Breaking News
More () »

California's domestic violence system is failing, leaving victims vulnerable

An ABC10 investigation into how domestic violence cases are handled in California found a system of errors that isn't holding offenders accountable.

SACRAMENTO COUNTY, Calif. — Disclaimer: This report details accounts of domestic violence and may be hard for some to watch and read.

"He comes off as a very charming, charismatic, good looking guy," said Monique.

Monique says she and her now ex-boyfriend fell in love fast.

"What I did find about getting to know him so quickly was he had a lot of underlying issues," said Monique.

Issues, she noticed, that started manifesting in their relationship. It started with name-calling.

"To pinches behind my arm in public places, like a really hard twist," said Monique. "Because I said something he didn't like and we were in front of people."

To protect Monique, ABC10 decided to only use her first name. We offered Monique the option to remain anonymous, but it was important to her to show her face and tell her story - not only as a process to heal, but to show the failures of the system that was supposed to protect her.

"When I tried to get away or break away from him that was the worst thing it seemed like I could do to him," said Monique.

She says she tried to leave several times.

"He could not be alone," said Monique. "It went directly to, 'I'm going to kill myself, you are everything I ever want.'"

She tried to make the relationship work.

"I wanted to give him a chance," said Monique. "Well, one chance turned into like 10,000."

She recalls feeling trapped.

"He wouldn't leave me alone. He would come to my house, banging on my door until I open it... park across the street for days at a time," said Monique. "It got to a point where I basically knew I wasn't going to get out of that relationship."

Meanwhile, she says, it escalated physically.

"I'd gotten really used to how to put on makeup covering up black eyes," said Monique.

Then problems hit a pivotal point during a trip to Colorado for a friend's wedding.

"He dragged me out of bed by my hair," recalled Monique.

She says a neighboring hotel guest heard and called 911. Law enforcement arrived and arrested her ex. He was later sentenced for assault and disturbing the peace.

"They then issue his probation for one year that they would normally monitor in Colorado," said Monique.

Because Monique's ex lives in Sacramento, Colorado allowed him to return to California, designating responsibility of his probation to Sacramento County.

"No drinking, no drugs, no guns, no more violations of any sort," said Monique about his probation requirements.

ABC10 began investigating California's handling of domestic violence cases and how the system is supposed to work; called the "Batterer's Intervention System." It's made up of three entities - the court, the probation department and program providers.

When a domestic violence incident occurs and the court places the offender on formal probation, the individual is assessed and monitored by a county's probation department. Then, they're required to register and go through a 52-week program provided by a number of facilities throughout California.

"So it is really incumbent on all three of (those) major players to be playing their role appropriately," said Bob Harris, an Acting Deputy State Auditor at the California State Auditor's Office.

But the California Auditor's Office found this system is broken at all three levels in its Oct. 2022 audit. They discovered a basic lack of guidelines in probation departments.

"The probation departments often did not have policies and procedures within their own departments on their offender supervision," said Karen Wells, a Senior Auditor with the California State Auditor.

And when a violation of probation did occur, their audit revealed probation departments as well as program providers did not report many of those violations to the court.

Infractions they found included offenders missing their required 52-week program classes - but also, much more serious violations.

"Such as protective order violations, which are very significant," said Wells. "It puts the other people at risk and the victim at risk again and re-traumatizes them."

Monique says she experienced this first-hand. After returning from Colorado, months passed, but she saw no action from Sacramento probation.

"He didn't enroll in his classes because they were lagging and they weren't really pushing on anything," said Monique. "Things got way worse."

Sacramento County's Probation Department would not comment on Monique's case. They declined ABC10's request for an on-camera interview but provided a statement to our written questions (included in full at the bottom of this article) that said they "utilize their limited resources as efficiently and effectively as possible."

Monique stayed in the relationship hoping things might change.

"Me trying to help him made it worse," she said.

Three months after he was arrested in Colorado, another altercation occurred here in Sacramento.

Monique says she arrived at his apartment to find him "completely off the wall drunk" and when she went to leave, he threw her to the ground.

"Did five, six blows to my head," said Monique. "The last thing I really, truly remember was just the silhouette of his curly hair and his fist coming down. It's my head, the side of my skull and his fist on a wood ground - the only place to go was in, and he wasn't stopping. My screams, my cries, my everything - nothing was stopping him."

Court records reveal she was left with a number of injuries: a concussion, busted nose and lips, scratch marks on her face, and jaw damage.

Reports show Sacramento Police arrested him that night. Monique said he made bail almost immediately, but eventually pleaded guilty to a felony charge of domestic violence - corporal injury, a term designated for willfully inflicting a physical injury resulting in a traumatic condition.

"The forensics team was like, 'One more blow probably would've cracked your skull and gotten some brain swelling,'" said Monique. "And if your brain suffocates, you die."

She believes the system failed her.

"His probation had been handed over early in September 2021," she said. "If they had just been on it here in California, by December he would not have been able to do what he did."

While Monique had a protective order that was automatically issued from the Colorado assault, she decided to get a restraining order from Sacramento's Superior Court. Records she provided us with show her ex violated it and his probation repeatedly.

"I would see him out," said Monique. "Clearly drunk, had no issues with this whole coming within 100 yards thing."

Law enforcement instructed her to make online reports when he violated the order. These reports take anywhere between 30 to 90 days to get reviewed by law enforcement who either reject it, approve it or ask for more information if needed, Monique said.

Monique says she had 24 approved police reports from a number of encounters within the span of six months. But when she tried to report these violations directly to his probation officer, both before and after the felony assault, she felt it made no difference.

"We left her messages, emails, everything... no response," said Monique.

Even when she did get in touch, she felt disregarded.

"She basically just responds with, 'We don't communicate with anyone outside of law enforcement,'" said Monique.

Probation officers are empowered by federal law to visit clients anytime, anywhere, and report violations when they find them. Monique said this did not happen.

"Oh, I don't think they did anything," said Monique. "Until the review date popped up in the system and said, 'Oh, this person - they were on one year probation... how are they doing?'"

It's an example of a broader problem; the California Auditor's Office found there were 405 probation violations out of 25 offenders they surveyed from five different counties.

"And they didn't report 50% of those to the court," said Wells.

But even when violations did make it to the court...

"Essentially, the courts would send the offender back to the program and have them re-enroll in the program again," said Wells.

To start their 52-week program over, with no consequence. Some offenders were allowed to re-start multiple times.

"When they're not attending that program, the risk is that they would re-offend and that there would be future domestic violence cases," said Wells.

It's nothing new to Beth Hassett.

"We've known for a long time that the system doesn't work," said Hassett.

Hassett is the CEO of WEAVE, a rape crisis center in Sacramento. She believes the 52-week program is a problem in itself.

"They have to find a program, have to pay the money and have to show up for 52-weeks," said Hassett, noting how difficult it is to keep re-occurring appointments for anyone. "I think we're setting people up for failure... and in many cases, it's really like poking the tiger - [the program classes] just makes them angry every week that they have to go."

To her, the audit's findings are just another reminder of a system that's been broken for far too long.

"It's really disheartening for survivors because here they've got this person who was abusing them, and nobody is making him or her do the things they're supposed to be doing," said Hassett. "It just adds to that feeling that there is no hope and there is no justice in this world."

Hassett believes the batterer's intervention program is not being provided the necessary resources to be able to hold offenders accountable.

"Probation doesn't have the staff power to keep an eye on all the people they're supposed to keep an eye on," said Hassett.

Through public records requests, ABC10 found Sacramento County's Probation Department has an average caseload size of 73 clients to each officer.

In their statement to ABC10, Sacramento Probation said they are struggling to fill job vacancies within the probation department, resulting in "less than ideal caseload ratios."

"Caseload ratios are ridiculous for probation officers," said Hassett. "There is just no way they can really keep track of what that many people are doing."

The result? There often are no consequences for offenders violating their probation. Additionally, in many cases, no two probation departments have the same standards.

"Oftentimes somebody is arrested in a county they don't even live in and the way that county is handling it is different than the way the county they live in would be handling things," said Hassett.

Adding to confusion and the potential of oversight. For Monique - not only different counties, but different states.

In Dec. 2022, her ex was extradited back to Colorado where he is serving time in jail with no bond. He is scheduled to be released in June.

He will remain on formal probation in California for the next four years, Monique said.

"At this point, probation means nothing (to me)," she said.

She believes if California handled her ex's case the same way Colorado did, it would've resulted in a different outcome.

Monique says she has worked with every entity that touches domestic violence in Sacramento - and while she felt many had good intentions, California's systemic process tied their hands.

"That was always the default," said Monique. "What else do you need to take this more seriously? I felt like I shouldn't go anywhere. I should just stay home... If I'm caught by myself for any second, it's scary. It's still scary. That hasn't gone away yet - even with him in Colorado in jail at the moment."

Worse yet, the entities within this system have known for years they're failing.

"Going back as far as 1990 we were able to find past reviews, some of our own," said Harris of the California Auditor's Office. "We're finding problems in those reports that were very similar to the ones we found in this audit."

It's why the California Auditor's Office made an especially drastic recommendation in its Oct. 2022 audit.

"We actually made a recommendation to establish a state oversight agency - and we specifically asked that be the Department of Justice," said Wells.

That's because California's Attorney General is the chief law enforcement officer in the state.

"It was a big recommendation," said Wells. "The Department of Justice (would be) looking at the programs, approving and reviewing them and monitoring them."

But change takes time - for now Hassett believes if these entities simply did the job they're required by law to do, it would make a huge difference.

"Everybody just do your jobs. If we need to throw more resources at keeping people accountable, I think we should do that," said Hassett. "Let's get rid of the excuse we don't have enough staff, we don't have enough hours in the day... really give it a try and see if we can make it work."

If you or someone you know is dealing with domestic violence issues and seeking resources, ABC10 compiled a list of resources to help. Click here to access the full list of resources in Northern California.

Sacramento County Probation Department Full Statement to ABC10:

Thank you for the interest in the Probation Department’s efforts to address family violence, including our role with local oversight of Batterer’s Treatment Programs (BTP). Information regarding an individual’s probation status is confidential and not subject to disclosure. Probation reports, documents that were reviewed to create such reports, or documents which are maintained by Probation regarding an individual on probation are not public records pursuant to CA Government Code section 7927.705 and Penal Code Section 1203.05.

We take seriously the task of supervising our client population and providing support to victims. As part of our public safety mission, probation officers are required to regularly check on all individuals under supervision - providing them with support, resources, and referrals to community-based service providers as needed. We utilize our limited resources as efficiently and effectively as possible to accomplish these goals, though similar to many other professions we currently struggle with filling vacancies. This can result in less than ideal caseload ratios as we address mandates. Nonetheless, this effort remains part of a specialized unit within the department so as to better provide assistance to victims of family violence, conduct follow-up on any reported violations of protective orders and monitoring compliance of court ordered conditions, including participation and completion of BTP.

Sacramento County was not part of the California State Auditor’s report from October 2022, and therefore we suggest reaching out to the identified counties for further comment.

WATCH MORE ON ABC10: Burning Grizzly Flats | Investigating unkept promises and mismanagement by the US Forest Service

Before You Leave, Check This Out