Thursday, December 24, 2009

Loophole in Oregon DV laws leave victims unprotected after sentence completion

Maxine Bernstein
(AP) — PORTLAND, Ore. - Ten years after she survived a brutal beating by her husband who struck her repeatedly in the head with what police suspect was a crowbar, Erika Belka is scrambling to put together a safety plan.

John Belka, now 52, served seven years in prison for attempted murder, followed by three years parole. Under a plea deal, the state agreed not to bring additional charges involving suspected sexual misconduct with his children.

Parole officers kept close watch on Belka the past three years with stringent conditions: sex-offender treatment and regular polygraph tests; orders to not contact his wife, their seven children, his sister, sister-in-law or any minors; and an electronic bracelet with a GPS system that tracked his whereabouts with directives not to travel to Portland's east side except to see his parole officer.

On Dec. 7, Belka completed his parole, and the conditions, treatments and tracking systems are gone.

Oregon has no other way to protect victims, unlike neighbor Washington state, which offers criminal no-contact orders that can extend after an offender's sentence and parole are completed. And, unlike many states, Oregon places a restriction of six months from the time the violence or a threat occurred to the time the victim can petition for a civil restraining order, unless the person was in jail or out of state.
In Belka's case, neither applies because he's been on parole for three years, living in Portland. His ex-wife would have had to get the restraining order immediately when Belka was released from jail and renew it annually.

"When the supervision ends, it sometimes leaves people out there without any protections," said Kim Hirota, Belka's parole officer. "If I were in her place, I'd be worried right now. There doesn't seem like there's a lot we can do legally for her."

Washington state does have criminal no-contact protection. In fact, it's perhaps the most expansive of any in the nation, said Doug Miles, a former Colorado prosecutor who now is an advisor to the Washington, D.C.-based AEquitas: The Prosecutor's Resource on Violence Against Women. There, judges routinely order domestic violence defendants to have no contact with their victims, usually for the duration of the crime's maximum penalty, even if the person convicted doesn't serve that long.

If Belka had been convicted of attempted murder in Seattle, for example, he'd be ordered to have no contact with his ex-wife the rest of his life because attempted murder carries a maximum of life in prison. If he did contact her, he'd face criminal sanctions, initially a misdemeanor that would rise to a felony after multiple violations.

"The reason we ask for no-contact orders here is because we want to provide every protection for victims that we can," said David Martin, King County senior deputy prosecuting attorney who oversees domestic violence cases. "I think it's pretty basic."

Christine Herrman, a former King County prosecutor who now directs Oregon's Sexual Assault Task Force; Multnomah County domestic violence coordinator Chiquita Rollins; and Rod Underhill, a Multnomah County chief deputy district attorney, all say the Belka case shows a gap in legal protections that Oregon should fix.

Herrman said seeking more protection for victims after defendants have completed their parole is something the Oregon Legislative Alliance to End Violence Against Women will consider in the 2010 special or 2011 regular legislative session. "I do think there's a hole," Herrman said. "I don't think many of us would expect to have the unwelcome surprise of running into our offender, especially after clearly surviving such a horrendous attack."

About 5:30 a.m. April 16, 1999, paramedics found Erika Belka on her back along the driveway of her Northeast Portland home, bleeding heavily. Her husband was shirtless, kneeling beside her, blood on his mouth and arms. Belka told police he suspected his wife interrupted a burglary while she was on the porch praying. The couple were active in New Song Community Church.

Police determined that Erika Belka, who counseled church women, had kept mum about serious problems in her own home. The day before the assault, though, she confided to a friend concerns that her husband had blown her inheritance and wasn't paying the bills, and she learned he hadn't been telling her when her sister called.

Doctors initially said she had a 20 percent chance of survival, with nearly 1,000 skull fractures and bruising on the left side of her brain. The prognosis improved, yet John Belka seemed to keep pressing for a do-not-resuscitate order, police records show. Detectives arrested him June 11, 1999. By January 2000, he pleaded no contest to attempted murder, and the state agreed not to pursue sexual abuse allegations made by his children.

The plea deal meant the state could monitor him heavily during his parole but couldn't register him as a sex offender or alert the public upon his release. A community alert, drafted in 2006 but not publicized, described Belka's method of offending: gains access to minors by placing himself in a position of responsibility over them, has joined religious congregations to gain access to potential victims. "My biggest concern is that because of the plea bargain and how he was charged, the community can't be warned," said his sister, Lynn Siva-Wentzel.

Erika Belka's older sister became her legal guardian the past 10 years and handled her medical and health needs, legal and financial matters. The Belkas' seven children-six of whom they had adopted-were placed in foster care; one was adopted. All but one are now adults.

Erika Belka, now 55, has made a slow but remarkable recovery, lives independently and volunteers. She's had numerous surgeries to relieve pressure in her skull, including one earlier this year. She still has a brain shunt and plates in her head, suffers hearing and vision loss, headaches, seizures, significant short-term memory loss, vertigo and cognitive impairment. Belka, her sister and John's sister recently met with his parole officer to plan for their safety. Police have flagged their addresses. If problems arise, the county's Domestic Violence Reduction Unit is to be alerted.

John Belka says he lives with what he's done. He says he's not going to contact his ex-wife or children and just wants to keep his job of three years, dispatching for a trucking company. He said he wouldn't have minded a no-contact order post parole. "I recognize what I did was wrong. It was evil. I bear all the responsibility, and I own that every single day," he said. "My responsibility is to stay away because I've hurt everybody so bad."

Domestic violence experts and prosecutors say tweaks in the law or new statutes might be warranted. Underhill wasn't aware of Washington's criminal no-contact law but thinks it bears looking at. Defense lawyers, however, may object to post-parole court orders. "I understand the logic behind it, but you have to balance that against someone's constitutional rights," said Jon Martz, a Portland criminal defense lawyer.

Other states also allow longer durations for civil protective orders, including Washington and Colorado, where they may be permanent.Rollins said it might be easier to tweak the existing civil restraining order law in Oregon, adding a clause that would allow domestic violence victims to obtain them within six months of the completion of an offender's parole or probation.

Other states, including Washington and California, can grant permanent civil protective orders. In Oregon, there was a trade-off-making it easier for victims to obtain the civil orders without a hearing at which they'd have to face their offender, while requiring victims to renew them annually.

Belka's parole officer is frustrated. "He had all these conditions, and the people in this situation don't want contact with him," she said. "Now, he's just free to do what he wants." While John Belka's sentence may be up, Erika Belka's will never be lifted. "I think one of the things that hit home to me" Hirota said, "is when she said, 'You know, I'll never be done with this."

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