Tara O’Shea-Watson Could Have Been Saved: Domestic Violence and the Court System

By Barry Goldstein.

We know how to stop domestic violence crime and especially homicide.  This confidence is based on successful practices in communities like Quincy, San Diego and Nashville that dramatically reduced these horrific crimes.  In Quincy, a county that averaged 5-6 domestic violence (DV) homicides, they enjoyed several years in a row with no murders.  Accordingly it is not surprising that the practices that have proven so effective were not used to protect Tara.

The Quincy Solution is a group of best practices based on the success of several communities and current scientific research.  Among the practices particularly relevant to the O’Shea-Watson case is the need to strictly enforce protective orders and criminal laws as well as including the custody court system so that abusers cannot manipulate the court to regain control over their victims.  The community failed to use any of these effective practices.

The alleged murderer was her estranged husband, Jeremiah Monell.  She did everything right, but the response from law enforcement and the custody court failed her.  The mother obtained a protective order against him and filed a complaint after he broke into her home and assaulted her.  Monell was charged with burglary and criminal contempt, but the prosecutor dropped the charges without explanation.  The mother sought permission to return to Tennessee where her family lived, but the court protected the abusive father’s right to continued access to the children.  Somehow the “right” to force the children and the mother they depended on to live with fear and stress caused by the abusive father was more important than their safety.  Even after a long history of terrifying abuse his “rights” were treated as more important than the health and safety of the mother and children.

Commercial Township, where the murder was committed is only an hour away from Atlantic City where Ray Rice was allowed to avoid any conviction or meaningful criminal penalties for a potentially fatal assault.  Prosecutors said this extreme leniency is standard and he did not receive special treatment.  Domestic violence advocates expressed concerns about the message this lack of accountability sent to other abusers.  Legislators, police and prosecutors should consider whether the Rice case and other examples of letting abusers get away with dangerous crimes influenced Mr. Monell and will continue to contribute to domestic violence assaults and murders until the criminal justice system takes these crimes more seriously.  Monell experienced this ineffective response when his prior indictment was dismissed.

“She didn’t have a voice,” a friend, Penny Morey, recently told NJ.com. “Nobody cared. She wanted to be heard, and nobody heard her. Domestic violence is real.”  Men in the batterer class I teach routinely claim that all a woman has to do is claim abuse and her partner is arrested.  Tara’s case is another illustration that the reality is quite the opposite.  She suffered a long history of physical and other abuse but could not find the protection she needed.

“Family members and friends said she wanted to protect herself and her children, two of whom she had with Monell. According to the Press of Atlantic City, her cousin, Bryan Dunn, said, ‘she wasn’t going to leave them behind.’ ” This is a big part of the problem because custody courts have a poor understanding about the motivations of the parties.  Abusers who believe their partners have no right to leave use custody to regain control.  A study from the US Justice Department found court professionals without the specific domestic violence knowledge needed tend to believe the myth that mothers frequently make false reports.  This pushes courts towards decisions that risk children as courts deny or minimize true reports of abuse.

It might be comforting to suggest that most cases do not end as tragically as this one.  Research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention demonstrates that even in cases that don’t end in murder, living with the fear and stress creates a lifetime of health and safety problems for the children.  The same best practices that would prevent most murders would also save children from a lifetime of pain and suffering.

Monell has been captured and charged with his wife’s murder.  The criminal justice system will now work to convict him, but before they finish this case there is another question they should consider.  What reforms will they implement in response to this avoidable tragedy?  It is a critical question because without integrating best practices and learning from current research they will continue to make the same fatal mistakes.