Bangor’s loss is gain for County

Posted May 08, 2009, at 6:26 p.m.

It’s the battered face of a young newlywed lying in a shelter bed that still drives Francine Starks.

“I can still see her face so clearly,” Starks recalled this week from her office at the Spruce Run Agency in Bangor.

The Spanish-speaking woman and her new husband were passing through Bangor on their honeymoon and dining at the former Miller’s Restaurant on Main Street when the husband attacked her.

He beat her, dragged her into the parking lot and had ripped off most of her clothing by the time police arrived. The man was arrested and the woman was given shelter at Spruce Run.

Starks, brand-new to the domestic violence agency, was fresh from the Peace Corps and able to speak Spanish. It fell upon her the next morning to quietly approach the woman to see what she needed for help.

“I went up the stairs and approached her bed. She rolled over and I saw her face. Her face was so horribly damaged. I had just never seen anything like that in my life,” Starks recalled. “One eye wouldn’t open. The other was half-closed. Her teeth were broken.”

When she called awhile later to find out the status of the woman’s husband, she was told that he already had pleaded guilty to assault, paid a $200 fine and been released.

“It was very clear that things needed to change,” she said.

For the past 23 years Starks has worked tirelessly toward that goal. Then the agency’s budget was $187,000. Today it hovers around $1 million. There are two buildings, a shelter at an undisclosed location and a grand old home on State Street that houses the administrative offices — all purchased with no debt.

Though the agency is a collective effort, with no director, for most people in this area and in Augusta, Fran Starks has been the face and voice of Spruce Run for the past 20 years.

This week Starks announced her decision to leave Spruce Run to return home to her roots in Aroostook County as the director of the Battered Women’s Project there.

The opportunity allows her a new challenge and the chance to be closer to her aging parents, who still live on the family farm in Chapman that they have run since 1948.

Though the battle to stem the scourge of domestic violence continues, Starks has been a fierce leader in the fight, which has resulted in dramatic changes in Maine laws and in the attitudes of health care providers, law enforcement officers and even clergy.

When Starks first arrived in Bangor, the relationship between the Spruce Run agency and area law enforcement was what you might call “chilly.” Today they work collaboratively. Many law enforcement agencies, including the Bangor Police Department, have dedicated domestic abuse investigators who actually follow up on domestic violence cases.

In 1993, Starks, along with former Bangor Police Chief Donald Winslow and Assistant Penobscot District Attorney Alice Clifford, collaborated to form a task force on domestic violence. Since then, Starks has trained thousands of professionals and opened their eyes to the real dynamics of domestic abuse from a victim’s per-spective.

Batterers now are held more accountable with stricter bail conditions. Victims have better access to courts. Doctors and nurses are more willing to ask difficult questions of women who may be in abusive relationships, and members of the clergy are less quick to place blame on the victim.

Starks also educated me and countless other members of the news media.

The first homicide I ever covered was of a woman who was killed by her husband as she worked at a downtown Bangor travel agency.

That’s when I first met Starks, and she has been teaching me ever since. When I lost my sister-in-law to domestic violence, she provided wise and comforting counsel.

It’s what she has done in this region for so long and what the people of Aroostook County can expect.

Because still today the face of that young, battered newlywed pushes Starks forward, and from that countless people benefit.

reneeordway@gmail.com

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