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SJCPD domestic violence response team aims to ‘fill cracks’ in law enforcement response

Justin Hicks/WVPE

The St. Joseph County Police Department received federal funding last year to create a special team to respond to domestic violence calls. One year later, the team is now working to connect domestic violence survivors to support services as quickly as possible.

The team’s two members – social worker Dayna Baxter and Detective Maria Grise – have known each other for a long time.


“Funny story – she actually was my husband’s ex-partner at the Special Victims Unit,” Baxter said. “So it’s kind of funny now that she’s my partner here in this endeavor.”


Baxter is Victim Services Supervisor and Grise the Victim Services Officer on the Domestic Violence Incident Response and Support Team. Together, they’re working to close the gap between when domestic violence calls occur and when survivors can access medical, legal and other support services.


Baxter said the idea for the team came through her work in victim services at the county’s Family Justice Center


“You had to be referred, potentially, by a detective – which you would get that a couple days later – so it might be a week or so until they got to us. Sometimes it was a prosecutor, so that’s months down the line,” Baxter said. “There was a gap between the initial incident and when they were getting to services, so I’m just trying to close that gap.”


Baxter met with Sheriff Bill Redman in early 2020 and got approval to apply for a three-year grant from the U.S. Department of Justice. That funding came through in October 2020, and Grise joined the team in March of this year. 


“I thought that it was something good that our community needed,” Grise said. “If the powers that be said that that was something that I could move into, then I thought that would be good.”


“As the Victim Services Officer, she’s tasked with being a law enforcement officer,” Baxter added. “But also being focused on victim-centered strategies, safety, the services end of things – really, the human side of things. I thought she would be a great person for the job.”


Baxter and Grise started responding to calls in July. Since then, they’ve provided 206 services to 71 clients, which Baxter said is meaningful engagement. 


While the team sometimes responds to scenes directly, they usually reach survivors over the phone or at a secondary location, like the hospital. 


From there, they figure out what each client needs. Baxter said she and Grise keep the essentials in their cars – food, baby formula, bus passes, cell phones. But they’ve also been able to arrange hotel stays, issue protective orders and get locks changed before a victim leaves the hospital.


“Those are the things that you really don’t get from normal law enforcement response,” Baxter said. “[They] come out, take a report, maybe someone’s arrested, maybe they’re not – then you go about your business, right? So this is a more meaningful follow-up.”


They also make sure to follow up on incidents they might have missed – each morning, the team screens reports and referrals from other officers and reaches out within 48 hours. 


Grise said that helps them catch errors and make sure cases don’t slip through the cracks.


“I actually had one that I had to make contact on that the phone number was wrong. I had to get back with the officer, and it just so happens that it didn’t take the new phone number when he was doing his report,” Grise said. “So not only did we get her information and, potentially, get her involved in enough services that she needed at the time, we were also able to make sure that investigation continued because they were able to reach the victim.”


Another big priority? Training. So far, Baxter and Grise have given each county officer at least three hours of strangulation recognition and response training, and conducted an eight-hour domestic violence workshop at the South Bend Regional Training Academy.


“Even if your offender or your abuser isn’t convicted, how you were treated through that process – if you were given a voice, if you were treated with respect and dignity, if you really felt like you were heard – that can sometimes be better than that outcome,” Baxter said. “And letting the officers know, like, ‘You have a big impact on that. This is how your initial interaction can affect the way victims interact with the rest of the criminal justice system.’”


Over the next year, Baxter said she wants to train officers in trauma-informed practices so they can understand both their own trauma and community members’. She and Grise have already made adjustments to address some of that community trauma since working on the team.


“You know, it’s the uniform, it’s that intimidation factor,” Grise said. “I’ve kind of tried to change the way that I’m dressing – where I’m still obviously dressing appropriate for my job – but to where I’m not always showing my badge anymore and my weapon is a little bit more concealed, so they get a little bit softer side of law enforcement.”


“And then I just introduce her as Maria,” Baxter added. “So just kind of making her a human first for that individual, too, I find helps.”


In the future, Baxter wants to expand the domestic violence team to include more social workers and focus on more types of crime. She said it could even merge with the department’s mental health officer to form a crisis unit one day. 


But for now, she and Grise are focused on establishing the team in the community and “filling in the cracks” of typical law enforcement response. 


“This is kind of unique in its specialty focus on domestic violence, sexual violence and stalking. Honestly, that’s what our community needs,” Baxter said. “We have a really high rate of domestic violence, we have a high rate of strangulation, we have a lot of weapons use. So I think we kind of fit into that area where it needs to be.”


Contact Gemma atgdicarlo@wvpe.orgor follow her on Twitter at@gemma_dicarlo.


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Gemma DiCarlo came to Indiana by way of Athens, Georgia. She graduated from the University of Georgia in 2020 with a degree in Journalism and certificates in New Media and Sustainability. She has radio experience from her time as associate producer of Athens News Matters, the flagship public affairs program at WUGA-FM.