Every minute of every day, 24 hours a day in this country, nearly 20 people are physically abused by an intimate partner. In Frederick County, we take that toll very seriously.
County State’s Attorney Charlie Smith sees the scope and the impact of the problem. Both the number of cases and the frequency of felony cases, which can result in permanent physical injury, appear to be on the rise, according to Smith.
The problems were made worse during the COVID-19 pandemic because the crisis was incredibly stressful for everyone, economic dislocations added to the issues, and abusers and their victims were often confined to their home. News-Post reporter Angela Roberts last week highlighted the exploding case loads of local mental health professionals, and many of those new patients were domestic violence victims.
Now, a new group has been formed to advise the county executive, the County Council and the Criminal Justice Coordinating Commission on policies, programs and legislation to fight domestic violence and assist victims and their families.
The Frederick County Domestic Violence Coordinating Council, which recently had its organizing meeting, is the latest and best attempt by county leadership to address a problem that afflicts families in every town in the country. The statistic we cited at the beginning of this editorial comes from National Coalition Against Domestic Violence.
The council will be chaired by Assistant State’s Attorney Brett Engler, who prosecutes domestic violence cases, and County Councilwoman Jessica Fitzwater, who will be vice chair. Its members include representatives from a broad spectrum of county organizations and institutions.
The goal of the new advisory council will be to form recommendations that could change systemic factors that increase domestic violence, rather than focusing on individual cases.
Fitzwater and Engler have been working together on the issue for more than a year, and the councilwoman credited Engler with spearheading the formation of the group. It only makes sense for her to be the chair.
Engler told the County Council last year before the vote on creating the advisory council that she prosecutes around 500-600 domestic violence cases per year. She is also active in several national domestic violence organizations, including the Training Institute on Strangulation Prevention.
The severity of the domestic violence issue has become increasingly recognized in recent years. The Maryland General Assembly, after several years of lobbying by domestic violence prevention groups, made strangulation a felony offense last October. Law enforcement here has become increasingly aware that strangulation can be a precursor to murder, and arrests are way up.
Engler’s boss, State’s Attorney Smith, has long been focused on domestic violence issues. He formerly led a special victims unit investigating domestic violence.
“I’ve seen the trauma and the devastation that these crimes cause and, quite frankly, continue to inflict well after they occur,” Smith said during the organizing meeting. “It’s not just a national issue, it’s a local issue.”
The county courts system ran an informal domestic violence council from 1990 until 2008, but this is the panel created by law. Proponents believe that codifying the new council will ensure sustainability and community collaboration.
Mariesa Robinson, prevention coordinator for the Maryland Network Against Domestic Violence, said other Maryland counties have similar councils which are running efficiently. They can serve as guideposts for the Frederick council’s work.
Engler and Fitzwater, with the strong backing of Smith, are determined to bring to Frederick County government recommendations that will reflect the best practices of the rest of the state and the entire nation.
The council has made a great start, and we wish it success. People’s lives are depending on it.