Frustrated by state family violence program, alleged victim speaks out in Meriden

Frustrated by state family violence program, alleged victim speaks out in Meriden

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MERIDEN — Jennifer Rodriguez’s now-estranged husband punched her right eye so hard during an argument last March that she required treatment in the emergency room at MidState Medical Center, according to a police report.

At the time, Rodriguez feared pressing charges would lead the state child protective services agency to remove the couple’s 2-year-old daughter, who was present at the time of the incident, so she did not pursue charges and claimed the punch was an accident when asked.

“I originally didn’t want to get him into trouble,” Rodriguez, of Meriden, said in a recent interview. “My sister advised me that I should come out and tell them what had happened, but then they started mentioning (the state Department of Children and Families) and the police were going to be involved. I had never been in a situation like this, so I was scared that maybe they might want to remove my daughter.”

When Rodriguez’s husband, according to a police report, punched her again in July of last year, this time on the right side of her torso, and threw her on a couch following an argument over a bagel, that “was the last straw,” she said.

So she filed a police report and her husband, Rony Cepeda, was charged in July with third-degree assault, disorderly conduct, and risk of injury to a child.

Cepeda could not be reached for comment. David Smith, the public defender assigned to represent Cepeda, did not return a request for comment.

After building up the courage over months to come forward and charge the father of her daughter with assault, Rodriguez said she was disappointed to learn that Cepeda was eligible for a nine-week anger management program and, upon completion, would have his charges dismissed.

Because Cepeda, 25, had never been charged with domestic violence prior to his July arrest, he was eligible for the program.

In Connecticut, first-time domestic violence offenders facing certain misdemeanor or felony charges are often granted enrollment by a judge in a pretrial program called the Family Violence Education Program, which meets once per week for 90 minutes in psychoeducational groups and seeks to “educate defendants on how violence affects relationships and provide them with basic interpersonal skills to have violence-free relationships.”

"On its face, the only thing that the court is seeing is the first one, not the pattern."

-Karen Jarmoc, CCADV

Established by state law in 1986, the diversionary program is seen for many first-time offenders as an appropriate and effective intervention and a better option in many cases than pursuing harsher penalties at trial.

Around 3,800 to 4,000 defendants, most facing their first domestic violence crime, participate in the program annually on average, according to Joe DiTunno, who oversees the program as deputy director of the Judicial Branch’s Family Services Division.

But critics fear the system allows some more serious defendants to slip through the cracks.

“On its face, the only thing that the court is seeing is the first one, not the pattern,” said Karen Jarmoc, executive director of the Connecticut Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

James Dinnan, Meriden supervisory assistant state’s attorney, said that in cases such as Rodriguez’s, a prosecutor will meet with a victim to get a sense of their history and, if a victim cites a pattern of physical or emotional abuse, the prosecutor will evaluate the credibility of those claims and consider them in deciding whether to oppose the defendant’s application for a diversionary program.

"If we do object to (the program), we do our best to outline in great detail what the history has been.."

-James Dinnan, state prosecutor

“If we do object to (the program), we do our best to outline in great detail what the history has been,” Dinnan said. The prosecutor in Rodriguez’s case has told her she plans to object to Cepeda receiving the program.

Burden of proof

In ruling on a defendant’s application, one factor a judge considers is testimony from the victim, who can work with an advocate to submit verbal or written testimony, DiTunno said. But without any prior charges or supporting evidence, Rodriguez said the burden of proof can be daunting.

“I feel like the court system is re-victimizing the victims,” Rodriguez said, “… because after everything I’ve been through and everything this person has done to me, I’m doing the right thing and I’m taking the right steps, and you’re telling me he deserves a second chance?”

Dinnan said he understands her frustration.

“Once a new case comes in, what we try to do when we meet with a victim is be honest and tell them, ‘It’s going to be frustrating. The process doesn’t move quickly, so bear with us,’ ” he said.

Feeling obligated to validate a pattern of abuse after learning Cepeda could have his charges dismissed, Rodriguez went back to police on Sept. 27 and filed a report for the March incident, this time testifying Cepeda intentionally punched her eye.

She provided photos of her injuries and records of her hospitalization, which led police to charge Cepeda in October with third-degree assault, second-degree threatening, and disorderly conduct, according to an arrest warrant.

"She’s fortunate in this case because she had the evidence. I’m hoping this particular person isn’t treated as a first-time offender."

-City Councilor Michael Cardona

“She’s fortunate in this case because she had the evidence,” said City Councilor Michael Cardona, chairman of the council’s Public Safety Committee. Rodriguez reached out to Cardona last year seeking advice, and Cardona advised her to report the March incident to police.

“I’m hoping this particular person isn’t treated as a first-time offender,” he said.

‘Frustrated, deflated’

Despite the additional charge and the prosecutor’s objection, Cepeda is still eligible under law to apply for the program. State statute requires defendants have no prior domestic violence convictions, not face certain felony charges, and have not already gone through a rehabilitation program for a family violence charge.

Dinnan, however, said it’s unlikely a judge would grant a program to a defendant facing multiple pending domestic violence charges. Cepeda’s next court date is scheduled for Feb. 7, and a judge could rule on his application at that time.

Based on an overview of the facts in Rodriguez’s circumstance, DiTunno believes the current system has worked as intended and that all parties have shown they are taking the case seriously — Meriden police charged Cepeda in both incidents, the prosecutor plans to fight Cepeda’s program application, and DiTunno is confident the judge will seriously consider Rodriguez’s position.

"There have been so many times that I’ve wanted to quit. I feel like I’m defending myself against everything, like I’m making my case."

-Jennifer Rodriguez

Rodriguez feels worn down by the process, but compelled to speak out.

“There have been so many times that I’ve wanted to quit. I feel like I’m defending myself against everything, like I’m making my case,” she said.

It’s not uncommon for victims to become discouraged by the justice system, Jarmoc said.

“She is absolutely justified to feel frustrated, deflated, let down by the system,” she said. “It’s a very imperfect system ... We know that in the majority of cases domestic violence arrestees are not actually fully prosecuted.”

Few convictions

Nearly half of the more than 75,000 domestic violence cases in Connecticut between 2017 and 2019 resulted in a “nolle,” an agreement in which a prosecutor no longer pursues charges but reserves the right to reopen the case for up to 13 months, after which they are dismissed. Another 13 percent resulted in a dismissal through the Family Violence Education Program.

Twenty-eight percent resulted in a guilty verdict or plea.

Dinnan said cases that result in a nolle typically involve lower-level charges and cases in which there were no serious physical injuries and the victim does not wish to prosecute further.

He couldn’t say for certain, but Dinnan guessed the nolle rate of about 50 percent for domestic violence cases is higher than nolle rates for other crimes.

An analysis by Central Connecticut State University in 2014 using 2010 data found that 16 percent of offenders who completed the Family Violence Education Program were rearrested on a family violence charge within one year of completing the program, slightly less than the 18 percent of non-participants rearrested.

While the CCSU analysis used 2010 data, Judicial Branch records show that from 2013 to 2018 the percentage of defendants who were rearrested on a family violence charge within one year of completing the program was consistently between 11 and 12.4 percent each year.

“I’d hope we could do a little better than that,” Dinnan said after learning of the program’s recidivism rates.

“It doesn’t surprise me, though,” he continued, “because sometimes it depends on the belief that a person will be able to rehabilitate themselves through counseling. It doesn’t always work, and sometimes we’re wrong on our decisions.”


Twitter: @MatthewZabierek