Topeka maneuvers over domestic-abuse law outrage survivors

Claudine Dombrowski
Claudine Dombrowski tells of having her wrists broken, being hit on the head with a crowbar, getting chipped teeth and, at one point, needing 24 stitches to close a wound. Even when she left her boyfriend, she says, the abuse didn't stop. Ultimately, she says, she was left on total disability.

“I called the police, I did all the right things, I ended up in court, and on a good day, it got reduced from domestic violence to disorderly conduct,” Dombrowski, a Topeka, Kansas, resident and now an advocate for abuse survivors, told the Los Angeles Times on Thursday. 

So Dombrowski was outraged when misdemeanor domestic abuse — already an insult, she thinks, for not being equal to an assault charge — went unpunished for a month in Topeka after a local funding dispute turned into a circular firing squad that caught battered women in the center.

The county didn’t want to pay for prosecuting misdemeanor domestic battery; the prosecutor didn’t want to take the cases without more resources; and the city didn’t want to pay for handling the cases either.

Meanwhile, as many as 30 abuse suspects went free before the city of Topeka, in a legal maneuver, forced Shawnee County prosecutor Chad Taylor to resume prosecution of the cases — by dramatically pulling its own domestic abuse law from the books. The state has its own law, which the prosecutor would need to enforce.

“The fact that it happened just makes me feel pretty worthless, you know?” Dombrowski said. “We spend millions of dollars on public service announcements saying we [domestic-violence victims] don’t have to live this way ... and you really do.”

Times have been tough for local governments. The economic buck stops with them because they don’t get to run on debt the way the federal government does, and some of the collapses have been spectacular.

Harrisburg, the capital of Pennsylvania, threw up the white flag this week and declared bankruptcy after a failed $300 million incinerator project capsized the city’s budget. The city manager for moribund Vallejo, Calif., has one assistant; she has to lock the door when she leaves, because there’s no one else in the office. 

But for women, the symptoms of the municipal budget crisis are especially stunning in the sleepy prairie metropolis of Topeka. There, the symbolic decriminalization of domestic violence has thrown a spotlight on a chronically underreported issue in a state where women’s advocates are used to fighting uphill battles.

“We live in Kansas, where we are used to taking a lot of punches on the chin,” said Kari Ann Rinker, state coordinator for Kansas NOW, which recently saw the state legislature try to defund Planned Parenthood

Republican Gov. Sam Brownback’s conservative stances have led a few residents to derisively dub the state “Brownbackistan.”

But beyond the familiar battlefronts over abortion, domestic violence hits especially close to home. In 2008, Jana Mackey, a 25-year-old Kansas NOW lobbyist who volunteered to aid victims of sexual assault and domestic violence, was found slain in an ex-boyfriend’s home.

“When I went in front of the county commission in Shawnee County about this issue [funding prosecutions for domestic abuse in Topeka], I brought everything I had, and I was emotional,” said Rinker. “Sometimes I’m accused of being less than professional. But I’ve tried to do this nicely, to fight this mentality in this state, and we’ve reached this point where we need to stop being nice and start rattling some cages to do so.”

Added Dombrowski: “If these people really cared about women, they would come up with the money. They wouldn’t argue about it.”

The past month has been treacherous for domestic abuse survivors in Topeka, according to Becky Dickinson, program director for the Topeka YWCA Center for Safety and Empowerment, which she said saw an increase in the number of women needing help.

“It became a very scary and dangerous time for victims to get law enforcement involved,” Dickinson told The Times, adding that victims “were calling the police and seeing their abusers being arrested but getting released in 48 hours.”

In an abuse situation, Dickinson said, abusers are often the most dangerous after they’ve been arrested. They come home looking for revenge. Needless to say, Dickinson said, “victims were concerned” about the budget spat.

Dickinson said that in 2010, the Topeka YWCA helped 1,305 county residents with services and counseling for domestic and sexual violence, assisted with 586 protection orders, housed 190 women and children in a shelter, and received nearly 2,000 calls to its crisis hotline.

Those numbers are likely low. Domestic violence often goes unreported. So it’s a dark irony that Topeka’s new time in the international limelight comes during Domestic Violence Awareness Month. “Now Topeka is known as the domestic violence capital of the world,” Kansas NOW’s Rinker said.

Whether the county prosecutor’s announcement that it is resuming prosecutions will fix the problem remains to be seen; the prosecutor’s office is expected to lay off almost a fifth of its staff by the end of the year, which could impact the prosecution of domestic violence cases that the office just resumed prosecuting.

“Even on a good day, it doesn’t work,” Dombrowski said of Topeka’s handling of domestic abuse victims. “And now it’s even worse.”

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--Matt Pearce in Kansas City
Twitter.com/mattdpearce

Photo: Claudine Dombrowski, left, a survivor advocate, greets Amber Versola, a lobbyist for Kansas National Organization for Women, on Tuesday at a rally at the Shawnee County Court House in Topeka, Kansas. Credit: AP / The Capital-Journal, Anthony S. Bush 

 
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Rene Lynch has been an editor and writer in Metro, Sports, Business, Calendar and Food. @ReneLynch

As an editor and reporter, Michael Muskal has covered local, national, economic and foreign issues at three newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times. @latimesmuskal


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