Breaking the Cycle: Is restorative justice the answer for domestic abuse?

BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) Domestic violence is an ongoing issue in Vermont-- one that the criminal justice system may not be able to fix on its own.

Last year, nearly half of all misdemeanor domestic violence cases (379 of 797) and more than half of all felonies (270 of 409) were dismissed by either prosecutors or the courts. That's for a variety of reasons, ranging from insufficient evidence to the victim deciding they did not want to proceed with the case.

That high rate of dismissal is one reason why advocates for survivors are now looking at other options outside the traditional legal system. Our Cat Viglienzoni has been digging into what that might be-- restorative justice. The details of how it would work are still in discussion by a study panel. However, it could include things like counseling, parenting classes, addiction treatment or other remedies that are tailored to a person's individual situation.

It's an option one survivor Cat spoke with says she would have wanted.

"We connected instantly," Carla Galaise said. "He was a very charismatic, handsome guy."

Galaise met her abuser when she was in her early 20s.

"The first few months were great-- or so I thought," she said. "We had a few red flags here or there."

Red flags that grew. Galaise says she was raised in an abusive household. That translated into her relationships.

"His control over me-- it was just the way it was," Galaise.

They decided to have a child together, Eli, who's now four. And all the while, Galaise says things got progressively worse. She says his drinking and drug use left her fearing for her safety.

"I slept with a knife next to my bed because I never knew what he was going to do," she said.

It escalated into violence, both while she was pregnant and after Eli was born.

"He smashed my head against the wall," Galaise said. "He told me explicitly how he was going to kill me. Which body parts he was going to chop up first and he was going to throw me out that window."

She says he was in and out of the court system throughout their relationship. A relief from abuse order eventually kept him away from her and Eli.

"It was very painful to have to essentially just give up on him, and that's what it is. To leave a domestic violence situation you do have to separate. There are no other options anywhere," Galaise said.

But our Cat Viglienzoni found out more options may be on the way. Next year, advocates are going to ask the Legislature to change the law and add restorative justice, a process that focuses on rehabilitating offenders through reconciling with their victims.

It's a change the Vermont Network Against Domestic and Sexual Violence admits is a shift in their thinking.

"Traditionally, we have resisted the idea that a violent couple would engage in a restorative justice process. That process recognizes that sometimes people who have domestic violence in their relationship stay together and they want remedies from the communities. And it also recognizes that domestic violence is a learned behavior," said Karen Tronsgard-Scott, the executive director of the Vermont Network Against Domestic and Sexual Violence.

She says they heard from survivors of domestic violence who wanted other options than the courts. And from others who said jail time didn't change their abusers' behavior. In fact, it hardened them more.

"The system does not work as well as it should. That's just a fact," said T.J. Donovan, D-Vt. Attorney General.

Donovan says five years ago they also never would have talked about restorative justice as an option. But he says the numbers of cases that get dismissed in the court system speak for themselves.

"What's happening in the traditional criminal justice system isn't working. So let's have the courage to say it's not working and let's start looking at different options. I think restorative justice is a different option," Donovan said.

"They need to be held accountable in the right ways," Galaise said.

Galaise says she knows restorative justice isn't what some women want because it isn't "punishment." But she says it would give other survivors more control over how to proceed with their abusers, and give men like Eli's father the chance to become a better man.

"I feel like the system utterly failed him. And because it failed him, it failed our whole family," Galaise said.

Restorative justice for domestic violence does have some critics. They point to concerns over whether maintaining contact protects the victim enough and who would monitor their safety during the reparation process. Also, there is concern that during the restorative justice process victims may not be willing to speak freely about their experience and the impact it had on them if their abuser is present.