Early in her 23-year career, Judge Leslie Metzen learned that domestic violence would be a big part of her caseload.

"You learn that as a new judge within days of starting to handle calendars," said the retired Dakota County chief judge.

"It's all around you. You're doing orders for protection, taking pleas in the criminal side of those cases, sentencing individuals. And it's literally almost every day that you're on the bench, that you may be touching a case involving domestic violence."

Now, Metzen is doing her part to help outside the courtroom. As senior director of violence prevention for the Community Action Council, she's bringing together community leaders to identify trends and solutions, and she's promoting education about domestic violence for men and boys.

Metzen, who retired in May, was the first female judge in the First Judicial District, which covers Dakota, Carver, Sibley, Scott, McLeod, Goodhue and Le Sueur counties. She has held leadership posts among judges statewide, and she has been honored by the Minnesota District Judges Association for outstanding improvements to the court system and community.

In her new role for the south metro social services agency, she's eyeing prevention work that has been done to see if there are gaps in the system, looking for ways to keep victims safer and analyzing whether responses to domestic violence could be better coordinated, Metzen said.

A glance at headlines in the past few months reveals high-profile examples of the violence Metzen hopes to stop: A man who murdered his wife in Lino Lakes last month, then committed suicide; a police officer and a suspect both shot dead in September after the man tried to ambush his estranged wife at her North St. Paul apartment; an August murder-suicide in Harris, Minn., where a husband strangled his wife.

The questions for communities, she said, are: Why is this happening? What are the causes of domestic violence?

Metzen believes it's about people's attitudes. "I've come to believe that if we really want to have an impact on violence, we need to start talking about how we raise boys to think about girls and women, and we need to have men stand up and saying to other men, 'This isn't OK,'" she said.

Metzen points to national statistics that suggest one out of five adolescent girls will be a victim of dating violence. And one in five women will be a victim of physical or sexual assault while in college.

So Metzen is getting men engaged, talking to them about what domestic violence is -- and how common it is.

In her talks, she describes the time a jury was being chosen for a suspect accused of shooting to death his estranged wife's male friend and wounding her.

The jury pool represented a cross-section of Dakota County. Of 36 prospective jurors, one-third said they had been personally touched by domestic violence. And of that one-third, half of them said that until then, they had never revealed it.

"The only way that this is going to change is if those social norms, and the attitudes that men have toward women, start to shift," Metzen said.

'A visionary'

Metzen, 62, of Sunfish Lake, said she hadn't been thinking about retirement when Mary Ajax, president and CEO of the Community Action Council, tried to recruit her last spring.

But by May, Metzen had decided to join Ajax's effort.

"She is a visionary and had an idea about moving this agency as a whole, and especially the violence prevention piece of our work, to the next level," Metzen said.

The agency is expanding on services offered by the highly regarded Eagan House, which was the nation's first free-standing domestic violence shelter.

That and a second Lewis House, in Hastings, have provided services to thousands of women. Many come knocking in the middle of the night with children in tow, Metzen said.

The Lewis House provides shelter to more than 500 women each year, she said, and it provides a variety of social services to more than 2,000.

"The Lewis House is 30 years old, and what we celebrate is 30 years of really good work in providing a wonderful resource to women and their children who are victims of domestic violence," Metzen said.

On the bench, Metzen saw domestic violence in case after case, in a continuum of crimes involving all ages.

"Certainly the ones that stand out are the ones that result in a homicide, in a death. But the reality is all of these cases are pretty tragic because we know the impact that violence in the home has on the children who are growing up there," Metzen said.

"Those kids are at greater risk for school truancy, for alcohol and drug abuse, and it's also the behavior that's being modeled for them in the home. And sadly, they oftentimes repeat that behavior when they become adults."

Joy Powell • 952-882-9017