Top cop wants discussion of relief-order process after Lumumba killing

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TJ Donovan
Vermont Attorney General TJ Donovan. File photo by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger

If Anako Lumumba had shown up for her relief-from-abuse hearing in December last year, she would have faced off with an experienced defense attorney arguing to have the order dismissed.

She didn’t show up, and the temporary order was vacated, meaning her boyfriend Leroy Headley, 36, was able to hold on to his firearms. He is accused of shooting Lumumba, 33, dead at her home earlier this month, and remains on the run.

Attorney General TJ Donovan said he couldn’t speak directly about that case, as it was an ongoing investigation, but said similar scenarios play out too often in hearings for temporary restraining orders (TROs), which can include relief from abuse orders.

“The reality is that many TROs are dismissed because victims don’t show up at the final hearing. And before we talk about blaming the victim we should talk about why women don’t show up,” Donovan said an interview on Wednesday.

Among other things, he said Vermonters need to ask themselves whether women seeking protection from an abusive partner should have access to legal representation.

“My feeling is that domestic violence victims are a vulnerable class of people,” Donovan said. “When you talk about that final hearing, why the process is so intimidating for people is because you have lawyers involved.”

Because there is no right to representation in civil cases — the TRO process takes place in family court — domestic violence victims are often representing themselves, while the defendant is more likely to have a lawyer.

“That’s an incredibly frightening and intimidating prospect for people who do not know how the system works,” Donovan said.

The attorney general said internal discussions about the issue had already started, and that he would start reaching out to others involved in the fight against domestic violence, such as advocates and the Vermont bar, about how to proceed.

He said he hoped to have concrete proposals heading into the next legislative session, so that policymakers could get to work on needed changes, and figure out the funding for new initiatives.

“I think anytime something occurs that makes people step back and reflect on what works and doesn’t work, that is going to spur conversation in the Legislature to have these issues addressed, and funding is always going to be part of that conversation,” Donovan said.

Anako Lumumba
A photo of Anako Lumumba posted to a fundraising page set up by her sister.

“I think we have to dig into this issue, start asking ourselves the question of why do victims not appear — is lack of representation a reason? And if it’s lack of representation then we have to start talking about economics, who can afford an attorney?” he said.

“My position is that people should always have legal representation and we need to do everything we can to protect victims,” he said.

Donovan said the conversation should also focus on expanding emergency housing to women escaping abusive situations and increasing the state’s resources and capacity to advocate for domestic violence victims.

“We have to talk about having trained victim advocates for women during that time, not only navigating the legal process but navigating the resources in the community so we’re linking women with these resources,” he said.

There are only four victim’s advocates working for the state in Chittenden County, where Lumumba filed for two separate relief-from-abuse orders, one in April and the other in December.

Donovan estimated that there were thousands of cases a year, including hundreds of domestic violence complaints. “That’s an enormous amount of work,” he said. “We have to have a conversation about how we build resources and capacity to have more advocates in our system.”

Additional services are available through Steps to End Domestic Violence, a nonprofit in Chittenden County that has two legal advocates who attend RFA hearings on Thursdays at the county court, offering emotional and logistical support to woman scheduled for a hearing.

Kelly Dougherty, the organization’s executive director, said she could not discuss whether her staff engaged with Lumumba at any point in her legal efforts because of its confidentiality policy.

She said the organization was always “trying to do more with less,” but had enough resources to be at all RFA hearings and respond to a 24-hour domestic abuse hotline. “Anyone who calls us is getting served,” she said.

Leroy HeadleyLeroy Headley
A police mugshot of Leroy Headley. Photo courtesy South Burlington Police

Dougherty said the group’s priority was keeping women safe, and that reaching out to them after a missed RFA hearing was not always the best way to do that.

“We can’t proactively reach out to all these people because we could be putting them in more danger,” she said. A text message to a phone in possession of the abusive partner, for instance, could tip them off to the victim’s calls for help and spark an attack, for instance.

Dougherty said that the period after police intervention or legal action was often the most dangerous time for a domestic violence victim, making it particularly important for women to have access to help and information at that time.

One way that’s being done in Chittenden County is with a lethality assessment, in which officers responding to a domestic violence situation ask women a series of questions to determine whether their life is in immediate danger.

If it is, they are told that “people in your situation have been murdered” and given the option to immediately speak to someone at Steps to End Domestic Violence, Dougherty said.

It’s also unclear if that assessment was ever conducted for Lumumba. The South Burlington Police Department denied a request for records related to Lumumba citing an exemption to protect victims or witnesses to crimes.

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