Domestic violence survivors: Left in the dark

Local victims tell News 6 they are still in danger

One out of every three women has been a victim of some form of domestic violence. Every nine seconds in the United States, a woman is assaulted or beaten.

Those statistics come from the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence—and it happens right here in Central Florida.

[WEB EXTRA: Harbor House Hotline: 407-886-2856 | More info ]

"I knew if I didn't get out he was going to kill me," said Suzy. "God willing, I was able to escape.”

"He wanted me to die that night," said Abby. "After he beat me up… he went to the kitchen and he grabbed a knife.”

We're calling these women "Suzy" and "Abby" to protect them. It's all because they're terrified of their abusive boyfriends.

Now-- they're fighting a new battle-- both told News 6 the State Attorney's Office is leaving them in the dark on their abusers' cases.

"I feel like a victim of him and a victim of the state," said Abby

When a case goes to the prosecutor's office, every victim is assigned to a victim's advocate. That advocate is supposed to communicate with the victim.

Right now in Orange County--- there are only 22 advocates for thousands of cases. One advocate has over 500 cases, four have over 400 and three have over 300 cases.

In 2013, the Domestic Violence Commission made up of community leaders, as well as State Attorney Jeff Ashton, recommended his office add more victims’ advocates. In the past two years, Ashton has added one.

“Do you think one is enough?” asked News 6 investigatie reporter Eryka Washington.

“No, I’d love to have 10,” said Ashton. “Unfortunately, we have to use what we have. We were only able to add one and I’m pretty proud we were able to do that.”

But there used to be a staff handling only domestic violence cases.

After taking office in 2013, Ashton dismantled the dedicated domestic violence unit that had nine prosecutors handling only domestic violence cases.
Now under Ashton, three attorneys handle misdemeanor cases. But all felony domestic violence cases are combined into the special victims unit. That includes sex crimes, child abuse and elderly abuse cases.

The man who put the original domestic violence unit together can't believe it’s gone.

"If you combine them all together and don't allow someone to prioritize, yes, I can see how things can just get lost in the mass. That' a shame and an embarrassment as a career prosecutor," said William Vose.

Ashton defended his decision.

“The benefit is we were able to get more experienced prosecutors involved in cases and to me that was most important thing.  Looking sort of statistically, they appear to be at least the same, if not better, than it was before,” said Ashton.

“What you are basing that on?” asked Washington.

“That's more anecdotal. Just sort of I look at trials as they come through,” said Ashton.

But Vose said domestic violence cases can be tough to prosecute, because often-- victims are too scared to cooperate.

"You needed to have specially trained prosecutors. They need to look at the case totally different. This is the type of the case that you have to keep on top of and push," said Vose.

Those victim advocates are supposed to help prosecutors do that, and keep victims informed on everything from court dates to no contact orders...

“We have a system in place where they will call and notify victims of any sign,” said Ashton.

But Abby and Suzy said the level of communication is just not enough.

"It's very frustrating. I’m so scared nothing is going to be done about this," said Suzy.

Abby said when she finally spoke to someone-- she received misinformation.

"The lady didn't even knew the case, that day she even told me that he was bailed out,” said Abby. “I freaked out. I was looking for a place to stay when I found out he was in jail, so they don't even know.”

The state’s call log for Abby shows the State Attorney’s Office called and left three messages.
But no one had spoken to Abby from the State Attorney’s Office again since early December until last week.

“What advice would you give to them if they're calling and not getting return calls?” asked Washington.

“If they're not getting an answer from victim advocates or attorneys, contact our office. Ask for a supervisor and let us know if the system is breaking down and not working for them and we will fix it, we will address it,” said Ashton.

Ashton said the supervisors you can ask for if you’re having trouble getting answers are Mark Whistram, Deb Barra and Erin McCauley.

In the meantime, Ashton said he’s pushing for funding for more staff, including victim’s advocates, from the state legislature.

In an email, Harbor House gave News 6 the following statement:

“The advocate caseloads are too high to allow them to be effective. That's why HH is supporting the state attorney’s budget request for additional advocates to support domestic violence cases. However, even with the additional advocates requested, it will still barely begin to scratch the surface of the number of domestic violence cases that need to be tried.”