Utica City Court Judge Ralph Eannace, marriage and family therapist Kevin Lewis, and Hamilton Director of Community Standards Catherine Berryman discussed the question “How are We Handling Domestic Violence and Mental Health Interventions?” in a webinar moderated by Hamilton Professor Frank Anechiarico on Nov. 4.

This event was the penultimate installment of the Colleges and Community for Unity and Change Lecture Series, sponsored by Hamilton’s Levitt Center Law and Justice Lab.

Beginning the conversation locally, Eannace brought up Utica’s mental health court, which he created in the early 2000s and described as similar in function to the drug courts that were established state- and nationwide a few years earlier. “The idea there,” he said, “was to deal with people who were admitting they had committed a misdemeanor crime, but were also admitting they had a drug problem.” 

The mental health court operates in the same way, and Eannace pointed to data that suggests the effectiveness of these programs. “Normally, a misdemeanor court in New York state has about a 51% recidivism rate ... and our [mental health court] has been less than 30% — and that’s after 10 years of operation,” he said. Off the back of this success, more of these courts have been introduced, such as the Family Treatment Court, which handles domestic violence cases.

Lewis picked up on the topic of familial conflict and domestic violence, stressing the range of difficulties that such cases pose to victims and law enforcement alike. For the families who are put into these situations, Lewis described the fracturing that can result from legal measures taken against the perpetrator of what may have been an “isolated incident of aggression or poor conflict resolution, or maybe some negative stressor in life that pushed that episode to a boiling point.”

Similarly, Lewis recognized the challenges that law enforcement officers face in accurately assessing risk during such episodes. For this reason, he supports the use of co-response teams and mental health professionals to help address mental health or domestic violence-based situations.

Berryman elaborated on the complexity of mental health and domestic violence responses and highlighted the role that race might play in determining how a suspect is treated. She described how people can be placed in situations where they feel “they have to call the police” when a family member with a mental illness appears to be acting dangerously toward themselves or others, in which case police will focus primarily on the threat of violence rather than the underlying mental health issue.

Recalling her time as a public defender in Philadelphia, Berryman noticed that her Black clients with mental health issues were treated with greater skepticism and hostility by law enforcement than, for example, a white female friend of hers who had an “agitated and violent” mental health episode in the City Hall. 

Hamilton Professor of Music Doc Woods featured in Wednesday’s event as well, playing for the audience Bonnie Raitt’s “I Can’t Make You Love Me,” which he characterized as reflective of the African American experience at large.

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