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Kevin Cullen

Dee Kennedy saved victims of domestic violence, and families

Dee Kennedy was the chief probation officer at Dorchester District Court.
Dee Kennedy was the chief probation officer at Dorchester District Court.(Handout)

Because she grew up in a big, sprawling household, Dee Kennedy intuitively understood the redemptive power of family.

There were 10 siblings in that house atop Bellevue Hill in West Roxbury, five boys and five girls, and just by living in the Kennedy house, you became expert, by osmosis, in the dynamics of human relationships.

Dee went to Wellesley College, where she majored in Spanish and psychology. To improve her Spanish, she moved to Madrid. When she came back, she became an ESL teacher in Boston, volunteering at night to teach immigrants how to speak English. But she found her calling as a probation officer in Dorchester District Court, especially when she began to specialize in domestic violence 25 years ago.

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Judge Sydney Hanlon was initially worried when the number of probation violations dropped dramatically after Dee began supervising domestic violence offenders.

“I was afraid she wasn’t surrendering people, because she seemed so nice,” Hanlon said.

But Hanlon learned the recidivism rate dropped because Dee Kennedy was doing her job so well.

“She was spending time with offenders in the beginning, making sure they understood the conditions, helping them meet them,” Hanlon said. “So they did the batterers’ intervention program when it was ordered, stayed drug free, and their partners knew they could call her if there was trouble.”

Dee Kennedy had no problem locking people up. When some guy who had belted his wife or girlfriend or kids came before her, she let him have it. She was adamant: Violence was unacceptable. So were threats and humiliation and all forms of intimidation.

But because she saw probation as the art of behavior modification, she was always trying to figure out why someone resorted to violence.

Getting someone out of a violent situation and into a safe environment while holding the batterer accountable in court was, to Dee Kennedy, just the first step. Sometimes it was the only step because the batterer was unwilling or unable to change.

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But getting batterers to understand that what they had done was unacceptable, to change not just their actions but their thinking, getting those fractured families back together — that, to Dee Kennedy, was victory.

Bill Stewart, a longtime probation officer in Dorchester, marveled at Dee’s ability to win the affection of people whose liberty she held in her hands. They didn’t fear her as much as they loved her.

“Dee had a great mind for breaking down family situations, getting to the root of domestic violence,” he said. “She understood the human condition.”

Her frugality was legendary. She reused the paper bag she carried her lunch in until it disintegrated. Nobody found better bargains. She had a truly scientific approach to shopping at the old Filene’s Basement.

She had a standing instruction for colleagues who went to conferences: Scoop all the toiletries in the hotel room so she could take them to a shelter for domestic violence victims.

She was famous for her care packages to service members. She had an appreciation for the sacrifices that those in the military and their families make, long before her brother Kyran, an Army helicopter pilot, was killed in action in Iraq in 2003.

Because she was such a force of nature, when word spread that Dee had cancer, a lot of people’s first reaction was, cancer had met its match.

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She kept working. When treatments stopped working, the doctors offered her an experimental treatment. Instead of being comfortable for her final months, Dee joined the trial.

“She knew it wouldn’t help her, but it might help someone else down the road,” said Bernie Fitzgerald, her predecessor as chief probation officer in Dorchester. “That was Dee.”

She was at a meeting of chief probation officers in Roxbury last week when she collapsed.

Dee Kennedy was 59 years old and there is just no other way to say this: She died way too young.


Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at cullen@globe.com.