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News | Vermont takes aim at domestic violence

By S. A. Troy | Special to the Vermont Guardian

Posted April 19, 2007

Editor’s note: Over the next several weeks, the Vermont Guardian will examine the complex nature of domestic abuse that often occurs in homes, but is hardly contained by their walls. This week, we provide an overview of national and state trends. In the coming weeks, we will examine the criminal justice system; how communities are responding to domestic violence; and what is being done in schools and youth programs.

On March 22, 2007, piles of snow from what should have been the last winter storm of the season barricaded parking meters and lined the walkways leading to the State House. Inside the Senate Judiciary’s Committee room, four women sat at the end of an imposing wooden table. Opposite them, Sen. Richard Sears, D-Bennington, chairman of the committee and an imposing figure himself, sat in his high-backed, black leather chair and tried to make the women feel at home.

Pointing a large finger at the microphone planted in front of them, he offered gently, “I’m happy to turn that off if you’d like.”

The women looked at one another, then each took her turn shaking her head and responding that it was OK for her testimony be recorded.

For the next two hours, committee members and a standing-room only audience listened as the women recalled their stories of how they survived an abusive husband, boyfriend, or father. Though varying in age, ethnicity, and income status, each had a similar story — the violent or intimidating behavior came out of the blue several months into the relationship, and without the support of the community — even if the support came late, was insufficient, or practically non-existent — none of them would be sitting in the room.

“Domestic violence is very hard to detect, hard to see,” said Heather, who grew up with a father who abused her mother. Though she was never the object of his physical violence, she said fear was a daily part of her life. She was afraid to disobey; she learned how to be quiet, and has worked hard to overcome the impression that family is not safe.

“Jane,” a businesswoman, testified, “I’d always said to myself that if anyone ever struck me that that would be the end of a relationship. I had no plan for what I would do if other tactics were used.” In her case, it was psychological abuse that resulted in stalking. She said that the law enforcement response was critical. An astute officer who understood that she was being stalked, identified that fact for her and initiated the charges. “The tragedy here is that stalking is not well-understood by many people. Taken in isolation the tactics used are not illegal. But view them as a pattern of behavior and you have a different story. In stalking, context is everything. Incidents take on a whole new meaning.”

Vermont is one of the more progressive states in the country when it comes to addressing one of society’s most costly and chronic social issues, domestic violence.

Vermont offers more extensive programming to offenders through its intensive domestic abuse program (IDAP) than any other state, recently adding a pilot program for incarcerated abusers (InDAP). The Agency of Human Services (AHS) is also in the process of a multi-year review of all of its domestic violence policies that may result in institutionalized best practices for agencies all over the country. However, according to Sears, “Things are getting a little better, but they’re not good enough.”

Sears should know. For the last 15 years, he’s helped pass several critical domestic violence-related statutes including those criminalizing domestic assault and stalking. He also recently retired from a 35-year career working with juvenile offenders, many of whom came from homes where violence was prevalent.

“We’ve all worked on domestic violence legislation piecemeal over the years, and yet we continue to have a significant problem in this state that in some ways has been well-hidden. Until you have a murder or a child so badly abused that they die, that’s when we begin to hear about it, and it’s too late,” Sears said.

In 2006, Vermont experienced a number of devastating acts of violence with links to domestic abuse. In August, Christopher Williams, whose girlfriend had recently broken up with him, allegedly borrowed a gun and while looking for her, shot four people. The shootings resulted in two fatalities, Alicia Shanks, an admired teacher and co-worker in Essex Elementary School where two of the shootings took place, and Linda Lambesis, his ex-girlfriend’s mother. The fourth victim, a male friend of the suspect, was shot in his apartment.

In Massachusetts, where Williams lived previously, police said he had a history of domestic violence convictions resulting in several restraining orders.

Though not known to have had previous contact with each other, Brian Rooney, the suspect in the October 2006 sexual assault and murder of University of Vermont student Michelle Gardner-Quinn, was also the subject of multiple relief from abuse orders and domestic charges.

In November 2006, Carol Lozinski was shot three times in the chest by her ex-boyfriend, Chris Chichester, who then committed suicide in the town of Lyndonville.

In the wake of these high profile cases, the Legislature again focused on domestic abuse. Sears, fellow judiciary committee members Sen. John Campbell, D-Windsor, Sen. Kevin Mullin, R-Rutland, Sen. Ann Cummings, D-Washington, and Sen. Alice Nitka, D-Windsor, along with Pres. Pro Tem Peter Shumlin, D-Windham, and Senate Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Sen. Susan Bartlett, D-Lamoille, agreed there needed to be a comprehensive approach to the problem.

“We need to devote time to understand what’s working, what’s not working, where are the gaps in services and legislation,” Sears said. As a result, every Thursday morning this session, domestic violence has held center stage.

But, unlike the attention given to weeks of hearings on climate change, this session-long effort has received less media attention.

The committee has heard from a wide array of people from around the state including survivors, advocates, law enforcement, state’s attorneys, and various officials from the Agency of Human Services, which includes several front line departments including corrections, children and families, and economic development, as well as the governor’s Council on Domestic Violence, various county task forces, and prevention and education programs that provide services to schools and workplaces.


Domestic violence’s impact

As defined by the Vermont Department of Children and Families website, domestic violence is: “A pattern of assaultive and coercive behaviors including physical, sexual, psychological, emotional, and economic coercion that an adult or adolescent uses to obtain and maintain control over their intimate partner.”

According to the 1998 Commonwealth Fund Survey, 31 percent of U.S. women reported being physically or sexually abused by a husband or a boyfriend at some point in their lives.

A 1996 survey by the Advertising Council found that 30 percent of those polled said they knew a woman who has been physically abused by her partner in the past year.

In 2001, a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association revealed that approximately one in five female high school students reported being physically and/or sexually abused by a dating partner. When asked in a poll sponsored by Children Now and health insurance provider Kaiser Permanente, 40 percent of girls age 14 to 17 said they knew someone their age who had been hit or physically beaten by a boyfriend.

Statistics on the rate of men who are violent toward their partners are harder to find, though according to Mark Larson, the batterer accountability coordinator for the Network Against Domestic and Sexual Violence (the Network), it is estimated to be around 25 percent.

Experts say this illustrates one of the key perceptions that often color our thinking about domestic abuse — blaming the victim as opposed to the offender.

“What questions you ask indicates how you think about an issue,” says Cate MacLachlan, co-director of the Domestic Abuse Education Project. “‘Why does she stay?’ puts the onus on the victim. ‘Why does he hit?’ gets more to the root of the issue.”

Intimate partner violence (IPV), as the most common form of domestic abuse is often called, is primarily a crime against women though it also happens in same-sex couples of both genders at approximately the same rate as in the heterosexual population. However, according to the Family Violence Prevention Fund, 85 percent of victims are women, and 15 percent are men.

A 1998 U.S. Department of Justice analysis of crime data revealed that while women are less likely than men to be victims of violent crimes overall, women are five to eight times more likely than men to be victimized by an intimate partner.

The resulting costs to society of domestic violence can be staggering.

In 2003, the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control estimated that IPV costs exceeded $8.3 billion that year, the vast majority of that in direct costs of medical and mental health care services. The remaining billions include the indirect cost of lost productivity, an estimated 8 million days of paid work, the equivalent of more than 32,000 full-time jobs, and almost 5.6 million days of household productivity.

The U.S. Advisory Board on Child Abuse suggests that domestic violence may be the single major precursor to child abuse and neglect fatalities in this country. Studies also show that millions of U.S. children each year, numbers ranging from 3.3 to 10 million, witness domestic violence at home with long-term effects on their development and understanding of relationships.

In her testimony on April 12 before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Margaret Joyal, outpatient director of Washington County Mental Health Services, discussed the direct link between domestic violence and trauma, especially for children who may be witnesses though not subject to abuse themselves.

“In the last 10 years, studies have shown that witnessing violence may be more harmful than direct violence, since the child has no way to control it. And helplessness is one of the key factors in trauma severity,” Joyal said.

Domestic violence in Vermont

Contradicting some national reports that show domestic violence incidents decreasing along with overall crime statistics, domestic abuse in Vermont is rising both in numbers and in brutality.

In 2006, the Network, a federally-mandated umbrella organization that works with all 16 domestic and sexual violence programs across the state, provided services to 8,692 Vermonters and answered 17,172 calls on their hotline. This was a 15 percent increase from last year. In 1982, the first full year the Network began tracking the numbers of victims and their families aided, 1,355 adults and 1,190 children were served.

In Vermont, domestic violence is the leading cause of violent death.

The 2007 Domestic Violence Fatality Review Commission Report, established by Gov. Howard Dean in 2002, recently reported that in the last 12 years 49 percent of all Vermont homicides can be linked to domestic violence. When the data includes suicides, the percentage increases to 61 percent.

Nationally, domestic violence accounts for 20 percent of all homicides. Due to Vermont’s rural nature, there are fewer instances of “non-domestic” violence than in urban areas. However, that only shows that the state is more susceptible to intimate partner violence.

As a member of the Appropriations Committee, Sears sees how much domestic violence is costing Vermont just in the prison system. “When we started looking into this, we began to find that 20 percent of all those incarcerated are connected with domestic violence” (DV).

According to John Perry, the director of research and planning for the Department of Corrections, “If we look at the population with any DV related charge in their history, the number goes up to 30 percent.”

This year, the correctional budget is $128 million. By contrast, the budget for higher education is $80 million.

The cost in the criminal justice system is seen in other statistics, too. According to the National Center for Women and Policing, domestic violence related crimes accounts for 40 percent of all calls to police, and one-third of all of law enforcement’s time.

Yet TJ Anderson, the domestic violence training specialist for the Vermont State Police Academy, said only 43 of the 700 hours spent during full-time academy training are domestic violence related.

“Currently, part-time officers are not required to take any domestic violence training,” said Anderson. “And officers are not required to take any additional DV-related training to maintain their certification after initial training has been completed.”

While acknowledging the central role that the criminal justice system plays in addressing this problem, Laura Subin, director of the Governor’s Council, the statewide domestic violence task force, warns against expecting it to carry too much of the burden.

“The judicial system is not solely responsible for solving domestic violence,” Subin told the Senate Judiciary Committee. “All other systems must play their part in a coordinated way.”

Coordinating the response

Experts around the state believe that with all its complexity, eradicating domestic violence will not be easy, especially given the fact that not all abusive behavior is illegal.
For instance, undermining someone’s self-confidence by being hypercritical about appearance or intelligence, controlling who a person sees or what a person reads, or even preventing someone from getting a job or having access to a bank account, are not against the law. Yet, many of these are common tactics used by abusers to control their partners and may be a precursor to violence.

The key to detecting the subtle signs of domestic abuse is to better coordinate services and approaches, and to treat domestic violence as a social issue for all to embrace, not just a private matter that women face.

That’s the message of Sherry Burnette, who is currently the AHS trauma coordinator and a veteran in this field. She served 10 years as a social worker in an inner-city emergency room and seven years as victim services advocate in the Vermont correctional system.

“Things are improving because we understand these efforts have to be coordinated. It’s not just about advocates serving victims: Everybody has to do their part from health services to corrections. I also believe until we really start looking at prevention and stop looking at victims as if they have an illness, like the situation just happens to them, we’ll never eradicate this problem,” Burnette told the Guardian. “In domestic abuse there is always a perpetrator and until we begin to work on that side of the equation then it will continue to be seen as a woman’s problem as opposed to a social issue. We ask every woman at her OB/GYN appointment does she feel safe at home. Why aren’t we asking every boy and man during his physical, how are you getting along with your family, do you have problems with anger, do you have someone to talk to?”

Sarah Kenney, the Network’s public policy coordinator, agrees, noting that there is no one solution.

“The more we can have an ongoing conversation about domestic violence and the way our culture condones or condemns, the better chance we have of ending it. However there is no silver bullet,” she said.

Sears is hopeful that this session-long discussion on domestic violence will lead not only to new domestic violence legislation that will help reduce the criminal numbers, but also more awareness of the issue. He hopes a bill will be introduced in January 2008.

“One of the best outcomes from these hearings may be the fact that we’re getting people to talk about domestic violence,” Sears said. He compares the issue to cancer or alcoholism, which were taboo topics when he was growing up. He recalls people used to suffer terribly, and in silence. “Now we have walks for survivors; we celebrate survivors. Shouldn’t we also celebrate survivors of domestic violence?”