Would a domestic violence court work in St. Louis County?
Her husband had long abused her, but she did not want him going to prison.
Months after he was spared such a fate, he stabbed her to death in front of their children.
"I could never forget what happened to her, and what I could have done differently as a judge to have given the husband better services that might have changed the way he was violent against her," said Ninth District Chief Judge Paul Benshoof, who is based in Bemidji. "That led me and others to decide that we really needed to do something differently."
That was 2003. A decade later, a domestic violence court opened in Beltrami County, the product of years of planning and a federal grant.
In the years since, Benshoof said the judiciary has become much better equipped to hold offenders accountable and protect victims.
"What I did as a judge before she was killed, I was making all kinds of mistakes," Benshoof said. "It was not for a lack of caring. It was simply not understanding the dynamics of domestic violence."
The stakes are high. In 2017, 19 women were murdered in Minnesota by intimate partners, according to the Minnesota Coalition for Battered Women. Many of the killers had a history of domestic violence, with each case a grim test of what could have been done to prevent these deaths.
"Our challenge to the community is to not let these deaths go unnoticed but rather to use these brutal murders as a springboard for action," the group says.
While Duluth is often heralded as a trailblazer for its domestic assault response, there is no domestic violence court in St. Louis County. Still, many of its tenets are or can be followed here.
Duluth-based Judge Shaun Floerke helps run restorative circles through Men As Peacemakers for the "high-risk, high-need folks who are going to be in the community," he said. That's in addition to the programming already required of many, though certainly not all, offenders who come through the local courts.
"It makes sense for us to focus, and it makes sense for probation to focus and for lots of people to be on the same page," Floerke said. "That's easier if you have some type of specialty, like what I'm doing with domestic violence restorative circles or the full built-up court."
There have been attempts to start a domestic violence court here in the past, and Floerke said he's open to trying again someday.
"There are a lot of questions about who you would target, how would you build it and what resources you would bring," he said. "You always want to know if you're doing the right things with the right people."
'Right from the beginning'
In the Beltrami County Domestic Violence Court, suspects are put on close watch immediately after being released from jail, and victims are given an advocate.
"We try to do things right from the beginning," said the court's coordinator, Deb Miller.
After an arrest is made and charges are filed, one judge is assigned to a case and will stay with it throughout the proceedings, with the goal of moving it along as quickly as possible. The longer a case stretches on, the harder it is on a victim, advocates say.
"If it's six-plus months out, that can hold a victim back from healing," said Susan Utech, Safe Haven's executive director.
A long trial can also cause victims to drop out of the legal process and recant their initial testimony.
"Recantation is inevitable to some extent, and it can be deadly," Benshoof said. "We're trying to empower the victim to say: 'No more.'"
He said that recent cases in the Beltrami domestic violence court are moving from arrest to disposition in an average of 81 days.
In 2017, the average time from arrest to disposition in domestic assault cases in St. Louis County was 126 days, according to court data.
In domestic violence court, as with other treatment courts, offenders will return to court several times after they plead guilty or are convicted. In a normal proceeding, that might only happen after probation was violated.
"They're seeing a judge frequently while on probation and throughout the program — basically to see how they're doing," Benshoof said.
The domestic violence court has handled nearly a thousand misdemeanor and felony cases since it opened five years ago. Benshoof said that of those who go on to break the law again, just 16 percent have been violent offenses.
That should be a selling point for other counties considering their own specialty court, said Rebecca Thomforde Hauser at the Center for Court Innovation.
"Not only are we using this to increase victim safety, this is more efficient and therefore a cost-benefit to the system in the long run," said Thomforde Hauser, associate director of domestic violence programs at the New York-based nonprofit. "And there are ways it can be done at no cost."
The Beltrami domestic violence court is one of about a dozen federally designated "mentor courts" nationwide. As such, Benshoof and Miller want to be an example for the rest of the state to follow.
"It's something that is never going to go away, and we're going to continue to work as hard as we can to re-educate men that this is not a life for them," Miller said.
Building on the Duluth Model
In Duluth, home of the world-famous organizing model that is now synonymous with domestic violence response — the Duluth Model — many of the pieces of a domestic violence court are already in place thanks to the victim-first approach used by police, prosecutors, advocates and courts.
"Duluth really is the Mecca of the community coordinated response — it all started there," Thomforde Hauser said.
That, plus the bevy of other treatment courts already in use, would seem to make this fertile ground to do even more, said Scott Vollum, head of the University of Minnesota Duluth's Department of Anthropology, Sociology and Criminology.
"Having a domestic violence court could only enhance how we manage domestic violence offenders in our community," he said, because it could take a closer look at all the factors that play into those crimes like instability and chemical dependency. "It could look at it more as a system than simply an individual being punished for a crime."
Past attempts to set up a domestic violence court in St. Louis County failed when grant funding didn't come through.
"The time may be right again," said Mary Asmus, a longtime Duluth city prosecutor who retired at the end of 2018. "We fully supported that at the time."
Sixth Judicial District Chief Judge Sally Tarnowski said the benefits of treatment courts are clear. She said a judge would have to take the lead on setting up a new one.
Judge Floerke said he would probably be that person.
"I will never turn down a good idea," he said. He noted that there needs to be community buy-in for it to succeed, however. When Clay County's federal grant funding ran out, for example, its domestic violence court closed.
"That's the challenge with treatment courts throughout the country," Floerke said. "The federal money is great to get you started, but if you don't have community resources to keep you going, it won't last."
St. Louis County Attorney Mark Rubin said if judges prioritize domestic violence cases, it will accomplish much of what a treatment court promises — "intensive supervision and accountability."
"Once it gets into the courtroom, and it's on a court calendar, does it get sufficient prioritization?" he said. "If anything, it would be nice if we could get the court's help in moving the cases even quicker. ... I think we can still do a better job without a domestic violence court."
With or without a designated treatment court, more is being done locally to better serve victims and rehabilitate offenders. Asmus said the grant-funded addition of victim advocate Ragan Balzer has been crucial.
"Having that early contact with the victim to know right up front what the victim would like to see, what their fears are what we can best do for them, it's made a huge difference," Asmus said.
Vollum is studying the effectiveness of the restorative circles locally. He said that while it's too early to make firm conclusions on the program's effectiveness, the evidence is clear it can work.
"We're seeing increases in empathy, decreases in victim blaming," he said. "The more we can keep people integrated in society and in their community, and keep them working and keep them connected with support systems and family systems, the stronger things are going to be in terms of reducing their likelihood of offending again."
To that end, the Minnesota Coalition for Battered Women is lobbying the Legislature for money for offender programming this year.
"Minnesota has funded work around domestic violence since the late '70s, but it has all gone to victim services," executive director Liz Richards said. "If we want to prevent future violence, we have to effectively address perpetrators."
'These things happen'
Kayde Roper woke up to an angry boyfriend one October morning in 2016.
He pushed and slapped her, according to a police report, before she ran into the bathroom and called the police. He was taken to jail on outstanding warrants.
"He looked like he was really going to hurt me," she told officers.
Roper went to the emergency room that day. Then she went to Safe Haven, which helped her get an order for protection and offered her a place to stay for two months. Then she left Duluth.
"I was afraid when he got out of jail that he would find me," Roper said.
She looks back at the relationship and sees red flags. But it was difficult to act.
"Leaving him was hard," she said. "Healing has been even harder."
Roper's case is like so many — complex. Emotions and living situations are often entangled to make leaving or even calling the police a difficult proposition. Roper once called 911 after a previous argument only to tell them "everything was fine now," according to that police report.
"I was afraid that if I answered honestly he would have heard me, and been angry," she told the News Tribune.
Roper, 24, recently renewed her restraining order, which her ex-boyfriend was convicted of violating last year. It took nine months to get from arrest to a conviction for violating an order for protection.
He was never charged with domestic assault, telling police he pushed and slapped her only after Roper did the same.
"Due to conflicting statements, as well as no physical evidence currently of an assault, a copy of this report will be sent to the Domestic Violence Response Team for any review of domestic relating charges," the police report reads.
A year later Roper was told "there was no new information or new evidence to move the case forward," according to a police report.
Roper said she has forgiven her ex, but she can't forget what happened.
"There's not much to be done about my case anymore, but I want people to realize that these things happen," she said. "I still have nightmares. I've had to make a new life for myself."