such high numbers of cases has become the norm for this area. The highest number of cases she has ever seen in a month came last August, when there were 35 court hearings.

Casteele also said the number of court cases masks the full issue because “only one in 10 victims of domestic abuse actually file charges.”

Investigator Miles Kelly of the Rockbridge County Sheriff Department said his department receives 180 to 200 calls a year related to intimate-partner abuse. He estimated that about 30 percent of all the cases brought by the Sheriff’s Office pertain to domestic violence.

Investigator Miles Kelly of the Rockbridge County Sheriff Department. (Photo by Isidro Camacho)

Or more.  “If on a Monday an investigator walks in and looks at a box of 10 complaints from the weekend, five of them will be D-V,” he said.

In March, there were 10 recorded arrests related to domestic abuse from the Rockbridge Sheriff’s Office in March. The Lexington Police Department’s crime docket showed no arrests of this kind during the same time period.

Kelly and his team are specially trained to handle cases of domestic violence. After each arrest, they mail the victim a packet with resource material and an evaluation sheet to gauge the victim’s perception of the case. Kelly says only about two percent of these evaluation sheets are ever returned.

In the last eight months, Project Horizon has sheltered 49 victims of domestic abuse, according to Casteele. The staff also offered counseling to 256 victims.

For 10 years, Project Horizon has held a state contract as a chief domestic abuse call-center. Long recognized for its excellence, the office’s 24/7 hotline receives calls from all over Virginia when other hotlines shut down for the weekend or holidays.

But Casteele said that it will not be renewing its contract this June because the organization wants to focus on “reaching underserved segments of the population.” It will be increasing staff to better cater to domestic abuse problems within the Spanish-speaking, LGBTQ and African-American communities, she said.

Looking Forward

Nationwide, April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month. In recognition of this, Project Horizon is hosting a Speak Out event next Wednesday, April 13, in which victims of sexual assault and domestic abuse can gather in solidarity at 6 p.m. in the Virginia Military Institute’s library.

While there is no definite psychological cue that prompts domestic violence in individual cases, both Casteele and Kelly agreed that certain circumstantial factors within the Rockbridge area contribute. Kelly said that poverty and unemployment are contributors. Casteele said that being exposed to violence in the home during childhood often leads to violence in adult life.

Domestic violence is cyclical in nature. Kelly said his team often repeatedly visits the same residences for abuse complaints. Abuse may continue for long spans of time before a victim is ready to break the cycle, he said.

“After about the tenth time we’ve come over, she’ll come around to thinking about bringing charges,” he said.

Kelly, who will be retiring a month, reflected on how domestic abuse has always been present during his time on the force. He offered the anecdote of a case he brought this week. His team had arrested an unemployed man who was beating his wife.

“I remember when I was on patrol 18 years ago,” he said. “We were arresting his father for the same thing,” he said.

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