Abraham Arias’ case started out as a domestic battery.
The 20-year-old DeKalb man was accused of grabbing his ex-girlfriend by her arms and holding her against her car, demanding to know why she wouldn’t return his calls and text messages.
The charges against him became more serious after one of the three officers in the DeKalb police’s new domestic violence unit spent more time talking with the ex-girlfriend. Officer Sadie Pristave learned that Arias had sent the woman a photograph of a woman, bloodied and missing her jaw, via text message while he was in the booking area of the police station, authorities said. He told her to watch her back when he got out of jail because she was going to be next.
Pristave initially called the woman to clarify some things she saw in the police report but ultimately six more charges were filed against Arias, of the 300 block of West Roosevelt Street. This week, he was sentenced to six months in DeKalb County Jail and to three years of probation after he pleaded guilty to harassment of a witness and domestic battery, court records show.
DeKalb police view Arias’ case as one of the successes of the domestic violence unit they started in July. But as domestic violence advocates mark Domestic Violence Awareness Month, local leaders are considering how they can strengthen domestic violence programs such as this unit.
Sarah Frazier, the DeKalb County Sheriff’s Office detective who has specialized in domestic violence investigations for the past eight years, is returning to patrol duty in January, Sheriff Roger Scott said. Leaders are interviewing six or seven candidates next week and hope to have Frazier’s replacement start training with her in December.
The position was created through a federal grant and a partnership with then-State’s Attorney Ron Matekaitis, who now is a local judge, Scott said.
“Domestic violence is something everyone is trained to address, but it’s a huge issue,” Scott said. “That’s one of the reasons we’ve kept that program going [after the federal grant expired.]”
Frazier spends two days a week at the courthouse, meeting with domestic violence victims and watching court proceedings, but she also helps other departments with investigations. This year, she’s followed 38 new cases – 24 of them being arrests she made herself – and offered plenty of advice to DeKalb police on starting their new unit.
In DeKalb, Pristave and officers Jeff Ackland and Keunte Mallett take turns calling alleged victims a few days after a domestic violence incident and checking to see if the suspects have criminal histories that could spark more serious charges. Patrol officers typically don’t have time for that kind of follow-up, Pristave said.
“It involves victims coming in, sitting down, interviewing them verbally, having them write a statement, listening to all the voicemails that [offenders] leave,” she said. “It’s very time-consuming to do an actual good case.”
DeKalb police also have counselors from local domestic violence advocacy agency Safe Passage ride along with them while they are on duty, while a Safe Passage outreach coordinator has spent time explaining details about the shelter and orders of protection to officers during special training at the beginning of their shifts. DeKalb Lt. James McDougall joined Safe Passage’s board of directors last week.
“We’re all a part of the same team,” said Marj Askins, Safe Passage’s community education and prevention specialist. “Allowing the domestic violence prosecutor to work more closely with those cases and to network more closely with officers designed in the DeKalb [police department] is important.”
Meanwhile, DeKalb County State’s Attorney Richard Schmack plans to add another prosecutor next year, which will allow Assistant State’s Attorney Carrie Thompson to spend more of her time focusing on domestic violence cases. Schmack’s office has tried to identify repeat domestic violence offenders and steer them toward a 26-week counseling program.
Prosecutors help victims pursue orders of protection when a criminal case is pending, while Safe Passage helps victims when one isn’t. Safe Passage has 12 beds in its emergency shelter, as well as apartments for clients who need a place to stay for longer, Askins said.
The nonprofit has about 30 employees, most of whom staff the hotline at 815-756-5228 and the residential program, Askins said. It also has two legal advocates, two counsellors for adults and three counsellors for children affected by domestic violence.
Challenges remain, though. Pristave saw prosecutors drop a criminal case this week after the victim didn’t show up in court, which she said is fairly common when the partners maintain their relationship.
“We can take as many statements and photographs as we want to show this happened, but if the victim won’t cooperate in court, it’s gone,” Pristave said. “We can only do what we can do on our end.”
And only about half the victims are happy to hear from police on their follow-up call, Mallett estimated. Some people view domestic violence as a private matter, while others are able to give a better account of the incident after a few days have passed.
Mallett is happy to know he is doing more than just arresting people.
“At the time this emotionally charged event happened, I may have had to arrest someone that you actually still do care about,” he said, explaining how he approaches victims. “Whether that person comes back into your life or not, I just want to make sure that you’re doing OK and everything’s fine right now.”
Safe Passage Domestic Abuse Hotline
Domestic Violence Awareness Month Activities
What: Safe Passage annual vigil
When: 6 to 8 p.m. Monday
Where: First Congregational United Church of Christ, 615 N. First St., DeKalb
What: Fundraiser for Safe Passage
When: 11 a.m. to close Oct. 14
Where: Buffalo Wild Wings, 2466 Sycamore Road, DeKalb
What: Invisible Scars: How Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Shape Lives hosted by Transitions/LGBT Resource Center at NIU
When: 6 to 7:30 p.m. Wednesday
Where: Illinois Room at Holmes Student Center, 600 Lucinda Ave., DeKalb