STOW -- A 2016 murder in Hudson changed the way at least one Stow Municipal Court judge is making decisions on domestic violence charges in 2017.
The shooting, which left three boys without a mother or father, also has led to Stow Municipal Court adding a full-time Victim Assistance advocate for the first time since before the court moved from Cuyahoga Falls. The court handles about 20,000 cases a year from 16 northern Summit County communities.
The event which led to the change happened in March when Stephen Bice, 53, shot and killed his wife, Kristi Bice, 42, and then shot and killed himself. Stephen Bice had previously been charged with domestic violence and placed under a temporary protection order by Stow Municipal Court Judge Kim Hoover. The domestic violence charge was later amended to a disorderly conduct charge, according to court records. Kristi Bice agreed to the lesser charge. Two months later she was dead.
Stow Municipal Court Judge Lisa Coates said she decided something more had to be done by the courts to protect victims.
That led to her change of policy.
"It propelled me to do more as a judge," Coates said. "Before I'll accept any change from a domestic violence charge to [a lesser charge], I want the victim to go see Victim Assistance."
According to Coates, the death could have happened no matter which judge handled the case, but felt the court as a whole had to do more to help victims, including trying to get a full-time advocate assigned to the court.
In the past, victims were sent to Akron to talk to Victim Assistance advocates, Coates said.
According to Coates several victims said they were unable to drive or get a ride to Akron for a variety of reasons.
"Now there are no more excuses, " Coates said. "I love the fact that they are down the hall now and there is no reason not to meet up with them. I just like to make sure they know they have another alternative to going home if something more is going on."
Advocate paid for with federal funding
Leanne Graham, executive director of Victim Assistance, explained Coates' reasoning for adding a full-time advocate.
"The goal of that was to provide that victim the opportunity to talk with someone that is not involved with the court system. [They are] really there just to support that victim and have their best interest at heart to educate them about domestic violence, to educate them about some of the ramifications or some of the impact this could have in the future," Graham said. "And if they want to do that we will support them 100 percent."
Graham applied for and received $44,245 in federal funding from the Victim of Crime Act. The VOCA is legislation that requires the court system to take fines set aside and use for victims, Graham said.
"We had to do something for the people who have nothing at all," Graham said. "That's when I decided to devote the time and energy to find funding for the people of Stow."
According to Graham advocates provide victims with all the information possible to make a rational and safe decision during a variety of tragic events.
Jillian Loftus is the first full-time Victim Assistance advocate assigned to the Stow Municipal Court in more than 13 years, according to Graham.
"I do love being out here," Loftus said. "I feel there was a lot we were missing, as far as victims."
Loftus said victims feel better just being able to ask questions and have someone be there by their side.
Loftus, of Stow, was assigned as the court's Victim Assistance advocate Nov. 21, 2016 which made the Stow Municipal Court one of six Victim Assistance satellite offices throughout Summit County.
"Our main objective is to fulfill our mission, which is to empower our community, restore lives impacted by crisis, violence and tragedy," Graham said. "And just because people are not involved with the criminal justice system that does not mean we won't help them."
The agency also assists those who have been impacted by suicide, traffic fatalities, infant, deaths and heroin overdoses, Graham said. She added the program assists in any type of trauma.
"We encourage anyone who is dealing with any type of struggles to call our 24-hour hot line and talk to us," Graham said. "Our services are confidential and we will be able to offer them some opportunity to navigate through what their situation is."
To contact Summit County Victim Assistance 24-hours a day call 330-376-0040.