Once a personal domestic violence case makes its way into the courts, it joins the thousands of others that get added to the dockets every year in Minnesota.
Hennepin County District Court Judge Kevin Burke sees many of them, and said domestic violence cases are among a judge's most difficult assignments.
Burke spoke with MPR's Tom Crann about how judges cope with these cases and how the public can do more to stop domestic violence. He said he's haunted by one incident in particular.
Judge Kevin Burke: Many years ago, I had a friend who let somebody go, on a very routine case, and the person went out and killed the victim. And I think that every judge, that's your nightmare, and then if you see situations that, they're hard for me to describe ...
People are so cruel to one another in the context of domestic violence ... How do people act like that? This is somebody that they profess that they love and yet they're keeping them as captives and they're doing such horribly abusive things that kind of your faith in humanity that people are really pretty good gets shaken a bit. And so it takes a toll on a judge.
Again, I don't want to come across as some whining judge. I love my job. It's a great job, but it is emotionally difficult to deal with these cases day in and day out.
Tom Crann: Give us an idea of just how many domestic violence cases you see in Hennepin County.
Burke: Well, if you wanted to look at it on a day, there'll be a day next week in which they'll be two judges in the Family Justice Center who will have 20 trials scheduled in one of the mornings, and between the two of us we'll have to resolve 20 cases that are potentially there for trial. So it's a lot.
Crann: Can you put that in context with other types of crimes?
Burke: There are several thousand a year in Minnesota, somewhere around 5,000, if I recall the exact number. And that's quite a bit when you think about if it's 5,000 individual cases that are very, very difficult to deal with.
Crann: And from your position, can you see some alternatives or possibilities of addressing domestic violence before it requires a court case?
Burke: I think that the general issue of domestic violence is a bigger community issue than just a legal systems issue. I think we need religious leaders to talk quite forcefully to their congregations about the need to have safety within the home. And religion can be a help that is supportive, 'We're the congregation. We'll support you. We want you to be safe,' but they can also be a detriment in which they're telling people to stay in a relationship which is actually dangerous for them to stay in.
I think we need to have business leaders recognize that there are a lot of people who are employees of yours who are victims of domestic violence, and that has a devastating impact of their ability to be a good employee. And we need the medical community to recognize that domestic violence causes not only the short term damage of an injury, but in the case of kids, can have a profound affect on the development of that child, so we need all kinds of people speaking up.
Several years ago, I sent a letter to the hairdressers. I got the mailing labels of people who had licenses, to say that you as a hairdresser might be in the position of noticing a bruise on a woman and putting her in the direction of somebody who could give her professional help because she's a victim of domestic violence. So I think there's lot of different places where you can have effective interventions to reduce the level of violence in our homes.
Crann: What's the biggest misunderstanding, do you think, that the public in general has about the issue of domestic violence?
Burke: I think the first one is a stereotype that this is just about poor, inner city people, that's the first one. Number two, although the numbers tend to be women and children being the victim, there are instances in which the victim of domestic abuse can be a male, it can be a same-sex relationship, so that there are instances in which it doesn't fit any of the stereotypes that people have. I think that would be number two.
Number three is the kind of bewilderment that you have, even as a judge, like, 'Why did you stay with this person, because they're crazy, they're dangerous for you,' and yet people end up staying in relationships in part driven I think by hope that they're going to actually change. Now, the research does indicate that with good treatment, good intervention, you actually can make changes, so it's not that it's a terminal disease, you're a domestic abuser, you could never change your behavior, but it requires serious professional intervention and a willingness to be quite introspective for the abuser.
(Interview edited and transcribed by MPR News reporter Madeleine Baran.)