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By Justin Glawe, Published September 07 2013

New domestic violence court begins in Beltrami County

BEMIDJI, Minn. – The front row was full of men.

Behind them, two benches in Beltrami District Judge Paul Benshoof’s courtroom were empty, and behind those two empty pews was one full of women, against the west wall of the room. The empty rows that separated the two groups were a physical manifestation of the no-contact orders often issued in domestic violence cases. But there was something different about the atmosphere in the courtroom Friday morning, the first day of Beltrami County’s new domestic violence court.

“What we really want to convey to the public is that we’re working on building connections,” said Deb Miller, coordinator of the court.

Some of the men were in custody, appearing before Benshoof in the navy blue garb of the Beltrami County Jail, their lawyers by their sides. But others, free from handcuffs and able to walk out of the courthouse as free men, spoke to Benshoof without an attorney.

For them, it was more of a discussion and less of a hearing.

“I will see you on Sept. 25,” Benshoof told them.

The time period represents the regular appearances prosecutors, judges, probation officials and others hope will reduce domestic violence in Beltrami County.

The court system here averages about 55 domestic assault cases a month, Miller said in March.

She sat next to Trish Hanson, district supervisor for the Department of Corrections, on Friday. The pair sat on a wooden bench in the lobby of the courthouse, pleased to see their work and the work of a 35-person advisory committee come to fruition.

Working together

The court has been in the works for about two years, Hanson said. She wrote the grant, signed off on by Benshoof and his fellow judges, John Melbye and Shari Schlucter, along with the Beltrami County Sheriff’s Office, the Bemidji Police Department, the Beltrami County Attorney’s Office, victims service agencies and Bemidji State University, among others.

“We’ve had so many partners, so many people who have dedicated so much time to make this happen,” Hanson said.

Hanson’s work secured $455,000 in funds, to be used over the next three years, to operate the court. The money comes from the Office on Violence Against Women, part of the U.S. Department of Justice.

From Friday on, all domestic assaults committed in Beltrami County, and those cases related to domestic violence, will be heard in the court.

Probation officers monitor the progress of offenders, based on reports of counselors in batterers intervention, anger management, chemical dependency and other programs. Numerous times throughout the morning, Benshoof conferred with probation officers and other court officials regarding the men who appeared before the court, asking “are you comfortable with that?”

For one man, that meant his next appearance would take place in six weeks instead of three. A court official agreed, based upon the man’s progress, and his occupation – harvest time is fast approaching. The man said he’d made significant positive steps in a batterers intervention program, that he was learning where others weren’t.

“I’ve learned that the world isn’t like what our fathers told us,” he told Benshoof.

The group therapy sessions in the program were working, the man said, but that doesn’t mean they do for everyone.

“Sometimes people have issues with mental health that may prevent them from being in groups,” Hanson said. “So we work with them.”

Complex cases

All those involved in the court must walk a familiar line for domestic violence cases. The threshold for judgment runs from “exaggeration by the victim” – in reference to a Benshoof-rejected guilty plea for defense attorney Paul Thompson’s client, a man who said the injuries he’d inflicted upon the victim were accidental – to “denial of violence by the defendant,” as Benshoof himself said of many who have faced domestic assault charges.

Each case is complex, a fact made apparent by the request from one tearful woman. She sat in the back row – the women’s row – as an attorney recounted the events that led to the attack – the death of the 5-month-old she shared with the man in custody, the confusion over the cause of death, the grief-stricken violence that followed.

“I think we just need to have contact with each other,” she said, breaking down in tears.

The baby, an investigation determined, died of sudden infant death syndrome. The woman is once again pregnant with the man’s child.

“The domestic violence court is not intended to rip apart the family,” Miller said. “What we’re trying to do here is make the family stronger and healthier.”