As state budget problems loom, domestic violence continues to haunt Rockford families.
By Jim Hagerty
ROCKFORD – With a Rockford man jailed on multiple counts, including first-degree murder, the issue of domestic violence is all too real for one area family.
Megan Cabay’s daughter was killed last December when Cabay’s boyfriend allegedly broke down their door and opened fire. The gunman, identified as 36-year-old Michael Mernack, shot Cabay’s mother, 63-year-old Cheryl Puckett. Sixteen-year-old Rebecca Finkenhofer fought with Mernack before she too was shot and ultimately stabbed to death.
Mernack was shot by deputies at the scene and survived. The Winnebago County State’s Attorney’s Officer announced last week that officers were justified in their use of force which left Mernack in critical condition before he was transported to jail in February.
According to court records, current allegations against Mernack are not his first brushes with the system.
He was convicted of misdemeanor domestic battery in 1998 and again in 2003.
In 2005, he was sentenced to 18 months in prison for felony domestic battery, and was back behind bars on a one-year stretch in 2009 for damaging property.
Allegations that he threatened Finkenhofer’s father with knife and punched Cabay last fall led to additional charges and an order of protection against Mernack that was in place when he allegedly killed the teen.
The order was one of four in place on Mernack at the time of the killing. Cabay’s order expires Dec. 21, 2018. An order filed by a Rockford man last February is for two years, one granted to another ex-girlfriend is in effect until Aug. 20, 2017. Mernack was ordered to stay away from another woman until Jan. 9, 2017, in addition to a two-week order connected with the alleged knife incident.
Facing a fourth-offense domestic battery charge for allegedly punching Cabay, Mernack posted a $250 cash bond and walked out of jail Dec. 2, 2016.
“He should not have been out,” Cabay said. “This makes me sick. I had to fight for this order of protection and I was told because there was an order of protection, he couldn’t contact me. But, once you leave that courthouse with that paperwork, judges don’t know if you are going to be safe.”
Search for solutions
Incidents like Cabay’s are becoming common in Rockford and throughout the county. Dozens of domestic violence-related restraining orders are filed every week, clogging court dockets with new cases and alerting officials of an underlying problem.
“My administration’s goal will be to help coordinate and facilitate current services from early education, more training for officers, and working to provide immediate wrap-around services for victims and children,” Rockford Mayor-elect Tom McNamara said.
The city and county are currently running domestic violence programs without help from Springfield. Since the onset of the budget impasse in July 2015, zero state dollars have gone to domestic violence programs across Illinois. In December, dozens of domestic violence programs were suddenly alerted that $9 million in allotted funds would not be arriving.
Gov. Bruce Rauner’s DHS head said there was “some confusion” over the funds, but that was little peace of mind to the 62 statewide agencies left with holes in their budgets.
“They’ve already spent that money and they’re struggling,” Vickie Smith, executive director of the Illinois Coalition Against Domestic Violence, told The Daily Northwestern.
That $9 million sum is only half of what Illinois has shorted domestic violence centers and law enforcement programs over the last 21 months. Legal aid and housing programs for victims of violence have seen budgets slashed by up to 90 percent in some cases.
In total, more than 1 million residents have been impacted by shortages to human service funding, and some of those impact directly on domestic violence throughout Illinois, say experts. More than 80,000 Illinoisans have lost access to mental health services and nearly 30,000 fewer residents have been admitted to addiction treatment facilities.
On top of that, funding for education, 911 call centers, child nutrition programs, daycare and more have been hammered during the state’s budget showdown. All have an impact on crime rates, say law enforcement agents.
“Those types of groups, they have an effect on crime here and across the state,” Police Chief Dan O’Shea told The Times in February. “Those agencies, they’re not our partners on paper, but they are our partners in preventing crime across the community.”
Bureaucracy creates clogs
There were nearly 3,000 orders of protection filed in Winnebago County last year.
The Rockford Police Department has recently bolstered its force to break the cycle of violence leaders are calling a systemic issue.
“We recognize that domestic violence is about power and control, and the best way to combat it is to provide victims with the resources and tools to break free from the psychological and financial control of their abusers,” Rockford Police Lt. Kurt Whisenand said.
One of those resources is a victim advocate working with the Domestic Violence Unit. A partnership with the Family Violence Council and social service agencies provides further services and resources.
A federal grant will allow Rockford Police to implement the Lethality Assessment Program (LAP) later this year.
McNamara, who takes office May 1, said while more resources are vital, curbing domestic violence will begin with the basics, something he said may been forgotten somewhere along the way.
“We didn’t have community dialogue on domestic violence, and that it really is such an epidemic,” McNamara said.
Cabay wants to be part of that dialogue. She said potential victims must be proactive, and while police will arrest those who violate orders of protection, abusers do not always comply.
“I want to change things and educate women,” Cabay said. “Because I don’t want anyone to have to go through this. Women need to do more investigating before dating – look backgrounds up.”
There are warning signs, she said, ones that can lend to toxic, abusive relationships. And while she felt she took the appropriate legal steps to break free, she still experienced the horror of a lifetime.
“Rebecca died for nothing,” she said. “There was no reason for it. Nobody should have to go through this.”
Area domestic violence shelters and resource centers
Remedies Renewing Lives
220 Easton Parkway, Rockford
2028 N. State St., Belvidere
Crisis line: 815-962-6102
Shelter Care Ministries
412 N. Church St., Rockford
Rockford MELD-Trinity House
620 Kishwaukee St., Rockford
American Red Cross – Rock River Chapter
727 N. Church St., Rockford
Rockford Rescue Mission
715 W. State St., Rockford
The Bridge (Youth Services Network)
3703 N. Main St., Rockford