Since 1992, Jane Doe Inc. has partnered with the Boston Globe to memorialize known victims of domestic violence killed in Massachusetts during the previous year. By doing so we honor their lives and mourn their loss, while strengthening our resolve to work toward a time when this somber ritual is not necessary.
After 21 years, three essential questions emerge: What have we learned? What has changed? What is next?
We start by respectfully recalling the domestic violence homicide victims in 2013: Julie Treadwell, Rebecca Felteau, Glomerys Martinez, Anita Clark, Kevin Paul, Melissa Hardy, Tyshianna J. Atkins, Jennifer Martel, Mei Kim Jones and her sons Colt and Cameron Jones, Shirley Ju and Colleen Butler. (Two names are withheld either at the family’s request or because of the status of the investigation.) They ranged in age from 1 to 71 and lived in rural, suburban, and urban communities. Half of the incidents were murder-suicides and in one case the entire family was killed Eighty percent of the homicide victims were female victims of domestic violence, and almost all (13 of 14) of the homicide perpetrators were male.
Their deaths have taught us that while many victims do find ways to build safety, tremendous obstacles remain. Too many victims still feel trapped, ashamed, and do not have the resources or access to support and information to help them escape a dangerous situation. Too often abusers are not held accountable for their controlling and violent behavior. To the best of our knowledge, none of the 2013 homicide victims and none of the alleged perpetrators received services from a domestic violence program or were enrolled in a batterer’s intervention program, respectively.
While access to a trained domestic violence advocate has been shown to play a significant role in helping victims reduce their level of risk, programs struggle to meet the demand. In a 24-hour national census in September 2012, Massachusetts domestic violence programs reported that 1,752 victims either found refuge in emergency shelters or transitional housing or received non-residential assistance and services, including counseling and legal advocacy. An additional 443 requests for services that day were unmet due to lack of capacity.
Elsewhere, positive change has occurred on myriad levels. Sexual and domestic violence are becoming more fully understood as public health and safety issues. Increasingly, people have reached out to Jane Doe Inc. and our member programs to learn about the issues, how to support someone they know, and how to make a difference.
More systems are adopting evidence and research based programs that help identify abusers who are at risk of committing homicide and to support survivors of domestic violence. Among these best practices is the adoption of a domestic-violence program led high risk team and on-site screening for danger assessment. The result is that perpetrators and victims are more likely to receive a consistent response across systems. At the legislative level, we are gaining support for two bills in particular: creating a felony offense for strangulation or suffocation and preventing the use of accord and satisfaction to dismiss assault and battery charges in domestic violence cases.
Another theme points to a crucial evolution in our work. A study conducted by Jacquelyn C. Campbell, a leading researcher on domestic violence homicides and homicide prevention, found that for those victims facing grave danger, only about 50 percent were found to accurately assess the danger and risks they were facing. We still believe that removing their voice would further isolate, alienate, and endanger them. The antidote is more contact from trained domestic violence advocates who can engage and build rapport, and thus trust, with victims who may not be able — due to the violence, shame, fear, trauma and constant abuse — read the signs of increasing violence.
In 2014 we are poised to take bold steps: advocating for well resources local sexual and domestic violence services as well as programs that build accountability for batterers; identifying best practices in prevention across the lifespan; increasing access to outreach and services for culturally specific communities including people who identify as LGBQ/T, immigrants, refugees, Native Americans, and people with disabilities; promoting consistent training across disciplines to ensure informed and effective responses by law enforcement, police, health care providers, educators, clergy and family members; elevating these issues as human rights issues. We must dig deeper to unlock the intersections of sexual and domestic violence with other social issues, such as bullying, gangs, and other forms of violence, homelessness, immigration status, poverty and economic insecurity. If we do not adopt a comprehensive approach to these issues, we will be the proverbial dog chasing its own tail and unable to interrupt the dynamics of power and control and inequality that foster abuse and violence.
Debra J. Robbin is interim executive director of Jane Doe Inc., the Massachusetts Coalition Against Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence.