Victims of domestic violence in Wichita eager for bolder interventions to help transform abusers

Kansas experts says investment in housing, therapy, education, legal reform needed

By: and - October 22, 2021 12:00 pm
Sedgwick County is the state's most prolific county in terms of domestic violence cases, arrests and homicides. A series of research reports shows the need for Wichita to intensify intervention with domestic abusers to improve public safety. (KAKE TV video/Kansas Reflector)

Sedgwick County is the state’s most prolific county in terms of domestic violence cases, arrests and homicides. A series of research reports shows the need for Wichita to intensify intervention with domestic abusers to improve public safety. (KAKE TV video/Kansas Reflector)

WICHITA — Stevie and Mary survived violence directed at them by domestic abusers, but nearly 300 Kansans unable to escape similar cruelty paid with their lives in the past 10 years.

Editor’s note

This is the second story in a two-part investigative series about the epidemic of domestic violence in Wichita. The project is a collaboration between Tim Carpenter, senior reporter at the Kansas Reflector, and Pilar Pedraza, senior reporter with KAKE News in Wichita.

Kansas Reflector published the first story Thursday. KAKE News’ broadcast coverage began Thursday and continues into the weekend.

Stevie, who asked that her full name not be disclosed, experienced domestic violence at age 20 when a boyfriend delivered her first concussion. She lied at the hospital, claiming she fell. During a 20-year marriage, her husband abused her many times. Police would be called, she said, but the judicial system didn’t solve her problem. Criminal charges were repeatedly reduced through plea deals.

“It was bad. It was over and over and over again. And, he kept saying he felt regret. I, you know, I can see the confusion in his eyes,” she said.

Stevie said a substantive treatment program, such as the six-month Batterer Intervention Program, may have pulled her family out of that toxic environment. By digging deeper, she said, her husband and boyfriend could have found answers for why their souls became twisted. She might have avoided physical trauma, including brain injuries leaving her with memory loss, communication impediments and a flawed sense of direction.

Mary, another Wichita resident who sought anonymity while speaking about her past, said she first experienced domestic violence in high school. There was mental and physical abuse, she said. She felt trapped by layers of excuses, a sense of codependency and a belief love could prevail.

She said Wichita shouldn’t sidestep opportunities to apply group-facilitated Batterer Intervention Programs if there was a chance of altering abusive and threatening behavior in men and women. Even if successful half the time, she said, moving the needle was worth the cost.

The Wichita Municipal Court pushed back in 2012 against a proposed state law requiring assessments for all domestic violence offenders and an expectation perpetrators would be assigned to 26-week intervention programs. The current law recommends second-time offenders be funneled toward a program for batterers, but there’s a caveat granting judges full discretion. In Wichita, that meant abusers ended up in anger management classes or short-cut batterer programs.

A series of reports by the Kansas attorney general’s office, a joint Wichita and Sedgwick County public safety task force and the Council of State Governments pointed to robust batterer intervention programs as a key ingredient to effectively responding to domestic violence in Wichita.

“I think that it should be used,” Mary said. “There’s some root to the problem, you know, and jail doesn’t necessarily help with that.”

Sedgwick County overwhelmingly leads the 105 counties in Kansas in frequency of domestic violence incidents, arrests and homicides. The Kansas Bureau of Investigation released a report Thursday showing the number of domestic violence offenses in Sedgwick County hit a record 8,344 in 2020 for an 8% increase from 2019. The county’s 2020 total was more than the combined 8,154 reported in Johnson, Wyandotte, Douglas, Leavenworth, Riley, Butler, Reno and Saline counties.

The problem in Sedgwick County was 2.5 times greater than in Johnson County, which has 85,000 more residents. Each year, Sedgwick County issues three times the number of protection from abuse orders as authorized in Johnson County.

Across Kansas, KBI reports showed, the number of documented cases of domestic violence ranged from 22,000 to 24,000 from 2011 to 2020. Those emergencies resulted in 11,000 to 14,000 annual arrests statewide.

During the past decade, 289 Kansans have become homicide statistics in domestic violence incidents. Eight of 34 victims in Kansas during 2020 were residents of Sedgwick County — the most for any county in the state. Sedgwick County has led Kansas in domestic violence murders for seven consecutive years.

Kansas victims of domestic violence and advocates for abused people say the judicial system in the state should place more offenders in six-month Batterer Intervention Programs to help them figure out why they engaged in violence against intimate partners. (Getty Images/Kansas Reflector)

 

‘No justification’

Bobbie Jo Ralstin, a registered nurse at Fort Dodge Soldiers Home in Dodge City, was shot six times with a .357-magnum handgun outside her rural Kiowa County home. On Nov. 6, 2009, the 35-year-old mother of three locked herself inside a vehicle in a failed attempt to shield herself from her husband.

On the day in 2011 that Mark Ralstin was sentenced to 14 years in prison for second-degree murder, he spoke with bizarre optimism about a future beyond the troubled relationship with his wife. 

“I hope that some day our whole family can be reunited. That we can create new memories,” Mark Ralstin said in a report by the Kiowa County Signal. 

Shirley Radcliff, mother of Bobbie Jo Ralstin, told District Court Judge Daniel Love that no prison sentence could right the wrong.

“There’s no justification for what Mark Ralstin done. He’s supposed to be such a spiritual man, but the night that he shot and killed my daughter, there was no spirituality in him. He was a cold-blooded murderer,” Radcliff said.

Mark Ralstin was released from the Kansas Department of Corrections in July.

 

Life-or-death struggle

Joyce Grover, executive director Kansas Coalition Against Sexual and Domestic Violence, said 69,000 people subjected to abuse were served in 2020 by the coalition’s 25 programs scattered across the state. It was a fraction of individuals thought to have been victims of such violence, she said.

She said assumptions about abusers were flawed, but deeply embedded. Perpetrators and victims in Kansas crossed racial, economic, geographic, educational and social lines. It is a scourge striking young and old, white and Black, rich and poor, urban and rural.

Grover said it was common for people unfamiliar with domestic violence to throw up their hands and declare victims should simply pack up their belongings, grab the children and exit the relationship. In reality, she said, the options of staying or going carried risk. If Kansas communities don’t stop blaming survivors and make access to crisis assistance a reality, she said, the abuse of intimate partners would never be brought under control. She said if batterers didn’t get professional help to change their mindset, police barricades at murder scenes would keep going up.

In 2020, KBI said, the state recorded a domestic violence homicide every 10 days, 12 hours and 38 seconds. Of the 193 homicides recorded across Kansas last year, 17.6% were linked to domestic violence.

“They happen with firearms. They happen with knives. They happen with hands around the neck. That’s what domestic violence looks like,” Grover said. “When you come across a homicide that’s domestic-violence related, it’s neighbors, it’s the faith community, it’s friends, it’s family. Everybody who had contact with that family is impacted by this violence.”

She said progress on domestic violence required a coordinated community response that held abusers accountable and offered a path to change for offenders and victims. It involves more than anger management classes because power dynamics at the core of domestic violence don’t shift overnight, she said.

It necessitates investment in education, training, counseling, crisis intervention, law enforcement, judicial reform, housing and substance abuse, Grover said. It’s about dealing with facets of indifference, politics, money, priorities and culpability, she said.

“If you look historically at the roots of domestic violence, the roots of ownership of other people, whether that is within the family or within the family plantation, the roots of ownership — ‘I’ll do what I want. I’ll do how I want. I’ll use this person however I want.’ — those are the roots we’re coming out of, whether those are roots of repression, misogyny, sexism. Moving from that place to a place where we have equity and respect in our relationships is a long path.”

Joyce Grover, executive director Kansas Coalition Against Sexual and Domestic Violence, said moving beyond the roots of domestic violence — repression, misogyny, sexism — to a place where society delivers “equity and respect in our relationships is a long path.” (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)

 

‘Senseless act’

Erin Berg was a glass artist and former jewelry store clerk in Lawrence so committed to life that she’d carry a spider out of the house or pick up a wounded bird.

“She always has been that way since she was a baby — the person trying to help,” her mother Kim Thomason told the Lawrence Journal-World.

Berg, 36, and her 3-year-old daughter, Mazey, were killed Aug. 15, 2017, in a double murder-suicide. Mazey’s father, Peter Sander, was taking part in a family visitation meeting when he shot and killed Berg. He left her body in the driveway of a home in rural Douglas County.

Sander then drove to the Baker Wetlands, south of Lawrence, where he fatally shot the child before taking his life.

In an obituary for mother and daughter, their homicide deaths were described as a “senseless act of domestic violence.”

 

Political engagement

Sen. Oletha Faust-Goudeau, a Wichita Democrat, said state law ought to be amended to require all misdemeanor and felony domestic violence offenders, from the first offense onward, be placed in a six-month Batterer Intervention Program. This type of intensive program has shown promise in modifying violent tendencies, she said.

In 2012, Judge William Kehr of the Wichita Municipal Court successfully lobbied the Legislature to block a statewide mandate on intervention programs for domestic abusers. He argued judges were in the best position to make decisions on “the interests of justice and public safety.”

In the nine years since Kehr uttered those words, the KBI says, one in five domestic violence homicides in Kansas has occurred in Sedgwick County. In that span, Sedgwick County reported 64 homicides associated with domestic violence. Elsewhere, Wyandotte County had 31, Shawnee County 27 and Johnson County 25 since 2012.

“This is near and dear to my heart,” Faust-Goudeau said. “It’s a silent pandemic that’s happening. Wichita is cycling offenders through the court system. It needs to be higher on the agenda. We don’t take it seriously enough.”

Sedgwick County District Court Judge Phil Journey, a former Republican senator from Wichita, said he was preparing to introduce a bundle of domestic-violence reform bills in the 2022 Legislature.

He said one would enhance the criminal penalty for violating a domestic violence protective order. He plans to encourage his former colleagues to pass a bill requiring use of domestic violence assessments at crime scenes. It would establish a paper trail available to municipal or district courts.

Another bill would provide training for law enforcement officers in the evaluation of who was the primary aggressor in a domestic violence episode. In some instances, Journey said, attackers strangle a person knowing bruises don’t show up immediately. The victim, while fighting back, could scratch the abuser, leaving wounds evident to law enforcement officers. When in doubt, officers arrest both individuals.

“The whole system needs more training,” Journey said. “All too often, while many will probably not admit it publicly, the money is the problem. These things all take money — training for cops, training for court personnel, training for judges, supervision.”

Wichita Mayor Brandon Whipple, a former Democratic state lawmaker, said the issue of domestic violence had to be viewed by public officials as a community-wide safety issue rather than the problem of an individual. He said funding for domestic violence ought to be part of the larger stream of public expenditures along with programs addressing homelessness, substance abuse, alcohol addiction and poverty.

“It’s absolutely heartbreaking,” the mayor said. “It’s something we can do better on because, frankly, other cities are doing better on it.”

On the other hand, Whipple said elected politicians ought to be wary of implementing laws or ordinances that tell judges how to do their jobs.

Wichita Mayor Brandon Whipple said domestic violence should be viewed by city officials as a communitywide safety issue, but caution ought to be taken to avoid elected politicians from directing the actions of courtroom judges. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)
Wichita Mayor Brandon Whipple said domestic violence should be viewed by city officials as a community-wide safety issue, but caution ought to be taken to avoid elected politicians dictating how judges handle abuse cases. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)

 

‘Going to hell’

Vashti Seacat, 34, the wife of a law enforcement officer, died April 30, 2011, in Kingman County.

Her husband, Brett, a former sheriff’s deputy who taught at the Kansas Law Enforcement Training Center, told authorities that she was depressed and started a fire before committing suicide with a handgun. He lied.

Brett Seacat shot his wife and attempted to incinerate the residence to conceal his crime. Several days before, he had been served with divorce papers. The fire occurred on the last night they were to live under the same roof. He left the house with the couple’s two boys and called 911.

Vashti Seacat’s family described Brett Seacat as controlling, self-centered and narcissistic. During the trial, he accused the judge of helping prosecutors conceal evidence. Judge Larry Solomon issued a 31-year sentence in 2013, and told the defendant he was “going to hell” for his deeds.

“This is the kind of sentence you believe you will need for a Kansas Supreme Court nomination,” Brett Seacat said in court.

In 2016, justices of the state Supreme Court upheld his convictions.

 

Shelter from the storm

Amanda Meyers, executive director of the Wichita Family Crisis Center, said knowledge about creating spaces to heal had grown exponentially since confidential, secure domestic violence shelters began opening in the 1970s.

“Best practices for safe shelter include not only security cameras, locked doors and parking gates, but also humane living conditions that reflect our societal belief that survivors deserve dignity,” she said.

Wichita Family Crisis Center’s territory covers the 750,000 residents of Sedgwick, Sumner and Cowley counties. In this region, there are two domestic violence shelters with a combined 60 beds. Both are in Wichita. Harbor House has two-thirds of the beds, with Family Crisis Center providing the rest.

Family Crisis Center strives to deliver trauma-informed, survivor-driven and culturally sensitive advocacy, Meyers said. Services are free and voluntary, she said.

Their work is conducted out of an old doctor’s office. Clients dealing with domestic violence reside in cramped bedrooms, she said. There is one small kitchen and two bathrooms for a couple dozen people. Children sometimes sleep on the floor. The center’s staff and clients share office space of 50 feet by 18 feet, precluding the possibility of regularly providing confidentiality.

Meyers said she was optimistic public and private contributions would eventually enable the center to secure a new facility.

“The goal is to empower the survivor to feel safer, calmer, and more capable to face future challenges and relationships,” Meyers said. “We don’t judge; we advocate. This is not our journey; each journey is our clients.’ “

Cities, counties and states need more robust prevention and outreach programs to confront dangerous beliefs and behaviors before they reach a violent level, she said.

“The fact of the matter is that our or my generation hasn’t made a dent in this domestic violence epidemic,” Meyers said. “Whether it is with shelter or Batterers Intervention Programs, we are running around sticking Band-Aids on arterial bleeds. It is the next generation of teens and young adults who have the power to make a true change by addressing the values, beliefs and behaviors that underlie domestic violence and human trafficking.”

 

A series of reports from the Council of State Governments, the Kansas Attorney General’s Office and a joint Sedgwick County/Wichita task force recommended reliance upon sophisticated batterer intervention programs in response to growth of domestic violence. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

 

‘She hurt me’

Erin Jones, 31, was a bank teller in Dodge City and participated in Boot Hill repertory productions. She dated a Dodge City Police Department officer, Christopher Tahah, but had ended the relationship.

Tahah saw Jones dancing with a man at a bar and became angry. He went home and retrieved a .270 Winchester rifle and waited outside Jones’ home. He said he pointed the weapon at the home, but didn’t intend to pull the trigger. Her obituary put the date of death at May 5, 2007. 

Tahah told a KBI agent that he went to the house to seek revenge “because she hurt me.” He fled to Colorado but was apprehended in Kansas.

Tahah was convicted of felony murder in 2008. That conviction was overturned by the state Supreme Court. The second trial in 2012 resulted in a conviction for first-degree murder. He was sentenced to life in prison without parole for 20 years.

 

Frontline insights

Dorthy Halley, who helped write the book at the Kansas attorney general’s office on essential elements of batterer intervention programs, said a person engaged in a persistent patterns of abuse would likely require treatment of underlying mental health issues, psychiatric disorders, alcohol and drug abuse or childhood trauma.

However, she said, decades of work on domestic violence led her to believe that care should be in addition to batterer intervention services.

“In order to be effective in reducing the amount of violence, a longer program is better than a short program. Who would want an attorney who only went to one year of law school?” said Halley, who left the attorney general’s office in 2020 and now works at the Family Peace Initiative in Topeka.

Kathy Ray, who served 15 years with the Kansas Coalition Against Sexual and Domestic Violence, took on the job last month as executive director of the Crisis Center in Manhattan. The center’s territory also reaches Junction City, Clay Center, Westmoreland and Marysville.

She said the state would make strides against domestic abuse if first-time offenders were required to undergo a Batterer Intervention Program assessment with the expectation judges routinely endorsed the reviewer’s recommendations.

Despite underfunding of sophisticated batterer intervention, crisis center administrators in Kansas said justice for people damaged by violence was essential.

“We need accountability,” said Jennifer Hecker, executive director of the Options Domestic and Sexual Violence Services in Hays. “Pleading down charges is not changing someone. It causes victims not to trust the system.”

Hecker said domestic violence in Kansas was on the rise. She said the COVID-19 pandemic contributed to greater severity of domestic abuse injuries.

The surge points to the fact Kansas has more to do before society comprehends dynamics of domestic violence and heeds yellow flags that pop up, Hecker said.

Council Grove residents Christie and Curt Brungardt started Jana’s Campaign to help educate people about domestic violence after their daughter, Jana Mackey, was killed in 2008 by a former boyfriend in Lawrence. The retired Fort Hays State University faculty members said they considered Mackey a martyr and the campaign part of her legacy. Their work has assisted thousands of people in 47 states and more than 600 schools with development of healthy personal relationships.

“People often ask me, you know, how do you do this? And my answer to that is very simple,” Christie Brungardt said. “I know without a shadow of a doubt, if I would have been the one who had been murdered, Jana would be sitting here right now and doing the exact same work.”

Christie Brungardt, next to husband Curt Brungardt, looks at family photos that include images of daughter Jana Mackey, who was a domestic violence homicide victim in 2008. The Brungardts launched an organization to help young people form better personal relationships. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)

 

‘Beautiful woman’

Shanell Bobian loved being outdoors and spending time with her children in Manhattan.

She graduated from Manhattan High School in 2012 and earned a health care management certification from Rasmussen College in 2020. 

Bobian, 27, was killed Sept. 25 in Manhattan, and her former husband, Kamahl Bobian, has been charged with first-degree murder and violating a protection from abuse order.

Her friends told WIBW that Kamahl Bobian began a harassment campaign after the relationship fizzled. Shanell took precautions that included altering her child care arrangements.

“She had a whole life ahead of her. She had beautiful children, who are now orphans,” Emily Gray said.

When the stalking didn’t stop, friends said, she obtained the protection order.

“I’m going to miss you,” Destiny Jones said on Facebook. “You were such a beautiful woman.”

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Tim Carpenter
Tim Carpenter

Tim Carpenter has reported on Kansas for 35 years. He covered the Capitol for 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal and previously worked for the Lawrence Journal-World and United Press International. He has been recognized for investigative reporting on Kansas government and politics. He won the Kansas Press Association's Victor Murdock Award six times. The William Allen White Foundation honored him four times with its Burton Marvin News Enterprise Award. The Kansas City Press Club twice presented him its Journalist of the Year Award and more recently its Lifetime Achievement Award. He earned an agriculture degree at Kansas State University and grew up on a small dairy and beef cattle farm in Missouri. He is an amateur woodworker and drives Studebaker cars.

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Pilar Pedraza
Pilar Pedraza

Pilar Pedraza sees journalism as a public service, providing viewers with the information they need to lead their best lives. This is part of what led her into political reporting early on. She cut her political reporting teeth on the First in the Nation Caucuses in Iowa in the 90s. She won multiple awards for her election coverage in Des Moines. She's spent much of the last decade covering the latest developments in Kansas politics. In between elections she's covered everything from the Oklahoma City Bombing, the OJ Simpson Civil Trial, and the birth of the McCaughey Septuplets to the Capture of BTK and the Flight Safety Crash at Eisenhower Airport. With two decades of experience in broadcast news, Pilar has done just about every job there is in TV news. Her favorite, to date, is reporting and anchoring, especially covering politics and breaking news. She grew up in newspaper newsrooms in Michigan and Oklahoma, where her mother was a reporter, editor, and columnist and where she learned how to work with her local community. Pilar graduated from Iowa State University with a BA in Journalism and Spanish in 1996 and got her MA in History with an emphasis in 20th century politics at Pittsburg State University in 2019. She is fluent in multiple languages. In her scant free time, Pilar likes to hang out with her husband of 20+ years and their son, a recent graduate of Maize High School. She enjoys reading, quilting, cross stitching and petting her dog and three cats.

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