State AG McKenna drops in on Tri-Cities

By Michelle Dupler, Herald staff writer December 23, 2009 

KENNEWICK -- Washington Attorney General Rob McKenna did a little research about domestic violence in the Tri-Cities before coming for a visit Tuesday.

He learned that domestic violence is the leading cause of homicide of women in Benton and Franklin counties, during some years accounting for 100 percent of women's murders.

"It is astounding," McKenna said as he toured the local domestic violence women's shelter.

McKenna has been an advocate for tougher laws on domestic violence since being elected attorney general in 2004. He plans to continue that trend by asking for a bill in the upcoming legislative session that would impose more serious penalties on offenders with repeat domestic violence convictions.

Companion bills pre-filed in the House and Senate would create a new list of serious domestic violence misdemeanors, and would factor prior domestic violence misdemeanors into sentencing for domestic violence felonies for repeat offenders.

He said a recent study commissioned by the Legislature shows domestic violence is a factor in repeat offenses for other types of crimes.

"It turns out repeat domestic violence offenders are the likeliest to re-offend across all categories," McKenna said. "They have impulse control issues. This prevents all kinds of crime, not just domestic violence."

If passed, the law would go into effect in August 2011 -- which McKenna said is designed to delay any potential costs to the state until the next biennium. The Legislature currently faces a $2.6 billion revenue deficit for the remainder of the 2009-11 biennium.

This is McKenna's second attempt to get tougher sentencing for repeat domestic violence offenders. A similar bill introduced during the 2009 legislative session stalled in the Senate's Ways and Means Committee.

McKenna said he believes he has a better shot this time by having a broad, bipartisan coalition supporting the proposed law.

He can count Sen. Jerome Delvin, R-Richland, among those supporters.

Delvin, a former Richland police officer, joined McKenna for a tour of the women's shelter Tuesday and said he thinks the law makes sense.

McKenna and Delvin also said they want to ensure the Legislature doesn't cut funding for services that help domestic violence victims when it comes time to write the supplemental budget. Among that funding is $1 million for domestic violence prevention.

"Obviously, it's going to be a tough budget," McKenna said. "The amount the state spends on domestic violence funding is not very big, but it can be the glue that holds other funding together."

Kelly Abken, director of Domestic Violence Services of Benton and Franklin Counties, said her agency hasn't yet experienced any direct funding cuts as the state has wrestled with its deficit, but she fears that might happen. Her 2009 budget was $700,000.

"We're resourceful with every dollar we get," Abken said. "There just isn't any fat to trim. We do our best to make this a warm and inviting environment, but this isn't luxury. We spend our dollars on client services and basic necessities to keep the shelter running."

Abken also worries about what will happen to survivors of domestic violence if they can't access vital social services to help them rebuild their lives.

Gov. Chris Gregoire proposed sweeping cuts to human services in a draft budget released Dec. 9, including elimination of the General Assistance Unemployable program, which would save $88.5 million.

Abken said that's an important program that helps women whose lives have been shattered by domestic violence and find themselves unable to work because of the physical and emotional toll of abuse.

"When the state cuts those (programs), it leaves no option but to go back to an abuser," Abken said.

Gregoire also has proposed to cut $8.7 million from drug and alcohol treatment programs like the ones that saved Denise Ross five years ago when she left an abusive relationship.

On a snowy December night five years ago, Ross found herself facing homelessness after her boyfriend locked her out of their home during a fight.

She ended up at the women's shelter, where she was able to find help to get clean and straighten out her life.

She's now married and working as an advocate for other women who have experienced domestic violence.

"It's awesome," she said.

It's taken Ross a long time and a lot of counseling to find her way, to rebuild the self-confidence her former boyfriend had torn down, and to learn how to be in a healthy relationship.

"You have to learn how to live all over again," she said. "You learn to live one day at a time."

After touring the shelter, McKenna praised Abken's agency for its efforts to create a safe place for women like Ross.

"It's wonderful what you've done here," he said. "It's beautiful."

-- Michelle Dupler: 509-582-1543; mdupler@tricityherald.com

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