Citing a spike in cases, the Frederick County State’s Attorney Office now has a separate unit devoted to the prosecution of domestic violence and intimate partner abuse.

“Bringing safety is the No. 1 goal of my unit,” said Chief Assistant State’s Attorney Brett Engler, head of the unit.

Engler has been with the Frederick County State’s Attorney’s Office for nine years and most recently focused on domestic violence cases as part of the Family Violence Unit. Working with Engler in the new Domestic Violence Unit is Assistant State’s Attorney Amanda Leatherman and two victim witness coordinators.

The Frederick County Council recently approved the creation of a chief assistant state’s attorney position for the unit. In a letter to County Executive Jan Gardner requesting more than $132,600 in funding for the position, State’s Attorney Charlie Smith wrote domestic violence cases have “increased dramatically.”

“In 2020, there were 325 misdemeanors, 65 Jury Trial Prayed cases, and 57 felonies,” Smith wrote. “The first three quarters of 2021 reports there are 397 misdemeanors, 102 Jury Trial Prayed cases and 68 felonies. These distinct growing caseloads require [different] case management tracks and specialized prosecution.”

Engler said overall cases decreased toward the start of the COVID-19 pandemic when many people were essentially on lockdown in their homes, but the severity of felonies that were reported increased. She suspects some incidents of abuse went unreported.

Smith in his letter to Gardner said the pandemic shined a light on the reality that home is not always a safe place.

Legislative developments also factored into the rising caseload, according to Smith. For example, a new law went into effect Oct. 1, 2020, making strangulation a felony level offense, when it once could be classified as a misdemeanor.

Previously, domestic violence cases fell under the Family Violence Unit of the state’s attorney’s office, where Smith said Special Victims Unit prosecutors were double- and triple- booked for sex offense trials as of mid-October.

Engler said the new Domestic Violence Unit seeks to be a “resource for the community, having a dedicated prosecutor, a dedicated unit to look at these cases and really refer the victims to the place they need, and [bring] justice for them.”

Part of the Domestic Violence Unit’s role is to connect survivors to resources such as Frederick Health Hospital and Heartly House, according to Engler. Heartly House, a Frederick-based nonprofit, provides services to survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault, human trafficking and child abuse. Heartly House provides a 24-hour crisis hotline at 301-662-8800.

Engler wants survivors to know they will have a voice in what happens to their case.

“We want to know where she or he stands, and what keeps them safe,” Engler said. “We focus on the evidence so that we don’t necessarily have to rely only on the victim’s testimony because that can be extremely difficult for [the victim].”

The unit takes a trauma-informed approach in its work, according to Engler, meaning they’re aware of the cycle of violence that occurs in domestic violence and intimate partner abuse. Abusers can hold power over their victims, she said, that may keep a survivor from seeking safety or going forward with prosecution.

“We really work with our community partners as prosecutors to understand the role that we can have to keep victims safe but also the limits of a prosecution,” Engler said. “Prosecution is not the ... only way for a victim to become safe, so we recognize that and it’s very important for prosecutors to understand the case that they have and what can really come from a prosecution for a particular victim and [their] safety.”

Correction: This story has been updated to state there are two victim witness coordinators within the domestic violence unit.

Follow Mary Grace Keller on Twitter: @MaryGraceKeller

(2) comments

Crab0721

It's too bad that they don't care about mental, emotional or verbal abuse. They only want to help if there is physical abuse.

Arbit

I believe that with physical abuse there is also emotional/verbal abuse that go along with it. Thank you frederick county states attorney office and for all the additional support to help these victims.

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