Keeping safe – Ministry’s counselors to work with convicted batterers in jail

Tim Wyatt / The Dallas Morning News

A Dallas judge is sending domestic violence counselors to jail.

Beginning Tuesday, Judge David Finn will dispatch a team of counselors from Bishop T.D. Jakes’ prison ministry to Lew Sterrett Justice Center. The counselors will try to show convicted batterers that violence against their loved ones is a family legacy that needs to be abandoned.

Judge Finn said he had become exasperated as growing numbers of Dallas men play hooky with court-ordered domestic violence counseling and end up behind bars.

“We realized that a number of probationers were getting their probation revoked,” Judge Finn said. “Defendant after defendant would appear on revocation hearings, and some would get up to a year in jail.”

Judge Finn, whose misdemeanor court exclusively handles domestic and family violence cases, said batterers up for revocation were typically cited for not attending intervention counseling or had new charges for assaults.

Judge Finn said he wanted to start the program in June when he started showing up each week to take roll at counseling orientation sessions at the Frank Crowley Criminal Courts Building.

With the threat of an arrest warrant for not showing, the judge said, attendance in the programs picked up drastically.

But local agencies that have counseling sessions were too strapped to place staffers inside Lew Sterrett to talk to those already in jail. And Judge Finn’s records for 1999 showed that more than 2,100 domestic violence offenders were sentenced to jail for violating the rules of their probation.

Judge Finn said he contacted Bishop Jakes and his Potter’s House ministry as a possible solution to the problem.

The Potter’s House already had an expansive prison ministry with a staff that fanned out in a 200-mile radius from the church on the bluffs above Mountain Creek Lake.

When Sheriff Jim Bowles offered to segregate a group of eligible offenders in a single living area of the jail in order to facilitate counseling, Judge Finn said he was only a phone call away from getting things rolling.

Elder George Fitzgerald, who heads Bishop Jakes’ prison ministry, said his volunteers were excited at another chance to broaden their program.

Those eligible have to be first-time or low-level offenders so they won’t pose a security problem for jail officials or counselors. The program offers more than counseling about domestic violence, he said.

“A lot don’t know how to be fathers, don’t know how to be men,” Mr. Fitzgerald said. “And that’s what we teach.”

Ruth Fitzgerald, his wife, drew up a plan she called the David Project, “because he was a man who suffered and went through trials and came out successful.”

The David Project calls for a team of three counselors to conduct a voluntary three-month course, nine hours a week, to groups of about 40 prisoners who will learn anger management and communication skills, and realize their potential while learning to be loving and caring fathers and husbands.

“Hopefully we’ll be able to halt that cycle of abuse with them and their children,” Ms. Fitzgerald said. “And this is an interactive program. We’re not going to be doing all the talking.”

Judge Finn is hoping the project is a success.

“We need to revoke offenders’ probation when they don’t follow the rules,” he said. “But until we get through to these men, it’s going to be tough to curb family violence in the county.”

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