“In the last decade, Arkansas has consistently ranked in the top ten worst states for homicides involving domestic violence,” said Rebekah Tucci, Domestic Violence Program Director for the Administrative Office of the Courts. “As community leaders, members of the judiciary play a crucial role in helping to end domestic violence in our courtrooms and our communities.”
Tucci joined the AOC in December to take on the task of educating judges, court staff, law enforcement, probation, and community partners about domestic violence and how we can all work together to climb to the bottom of that list of worst states. Meet Rebekah and learn how she and others are doing just that.
Q: What is your background and how did you come to Arkansas?
A: I earned my undergraduate and law degrees in Florida. I am currently working towards a Master of Public Service degree from the University of Arkansas Clinton School Of Public Service. Prior to joining the AOC, I worked with the Center for Arkansas Legal Services (CALS) as their pro bono coordinator, and with pro se litigants at the reference desk of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock William H. Bowen School of Law Library.
Q: Do you have a background in helping victims of domestic violence?
A: Before going to law school, I worked as a domestic violence victim’s advocate and research intern for the Special Prosecutor in the Office of the State Attorney, 10th Judicial District in Bartow, Florida. While working toward my law degree, I consulted for the Domestic Violence Unit of the prosecutor’s office in Buenos Aires, Argentina. I also interned with the Domestic Violence Family Law unit of Memphis Area Legal Services and the Family Safety Center of Shelby County in Memphis.
Q: What do you do in your role as the program director?
A: My job is to educate the judiciary and its stakeholders in the area of domestic violence, dating violence, stalking and sexual assault. I also serve as the point person for judges and their staff for questions regarding laws in the area of domestic violence. I coordinate efforts between the courts and law enforcement, court services, probation and corrections, prosecutor coordinators, victim witness coordinators, and clerks’ offices throughout the state to find innovative ways of providing more effective and efficient processes to help judges make decisions in the area of domestic violence, sexual assault, dating violence and stalking.
Q: You said that the judiciary is crucial to end domestic violence. What did you mean?
A: We must do a better job as a judiciary to hold batterers accountable and support victims. The effective adjudication of domestic violence cases requires an understanding of the dynamics of domestic violence; the context of the battery within the relationship; and the ability to assess lethality and dangerousness of the victim/perpetrator relationship.
Judges must have the ability to support victims’ need for safety, support, and autonomy, while at the same time holding batterers accountable for their conduct and providing them opportunities to change their abusive behavior. This absolutely reduces the incidence of domestic violence deaths.
The courthouse is where citizens rely on the impartiality of judges; the zealous advocacy and competent representation of lawyers; and the solid investigation and evidence-gathering of law enforcement. However, all too often, without proper education and collaborative coordinated systems in place, batterers continue to batter and victims die.
Q: How do we achieve this? What resources do we lack?
A: In the past several months this has been the overarching conversation. Here are the needs we have been discussing:
• Batterer’s intervention programs with statewide standards for the curriculum, instructors, best practices, and a certification process for these programs.
• Evidence-based tracking of batterer’s intervention programs. Judges must be sure they are sending the batterers to the right program and know that that program has a proven track record.
• A way to provide domestic violence advocates to victims seeking orders of protection.
• Coordinated and collaborative efforts between law enforcement, probation, the prosecutors, public de- fenders, and the private bar associations.
• A better way to track orders of protection throughout the state.
• Cross-training and re-training of everyone who handles domestic violence cases--from first responders to judges and everyone in between.
• Better ways to track escalation of violent behavior and recidivism in cases.
• Collaboration, coordination, and communication of regional domestic violence homicide prevention task forces.
• More formal services for victims who have limited English-language skills.
• Generally, judges are in a better position to make decisions when the litigants who appear before them have representation, and when everyone on the other side of the bench provides the judge with evidence upon which to base good sound decisions.
Q: Who are you working with?
A: Right now I am working with the National Judicial Institute on Domestic Violence and the resources provided by the National Center for State Courts. In Arkansas, I am working with the Arkansas Domestic Violence Advisory Committee of Judicial Council, the Arkansas Court Improvement Program, Arkansas Court Information Systems, Arkansas Court Interpreter Services, Legal Aid of Arkansas and the Center for Arkansas Legal Services, the Young Lawyers Division of the Arkansas Bar Association, the Clinton School of Public Service, the Arkansas Coalition Against Domestic Violence, and the Arkansas Coalition Against Sexual Assault.
The resources I have been developing range from evaluation of my own program to a domestic violence handbook; implementation of an incubator program to collect data related to domestic violence offences; educational materials for teen dating violence information and prevention; educational materials on the dynamics of domestic violence for the private bar; educational materials on communication techniques and the use of lethality assessments for law enforcement and probation officers; and best practices bench cards for the entire Arkansas judiciary.
Q: When you came to Arkansas, what was your plan?
A: My ultimate goal, after finishing my Master’s Degree at the Clinton School, was to set up a program similar to the Family Safety Center of Shelby County in Tennessee that would provide victims of rape and domestic violence with wrap-around services. Those are services that would include access to legal advice and counsel, including services to help deal with all the ramifications of violence.
For most victims, getting orders of protection, talking to law enforcement and prosecutors, locating shelter, clothing and employment, and finding transportation is all too daunting a task to actually leave the abuser. The idea was to create a safety net for victims to leave and not go back. States that have implemented this program successfully have witnessed dramatic reductions in perpetrator recidivism, domestic violence homicides and suicides, and reduction in victims returning to their abusers. The reality is, that for reductions to happen both professionals and nonprofessionals must work together to build a support system to halt the onslaught of violence and death experienced by the entire community when family violence occurs.
Q: What is the thing that is most misunderstood about victims of domestic violence?
A: There seems to be a plethora of misinformation about domestic violence victims. Mostly, it comes down to victim blaming and shifting the focus away from the abuser and onto the victim. It is so much easier for communities to look at the victim and focus on what the victim should do rather than look at the abuser and figure out how to hold them accountable for their behavior. The power and control relationship is a top-down relationship just like our justice system. If not handled properly, the courts can revictimize the victim and empower the batterer to keep battering. We have to figure out better ways to communicate with victims to provide them with resources and a solid safety net so they do not have to return repeatedly to their abuser. Moreover, we need to figure out ways to be better leaders in our communities and not stand by and watch while abuse, harassment or violence happens. We need to figure out ways to confront violence and to respond individually and collectively. Ultimately, I think the question needs to be different because while victims come in all shapes and sizes, all classes, colors, races, creeds and philosophies, there is one constant: the abuser. The thing is that abusers have the same mode of operation – they use power and control tactics to get what they want. The most misunderstood thing about domestic violence abusers? They need to learn how to control their anger. The reality is that physical violence and angry outbursts are tools abusers use to gain control and submission over their victim. When we think about it this way, it is less about the angry outbursts and more about power and control and the abusers thought process.
Q: What is your vision for AOC’s Domestic Violence Program?
A: To have a program that supports a well-educated judiciary, with judicial experts in every region of the state who are focused on reducing the rates of domestic violence homicides.
Q: If you had all the money and resources you needed, what would you do?
A: I would make sure that every part of the state had domestic violence response and homicide prevention teams whose members are experts in the area of domestic violence, sexual assault, dating violence, and stalking. These teams would coordinate and collaborate on efforts throughout that region. There would be family justice centers all over the state where domestic violence victims and their families were provided with wrap-around services. Community partners and domestic violence programs and batterer’s intervention programs would be preventative and reactive.
Q: Have there been any changes in the laws involving domestic violence?
A: Yes, there have been a few. The Domestic Abuse Act of 1991 was amended to include “in-laws” in the definition section of “family or household members” §9-15-103(4). The State Legislature also passed and the Governor signed, “Laura’s Law” (Act 877) which requires law enforcement officers to use a lethality or danger assessment when responding to a report of domestic violence and “Laura’s Card” (Act 873) which requires first responders to provide a victim or a victim’s family with information on victim’s assistance, rights, compensation, protection and access. Also signed into law was Act 876 which requires law enforcement to investigate complaints or accusations of domestic violence in a way that does not require victim testimony or victim centered evidence. Finally, Act 952 which requires that dating violence awareness is added to the educational curriculum taught in health course in grades 7-12.