Domestic violence reports expected to spike after Family Justice Center opens

Simple and aggravated assaults are the most common domestic violence offenses in Tennessee but many cases go unreported

Staff photo by Doug Strickland Marc Benton, right, and Dale Brewster with Gallaher & Associates work to install a security system Wednesday, June 17, 2015, at the Family Justice Center in Chattanooga, Tenn. The center is scheduled to launch July 1st.

Christopher Merriman called 911 around 10 p.m. on June 6 and told police that his sister had been attacked by a man during a fight over crack cocaine at a home just off Highway 58.

When Chattanooga police arrived, Merriman, 50, was sitting outside the house, talking on his cellphone. His shoes and pants were splattered with blood.

By the numbers

Murder 2012: 4 2013: 2 2014: 5 Rape 2012: 17 2013: 21 2014: 40 Aggravated assault 2012: 439 2013: 548 2014: 568 Simple assault 2012: 1,827 2013: 1,659 2014: 1,556 Source: Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, as reported by Chattanooga Police Department and Hamilton County Sheriff’s Office

Family Justice Center

Organizations represented at the Family Justice Center: * In-house staff of six employees * Children's Advocacy Center of Hamilton County * McKamey Animal Shelter * Adult Protective Services * Southern Adventist University * Legal Aid of East Tennessee * Hamilton County District Attorney * Southeast Tennessee Legal Services * Chattanooga Police Department * Hamilton County Sheriff's Office * Second Life of Chattanooga * Helen Ross McNabb Center Source: Valerie Radu

His sister, 54-year-old Elizabeth Merriman, lay inside, severely wounded, in a pool of blood.

An ax handle lay on the floor by her head.

And then Merriman confessed, police said. He attacked his sister, he allegedly said, not some stranger. He didn't say why, according to his affidavit. He was arrested and charged with attempted murder and aggravated assault.

His sister survived the assault, one of hundreds that take place every year in Chattanooga and Hamilton County. In 2014, police and sheriff's deputies responded to 568 domestic aggravated assaults, according to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation.

Only one domestic violence offense is more common than aggravated assaults in Chattanooga and Hamilton County, and that's simple assault, which was reported 1,556 times in 2014, according to the TBI.

That holds true for Tennessee as a whole, according to a new, three-year study of Tennessee's domestic violence just released by the TBI. Between 2012 and 2014, more than 161,000 people were victims of a domestic simple assault in the state, and about 33,500 were victims of a domestic aggravated assault.

Together, the two offenses made up 83 percent of all of Tennessee's domestic violence in 2012, 2013 and 2014. According to TBI, about 236,000 people were victims of domestic violence in Tennessee during those three years.

But local officials believe those numbers are low.

"It's a chronically underreported crime for a variety of reasons, all tied into the cycle of violence, abuse and control," said Police Chief Fred Fletcher. "People who are in intimate-partner-violent situations often don't feel safe reporting crime."

As the city readies for the official launch of the Family Justice Center on July 1, Fletcher and others said they expect the number of domestic violence incidents in Chattanooga and Hamilton County to spike by 20 or 30 percent because more people will report the crime.

The center, funded by federal and city money, is designed to cater to victims of domestic violence by offering a variety of services - from legal advice to health care - under one roof near the Eastgate Town Center.

"A 30 percent increase is still not enough, but it's better," said Valerie Radu, the center's director. "We want people to feel like they can come forward."

She said the center will monitor crime data every month and if she doesn't see an increase in reporting, she'll reevaluate the center's outreach efforts.

"And make sure that we're really doing the outreach that we need to do to let people know," she said.

So far, Radu said, she's put out the word through the Family Justice Center's partner agencies, and said she's planning an awareness campaign for the fall.

Fletcher is also rolling out a new domestic violence tool for officers, he said. In the future, officers may be required to fill out a "lethality assessment" form when they respond to domestic violence calls.

The check sheet is designed to identify those who are most at risk to suffer domestic abuse again, Fletcher said. The idea is to both catch chronic domestic violence earlier and help victims recognize the danger they are in, Radu said.

Women or men who score high on the lethality assessment form will be immediately referred to the Family Justice Center, Fletcher said.

"They will be put on the phone with a counselor at the scene who can schedule follow-up services to ensure they get support," he said.

The assessments will be tested in one district of Chattanooga first and then rolled out to the rest of the city, Fletcher said.

After the initial spike in reported domestic violence, the numbers should then gradually decline, he added. He said he'd like to see fewer aggravated assaults and murders within a year or two years.

Contact staff writer Shelly Bradbury at 423-757-6525 or with tips or story ideas.