Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone allowed a long-standing county family violence task force to remain dormant for nearly three years, despite pleas from advocates who say they told Bellone the group is critical to protecting victims.
The task force met for the first time under the Bellone administration on Aug. 7 after county officials learned that Newsday and News 12 Long Island planned an investigation into how police handled the case of Santia Williams, a Bay Shore woman murdered by her abusive ex-boyfriend in 2011. Records show that Suffolk police officers did not arrest Jason Jenkins even though Williams had obtained an order of protection against him and repeatedly complained to police that her boyfriend had violated it.
Domestic violence advocates say the task force, which expired in late 2011 at the end of Steve Levy's administration, brought together police, court and county personnel and domestic violence victims and allowed the group to address problems as they emerged. The task force dealt with issues ranging from helping victims with orders of protection to drafting new legislation.
The task force had met regularly since former County Executive Patrick Halpin created it in 1988 and instituted the state's first pro-arrest policy in domestic violence cases.
"The task force is more than justified, more than earns its keep and plays a vital role in keeping the system on its toes," said former Family Court Judge Gregory J. Blass, who chaired the task force until it ended in 2011. Blass, who reviewed the Williams case at Newsday's request, said there were several missed opportunities for police to arrest Jenkins.
Costs associated with the task force were "negligible" and there were no savings by not reconvening the group, Bellone spokesman Justin Meyers conceded in an email.
Meyers also issued a statement that read, in part: "Whether we were dealing with a task force or a working group that is a semantic issue when senior administration aides have been working with advocates, many of whom made up the task force. The administration also invited agencies to collaborate who predominately service communities of color and were not a part of the original task force to ensure inclusivity and meet the needs of all victims."
Bellone declined to be interviewed for this story, but officials asked at least one domestic violence victims' advocate to call Newsday to express support for the county's efforts. All four advocacy agencies receive county funding, county officials said.
Another advocate, Dana Brown, executive director of Brighter Tomorrows, said the county has been responsive "whenever we've had an issue."
Meyers wrote in an email that county officials had worked closely with domestic violence victims' advocates on a number of issues, had secured nearly $700,000 in grant money to support initiatives and had launched a domestic violence incidence database that received an award from the National Association of Counties.
Blass said the database was actually one of the previous task force's signature accomplishments and that it had been in the works long before Bellone was elected. After Bellone took office in January 2012, Blass said he gave the new county executive a "comprehensive file" on the task force and its work but never got a reply.
"It signaled to me that they didn't really care much about it," Blass said.
Ruth Ann Reynolds, the advocacy director for Suffolk VIBS, a rape crisis and counseling center, echoed Blass' frustration. "When Bellone became county executive, he was the first county executive since Patrick Halpin [created the task force] in 1988 who did not reconstitute the domestic violence task force," she said.
County records obtained by Newsday and News 12 Long Island show that the task force did not meet after November 2011. Previously, it had met every other month, with subcommittees meeting more often.
Reynolds said advocates have collaborated with county officials during the Bellone administration on various issues but that Bellone has been unreceptive when pushed to reconvene the task force.
"It felt very discouraging," she said.
Deanna Marshall, Suffolk's former director of women's services, said she is not sure why Bellone showed no interest in the task force until recently.
"I don't think he understood the issue," Marshall said. "It's one of those issues that doesn't come to light unless you bring it there. Somebody has to say, 'This is a problem.' "