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Renée Graham

Domestic violence is a growing public health problem

All Saints Episcopal Church of the North Shore held a candlelight vigil and interfaith service on Oct. 13 in honor of Domestic Violence Awareness Month.
All Saints Episcopal Church of the North Shore held a candlelight vigil and interfaith service on Oct. 13 in honor of Domestic Violence Awareness Month.All Saints Episcopal Church

NO ONE NEEDS to convince Trinity White that domestic violence is a public health issue.

Five years ago, she was living with her child’s father who, she says, abused her “mentally, physically, financially, and emotionally.” Then 19, she was left depressed, desperate and, with her son, eventually homeless.

When White recently attended a hearing convened by the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Public Health and the Massachusetts Caucus of Women Legislators, she not only testified at the State House but bore witness to a daily catastrophe that destroys families, endangers children, and upends communities every day. She is a survivor, but could have been a worst-case scenario like the 19 people in this state who have lost their lives to domestic violence this year. That’s already more than in all of 2016.


“The prevalence of domestic violence in the Commonwealth is too high. Estimates suggest one in four women and one in 10 men experience victimization by an intimate partner,” said Representative Kate Hogan, chair of the joint committee on public health. “Domestic violence is a public health issue because it doesn’t only cause an individual immediate debilitating harm, but also gives rise to chronic illness, mental health issues, homelessness, and a diminished capacity to be an active member of family and community life.”

According to Everytown for Gun Safety, a national movement to end gun violence, 70 percent of mass shootings occur at home; 42 percent involve a current or former intimate partner. When people highlight that there’s a mass shooting every day in this country, the majority are acts of domestic violence. That’s domestic terrorism in its purest form — far more common than the mass killings or acts of terror than monopolize our attention and headlines.

In 2008, after domestic violence homicides nearly tripled, from 15 to 42, between 2005 and 2007, then Governor Deval Patrick declared a domestic violence a public health emergency. He called it “something that affects us all,” and pushed for better screening of victims, and more resources.


Nearly a decade later, domestic violence still feels like an afterthought, and its survivors struggle to find services that, given the depth of the problem, remain sparse and inadequately funded.

“Every day survivors make the choice between living with their abuser or homelessness,” said Stephanie Brown, CEO of Casa Myrna, Boston’s largest provider of domestic violence awareness, shelter, and support services. “For a survivor to want to enter a shelter, it’s basically unavailable. There are about 200 units in the domestic violence system, not nearly enough for anyone who wants it. Because of the severe lack of affordable housing in Boston, even survivors in Boston wait years for permanent housing.”

White, who now works at Casa Myrna as an outreach and engagement assistant, lived in its shelter with her son for two years before she was able to afford an apartment. As a homeless domestic violence survivor, she was on a priority list. Those who aren’t homeless wait “significantly longer,” Brown said.

Affordable housing has been a major issue in this year’s mayoral campaign, but those conversations haven’t included the plight of domestic violence survivors. Waiting for safe place to live can be the difference between life and death for those in abusive relationships.


Such issues cut even deeper for survivors of color, those for whom English is not their first language, and, increasingly, undocumented immigrants. Since Donald Trump became president, domestic violence advocates have noted that the number of immigrant women seeking restraining orders or pursuing charges against abusive partners has dropped. Out of fear that immigration agents may lurk near courthouses, they’re making the terrifying choice to remain in violent living situations rather than risk detention and deportation.

Whether it’s one of our neighbors, our coworkers, or our own family members, we are more likely to know a victim of domestic violence than someone shot by a random stranger in a mass killing. Especially if you’re a woman, you are more likely to die in an act of domestic violence than an act of terrorism.

If Sayfullo Saipov, now a suspect in the New York terrorist attack that left eight dead, had instead murdered his wife and three children, neither his name nor his crime would have made national news.

Panic obscures facts. Nationwide, three women die every day from domestic violence. Our legislators must start treating these deaths of women, children, and men as a public health crisis instead of a private agony.

Renée Graham can be reached at renee.graham@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @reneeygraham.