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Rise in domestic violence blamed on new Utah law

Social workers say increasing numbers of domestic violence cases can be attributed, in part, to a new law making it a separate offense to commit domestic violence in front of a child.

"I think the increase is due in part to an increase in public awareness," said Kate Jensen, the domestic violence prevention specialist with the Division of Child and Family Services.Jensen said that during a three-month span last year, her division saw a 33 percent increase over the same months of 1996 in the number of cases identifying a domestic violence concern.

Analysts examined August, September and October in 1996 and compared them to numbers from the same period in 1997.

"I think this law is a way of helping the general public realize that kids who are witnessing the violence are also victims," Jensen said.

The law, passed in the 1997 legislative session and effective last May, makes someone who abuses his or her partner with a child present in the home also guilty of child abuse. The penalty kicks in on the second documented domestic violence incident.

If the case starts out as a simple assault, a class B misdemeanor, the defendant also risks a charge of class A misdemeanor child abuse.

If the case results in serious bodily injury or a homicide, the child-abuse offense escalates to a felony.

Weber County Attorney Mark DeCaria, whose office has filed 11 of the class A misdemeanor charges against defendants, said the law represents an additional step against violence in the home.

"It serves as a notice to everyone who is unable to control their temper and apt to strike at a mate."

Davis County deputy prosecutor Kathi Sjoberg said her office hasn't filed very many of the class A offenses because there has been some confusion among officers about when the charge kicks in.

"The biggest problem we have right now is documenting those prior incidents," Sjoberg said.

On domestic violence calls, police have to note if a child is in the home at the time of the abuse. The law does not require the child to witness the violence.

Anne Yelderman, executive director of Your Community Connection, said it is too early to tell if facing an additional penalty involving the children will stop violent parents from striking out.

But she is hopeful.