Officials: Domestic violence on rise in Lycoming County

Between 1996 and 2005, domestic violence in Lycoming County claimed the lives of 11 local people.

Many were adults. Some were young children. And earlier this year, another victim’s name saw that number grow to 12. Staff at Wise Options, which is dedicated to ending lives of abuse, maintain the list.

Cherilyn Kephart, at 38 years of age, earlier this year was added to the list of victims that includes Dee Wilson, 42; Jenifer Powell, 21; Jennifer Witmer, 33; Miriam Illes, 48; Susan Yaispour, 5; Stephanie Sees, 32; Tramain Glisson, 21; Kalib Nash Blase, 5; Traci Wertz, 34; Melanie Salgado, 35; and Christine Montgomery, 33.

At the end of February, investigators discovered the bodies of a man and woman inside a burning vehicle in Hepburn Township. The apparent murder-suicide appeared to be the end in a long line of domestic violence issues between the couple, and served to highlight what authorities say is a bigger problem across Lycoming County.

Seth Snyder, 42, and his estranged girlfriend Cherilyn Kephart, 38, had a troubled history together, according to court records. Snyder had gone to prison on felony assault charges in October 2012, after allegedly harming Kephart and endangering the couple’s two young children.

The escalating nature of domestic violence is something social workers and law enforcement know well. Victims who decide to come forward usually do so after a long string of abusive incidents, according to Lycoming County Sheriff Mark Lusk.

Many seeking to leave an abusive relationship file a protection from abuse order against their abuser. These orders are processed through the Lycoming County Sheriff’s Department. Essentially, a PFA is an order, signed by a judge, that tells the abuser he or she will face serious legal consequences if the abuse continues.

According to Candace Dawes, who specializes in processing PFA orders at the sheriff’s office, there have been 92 PFA orders filed so far this year. In 2012, the office processed 298 orders.

“That’s 92 orders filed in the first quarter of the year. If we continue on that trend, we’re looking at an expected 20 percent rise in PFA orders in 2013,” Lusk pointed out.

“I would also expect to see a 20-percent rise in crimes as well,” Lusk said. In the past, there has been strong correlation between the number of PFA orders filed and number of other crimes committed, he said.

There are several types of PFA orders. An emergency order is issued when courts are closed, such as on nights or weekends. An on-call duty judge will issue an emergency order to provide protection for a victim until the courts open again. These emergency orders usually last until the next business day.

An ex parte temporary PFA is issued by a judge during regular business hours. A judge files an ex parte temporary PFA if they find that an adult or their children are in danger of further abuse and require protection. These orders are issued based on the testimony of the victim, Lusk explained.

“In the cases of the the ex parte PFA’s, the defendant isn’t present in court,” he said.

Lusk said this sometimes makes it difficult for officers to deliver a PFA to a defendant, as he or she may not be aware it is coming.

“We try to serve all PFA orders the same day we receive them, because we recognize how important they are,” Lusk said.

“But it can be a dangerous service, and defendants can be difficult to locate,” he added.

A final PFA is issued by a judge following a hearing in which both the alleged abuser and victim have a chance to testify. After hearing both sides, a judge decides if there is enough evidence to issue a final PFA, which can last up to three years and may be extended even further in certain cases.

In all of these cases, emotions run high, Lusk said.

“When you take a man’s car, his keys, his house, his dogs and his guns, you have to expect he’s not going to be terribly happy,” Lusk said.

“Suffice it to say that a PFA strongly effects an individual’s life from the time they are served,” he added.

If a judge feels there is sufficient need, he or she can award the plaintiff of a PFA a variety of property that the defendant may perceive as theirs.

“Say, for example, a wife files a PFA against her husband. The house is in his name; she’s never made a payment on it. But now suddenly she and the kids are the only ones allowed to live there,” Lusk said.

“These can become very emotionally charged situations that we end up right in the middle of,” he added.

Lusk also pointed out that there was a huge resource and time commitment, on the part of law enforcement, social workers and those who work for the judicial system, when it comes to handling domestic violence cases.

“If a woman has been hurt badly by her husband, maybe she needs medical attention, perhaps she can no longer work and she may require counseling. He will have to face charges in court and could require a public defender. He may end up in jail, it might be harder for him to get a job once he gets out,” Lusk said.

“Then there are those who pay the ultimate price for domestic violence, where we start looking at a homicide case. If one parent is dead and the other is in jail, who is left to care for any children that couple may have had?” he added.

Dawes has noticed that teenage couples are now appearing on PFA orders. Lusk noted that this could cause a huge headache for judges, especially when both teens attend the same school, or have classes together.

“I think it’s adding to the problem when we have kids as young as 13 or 14 having babies. They’re only kids themselves, and they’re expected to be parents now,” Lusk said.

According to a study published by the Journal of the American Medical Association, teenage girls who reported experiencing violence from their partners were four to six times more likely to have experienced pregnancy than their counterparts who had never dated a violent partner.

Many who find themselves in abusive relationships, whether victim or abuser, often saw domestic violence between their own parents.

This cycle of learned behavior can carry over through generations, according to Lusk.

“We’re seeing second-generation and third-generation offenders coming up on these affidavits,” Lusk said. “Once someone learns that an abusive environment is normal, it’s extremely difficult to break them out of that,” he added.