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‘I really thought I was going to die;’ Advocates call on R.I. to create domestic violence court

From 2016 to 2020, there were 26 domestic violence-related homicides in Rhode Island. In more than half of those cases, the perpetrator had previous involvement in domestic violence-related court cases

The latest homicide reporte from the Rhode Island Coalition Against Domestic Violence found there were 26 victims of domestic violence homicides in the state between 2016 and 2020.Jessica Rinaldi

PROVIDENCE — With her hands clasped in front of her, and the raw November wind sweeping the gray and white hairs across her forehead, Cheryl A. Silva’s voice cracked as she spoke about the murder of her eldest daughter, Jennifer.

“I almost had her home. But this person just wouldn’t have that,” Silva said Thursday morning at Victims’ Grove in Memorial Park in Providence, a public place dedicated to victims of crime. “It’s not just guns or knives. It’s hands that kill, too.”

“My daughter was thrown out of a third floor,” she added.

Jennifer A. Silva was 41 when she was killed by her boyfriend, Allen J. Hanson, in 2017. On May 20, 2017, East Providence police received a 911 call around 4 a.m. and found Jennifer Silva in the driveway of her home. Hanson was at the scene, next to Silva, and claimed she was struck by a motor vehicle, which was later proved not to be true. Silva, a mother, died later that day at Rhode Island Hospital.

At the time, Hanson was still on probation for a domestic felony assault that took place in 2006 involving a different victim. He served a little more than two years and was granted seven and a half years of probation. Hanson also received a three-year suspended sentence, with probation, in an unrelated assault that involved an emergency care worker.

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In June 2019, Hanson pleaded guilty to one count of involuntary manslaughter and was sentenced to 26 years at the Adult Correctional Institutions in Cranston with four years of probation for killing Silva.

Cheryl A. Silva, left, whose daughter was killed in a domestic violence-related incident in 2017, speaks at Memorial Park in Providence with Lucy Rios, the executive director of the Rhode Island Coalition Against Domestic Violence.Alexa Gagosz

“We need these perpetrators to stay in jail for life,” Silva said. “And not have the opportunity to get out.”

On Thursday, the Rhode Island Coalition Against Domestic Violence released its latest homicide report, which found there were 26 victims of domestic violence homicides in the state between 2016 and 2020. The last report, which examined a 10-year period, found that there were 54 domestic violence-related homicides in Rhode Island between 2006 and 2016.

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Silva was one of several speakers at the report’s unveiling. The state needs to do more to protect survivors at a time when incidents of domestic violence have been on the rise, according to the report.

In 2020, during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, there was a “record increase in domestic violence calls” in the state, according to Lucy Rios, the Coalition’s executive director. Seven of the 26 homicides since 2016 took place in 2020, according to the report.

Of the 26 homicides, which involved both female and male victims, nine people were killed with a firearm, four were beaten to death, four were stabbed, two were strangled, and in two incidents, a victim’s death involved a vehicle. In six of those homicides, bystanders were killed.

Just over half of the perpetrators in the 26 homicides, like Hanson, had previous involvement in domestic violence-related court cases.

To prevent future domestic violence-related homicides, Rios said the Coalition wants to see an increase in funding for advocates and victim service providers, as well as investments in primary prevention strategies to prevent domestic violence before it happens. She said the Coalition is collaborating with its court and legislative partners to create a specialized and dedicated domestic violence court, where trained professionals will be informed of the risk factors and other intimate partner violence dynamics. The court, she said, would have best practice policies and procedures in place to ensure guns are removed from the hands and homes of abusive and violent individuals.

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“We have put laws and protections in place that we are proud of. And yet, we have so much more to do,” said Rios, who called on law enforcement and officials in the judicial system to “believe victims when they say their lives are in danger.”

Rios said there are several risk factors that can escalate a domestic violence incident to a homicide, such as the perpetrator’s criminal history, if the victim recently tried to leave their abuser, if there’s the presence of a gun, a history of strangulation, and stalking.

From left to right, Zaida Hernandez, a member of the survivor task force Sisters Overcoming Abusive Relationships (SOAR), Deputy Attorney General Adi Goldstein, and Rhode Island Lieutenant Governor Sabina Matos at the unveiling of the Rhode Island Domestic Violence Homicide Report on Thursday in Memorial Park in Providence.Alexa Gagosz

Zaida Hernandez, a member of the survivor task force Sisters Overcoming Abusive Relationships (SOAR), reflected on when she first met the man who abused her when she was 19 years old. He was older than she was and she thought he’d protect her. “I couldn’t have been further from the truth,” she said.

The abuse, she said, started soon after she moved in with him. He beat her daily, had guns in the house, and threatened to kill her and her family if she attempted to leave.

But one day, he cornered her as she was naked in the bathroom for more than an hour, pointing a gun at her head and chest and repeatedly telling her he was going to kill her.

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“That day, I really thought I was going to die,” said Hernandez, who has been advocating and testifying for domestic violence survivors for more than 20 years. “It was only by a miracle of God that he stopped, put the gun away, and left for the evening.”

With a domestic violence court and policy changes, Rios said these incidents “may be preventable.”

“We know the warning signs,” Rios said. “The victims are calling out to us, telling us their lives are at risk.”


Alexa Gagosz can be reached at alexa.gagosz@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @alexagagosz and on Instagram @AlexaGagosz.