GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Four people, including a child, lost their lives to domestic violence in two separate tragedies this week in West Michigan.
Police in Wyoming are still searching for a man in the shooting death of a woman he had reportedly dated.
Investigators obtained an arrest warrant Friday for Yenly Garcia, 44, in the murder of Mollie Schmidt, a 33-year-old mother of five whose body was found in Garcia’s Wyoming apartment.
Garcia has a history of violence towards women, including convictions for unlawful imprisonment and assault with a dangerous weapon.
In Portage, another man with a history of domestic violence shot and killed his wife, their six-year-old child and then, himself.
Court records show Henry Lee Bates Jr. faced charges in two separate domestic assaults against his wife early this year.
Both cases were ultimately dismissed.
“The Office of the Prosecuting Attorney is aggressive in our pursuit of Domestic Violence cases,” wrote Kalamazoo County prosecutor Jeff Getting in a statement to News 8.
“But our ability to move forward is often dependent on the cooperation of the victim. For many reasons victims often want the charges in this type of case to be dismissed. The dismissals were because the victim declined to further participate in the prosecution of the case or failed to appear in court,” Getting concluded.
“PUBLIC HEALTH CRISIS” WARRANTS SPECIALTY COURT
In Kent County, eleven people have died in domestic violence homicides so far this year.
That’s double the total number killed in 2021.
But there’s a group seeking a new weapon in the fight to save lives.
“Domestic violence in our community is absolutely a public health crisis,” said Tara Aday of Safe Haven Ministries. “We have people who are dying, who are being killed.”
Safe Haven, a non-profit that offers emergency shelter and other services, co-chairs the Domestic Violence Community Coordinated Response Team (DVCCRT) along with Kent County prosecutor Chris Becker.
“We have significant system breakdowns in our community,” said Aday. “We are failing survivors.”
DVCCRT, a long-standing, interagency team of collaborative partners, has applied for ten million dollars in COVID-19 relief money to fund, among other efforts, a domestic violence court.
“The data shows (dv courts) help with accountability, lower recidivism and, ultimately, make victims feel safer,” explained Aday, noting a court dedicated to handling domestic violence could better navigate the complexity of the cases.
“If a victim is too afraid to talk to a detective, if a victim is fearful for their life if they were to testify, a well-situated domestic violence court could look at that nuance and say, ‘I’m not going to discredit or assume that this violence didn’t happen simply because a victim didn’t initially report, or there was a delay in their reporting,” offered Aday as just one example of the benefit of a domestic violence court.
Aday said the system currently puts the burden on the victim to hold their abuser accountable yet falls short when it comes to providing the support victims need to feel safe.
A specific judge would be assigned to preside over the domestic violence court, which would rely, too, on a consistent team, including a prosecutor, probation officers, victim advocates and defense attorneys.
“You want to build a really solid team,” Aday said.
“Some of the criticism of traditional courts is that they don’t see the nuance of domestic violence,” explained Aday. “It treats domestic violence cases much like any other criminal case and doesn’t see the complexity … Experiencing domestic violence by someone you care for, there’s so much complex trauma that can happen in that space, and the courts aren’t always situated to look at that nuance.”
JUDGE: COURTS ALONE CAN’T IMPACT DOMESTIC VIOLENCE
A handful of counties across Michigan have already established domestic violence specialty courts, including Ingham County.
“The court system alone can’t impact domestic violence, right?” stated the Honorable Cynthia Ward, the district court judge who presides over Lansing’s domestic violence docket. “I mean, we know our defendants need other supports,” explained Ward in a Zoom interview with News 8.
“It’s important to have this collaborative team so that I can be informed of different aspects of the program,” said Ward, referring to probationers participating in required batterer intervention programs.
“I’m not at the provider session. I’m not at those classes. So, when we have a provider representative who is part of our program, that (individual) can say, ‘You know what judge, this person did this well this week,’ or ‘this person is having this problem.’ Sometimes I need that input. I need to hear from the victims’ advocate (too). What does she want done in the situation?”
Ward said her team meets every other week to review cases.
“We have the prosecutor joining every other week. We have the public defenders’ office join every other week. We have Lansing Police Department representatives. We have victim advocates and a probation officer. They have expressed and demonstrated their commitment to this program.”
Ward said the court, which began in 2020, has graduated nine people from the 24-month probation program, and four or five more people are on track to graduate.
“We’ve had some who couldn’t make it. It’s not an easy program,” said Ward, a strong advocate of the specialty court approach.
“One of the benefits is that we have had through the entirety of this program, a consistent domestic violence team.”
IN KENT COUNTY, COMPETITION FOR FUNDING
In Kent County, the DVCCRT is competing for funding against more than 300 other projects seeking dollars made available through the American Rescue Plan Act.
Kent County has said it will make decisions and allocate funding by the end of the year.
The group would also use the funding to develop a robust community-based approach to respond immediately to domestic assaults.
“There isn’t a supportive team that also responds on scene (with police) to help (the victim) navigate a complex system, to support them emotionally, to help them call a place like Safe Haven or the YWCA,” said Aday.
She also noted that DVCCRT is currently run by staff that have full-time jobs elsewhere.
“So, we often have these great ideas, and then the ideas don’t always get executed because we don’t have the capacity,” said Aday. “We know what the problems are. We have really good ideas for solutions. It’s the funding that’s often the missing piece.”
Aday also said they’d build mechanisms to track the court’s success.
“Ten million dollars, it’s a lot of money, but it doesn’t fund these efforts indefinitely. So, if we can get a lot of successful things done, or even a few by the end of 2025, it would give us a really strong foundation to then go to other funders and say, ‘look at the impact his work is having in this community, don’t you want to be a part of continuing these efforts?'”