Article by: Jon Tevlin Updated: January 3, 2012 - 10:46 PM 

Suzanne Koepplinger sees a lot of battered women come through the door, only to watch them go back to the men who hurt them. It's frustrating and heartbreaking, but she gets it. After all, she's been there.

Koepplinger, executive director of the Minnesota Indian Women's Resource Center, was in a "very violent relationship" back in the 1980s that finally put her in the hospital. She was referred to the Tubman center and the Minneapolis Domestic Abuse Project (DAP), a pioneering agency at the time that helped women leave those relationships.

"You can't imagine how much terror you feel," Koepplinger said. "I'm alive today because of DAP, advocates and a few good cops."

That's why Koepplinger was at Minneapolis City Hall on Tuesday at a roundtable discussion among domestic abuse workers, police, court officials and U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar in advance of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) pending in Congress. It wasn't so much a roundtable as a sales job of the "Minneapolis Model" to persuade politicians and the public that it's money well spent.

It is indeed a lot of money, about $600 million nationally in past budgets. In the past three years, Minnesota has benefitted as much as anyone from those grants, largely from the U.S. Department of Justice. Numerous agencies and organizations have received $57.8 million through the VAWA.

The state has been a leader in curbing domestic violence. The late Sen. Paul Wellstone and his wife, Sheila, made it one of their legislative missions.

In tough financial times, however, every program is under scrutiny. So Klobuchar, a co-author of the reauthorization of the bill, was in town to tout what Minneapolis has been able to accomplish with that money. Most important, the city has seen a 50 percent rise in conviction rates, which are now at 72 percent. Calls related to domestic assault have fallen 13 percent.

Police Chief Tim Dolan and City Attorney Susan Segal credit several measures taken with the help of the federal money. Those include a dedicated domestic violence team in the city attorney's office, a city prosecutor and advocate actually located in the police Family Violence Unit and a specialty court for misdemeanor domestic cases.

Dolan said the protocol for responding to domestic incidents has changed dramatically. Years ago, officers generally tried to separate the couple and move on. If it was more serious, they'd write a sketchy report that would "end up in a basket" and never get prosecuted.

Through training grants, police have been taught to record thorough documentation at the scene, including taking photos and talking to kids, even on misdemeanor cases. Getting to the offender early helps stop the escalation of violence, Dolan said.

That progress has been accomplished despite cuts at the local level to police, the city attorney's office and the DAP, Dolan said. In fact, he re-allocated some surplus police money from 2011 to save the DAP program for another year and make up for some of the cuts to the city attorney's office.

"Even in this economy, we're not seeing an increase in felony assaults" as many other cities are, said Dolan. "The challenge is to just keep it going."

Cuts to the state's Bureau of Criminal Apprehension has caused a large backup of DNA samples, stalling some cases because victims or witnesses give up, said Hennepin County District Judge Toddrick Barnett.

Klobuchar's re-authorization bill hopes to strengthen the original by consolidating duplicative services, putting more flexibility into grants, allowing orders for protection against nonresidents on Indian reservations and providing money to help with the DNA backlog.

You wouldn't think an issue as important as protecting women and children would require the hard sell, but that's what advocates had to do Tuesday at City Hall.

And that made Koepplinger wonder when a presidential candidate would make the issue a platform on the campaign trail, considering that estimates of the number of women who have been abused run as high as one-third.

"If one of three people was unemployed, can you imagine the outcry?" Koepplinger asked.

Sharon Brice, the DAP's advocacy director, has worked on the issue for 37 years. When someone recently asked her what kept her at it, she responded: "The next woman."