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Accidental release of suspect undermines victims' faith

The erroneous release of Awet Gebreyesus on March 8 has resulted in considerable attention on the problem of funding and exhausted employees, as mentioned in The Buffalo News' March 26 editorial, "Fix sheriff's staffing." However, those of us working with victims of intimate partner violence feel this attention needs to be broadened to include other issues: victims' lack of faith in the system; our community's responsibility; and how domestic violence intervention is homicide prevention.

Gebreyesus' wife was in mortal danger. Gebreyesus had been charged with attempted murder and when released went looking for her. That she was located by sheriff's officials before her husband found her was a matter of luck. This fact has not been lost on victims of domestic violence and the professionals working with them.

What may not be readily understood is that reports of this nature affect the sense of safety and well-being of victims everywhere, and have a significant impact on whether they seek assistance. It is not easy for people to ask for help when they are being abused.

Calling the police and cooperating with the criminal prosecution of someone who says he loves you is one of the most difficult, and in some cases, the most dangerous, things to do. When victims hear that perpetrators of abuse are not held accountable for their crimes, it discourages them from seeking help; they fear the same will happen in their situation.

When, as in this case, the alleged perpetrator is found, then mistakenly released, it makes them lose all faith in the system -- a system that domestic violence advocates have been encouraging them to trust.

There are many reasons why victims may not disclose the abuse they are experiencing. Fear -- of retaliation, not being believed, stigma, having nowhere to go, no one to help -- is just one reason. Fear that the criminal justice system will make mistakes that may jeopardize their safety should not be one of these reasons.

Not enough praise has been given to the interpreter who warned the Sheriff's Department of Gebreyesus' release. Without his proactive, conscientious intervention, this story could have ended differently. His actions are a reminder how all of us are responsible for helping keep victims safe.

Since April 2008, there have been 26 domestic violence homicides in Erie and Niagara counties. According to the 2011 report from the Division of Criminal Justice Services, Erie County is among the highest in our state in intimate partner killings.

Yes, the Sheriff's Department needs increased resources and staffing to keep the community safe, but so do victim services throughout the county. More importantly, we need to increase victims' faith in the system. A good start would be an apology from the sheriff to Gebreyesus' wife.


Remla Parthasarathy is the community relations chairwoman of the Erie County Coalition Against Family Violence.