AUGUSTA, Maine — Increased public attention has improved awareness about domestic violence in Maine, but that pressure also has exposed cracks in bedrock safety issues, such as how to house victims as they try to escape their abusers.
The Maine Coalition To End Domestic Violence says their contact with domestic violence victims has increased, from 126,000 in 2010 to more than 132,000 in 2012, which illustrates the greater public awareness.
On the other hand, said Julia Colpitts, the coalition’s executive director, this increase strains already scarce resources, which in 2012 alone caused member organizations to turn away 1,056 requests for emergency shelter.
Colpitts called this latter trend troubling because better care for victims after they report an assault is a crucial step in stopping domestic violence.
“The national data is clear that one of the primary reasons that victims return to an unsafe home is that they don’t have another economic choice,” said Colpitts. “If we don’t change the culture and stop the development of abusers then we’re always going to have victims.”
Some action is being taken. An initiative under review by MaineHousing, for instance, would give domestic violence victims priority status for housing vouchers.
MaineHousing spokeswoman Deborah Turcotte said the proposed change would be similar to the status now offered to the homeless, though the standards for verifying this status for domestic violence victims still are under development. The agency will hold a public hearing on these changes on March 19 in Augusta.
Despite the difficult work ahead, Colpitts and others credit Gov. Paul LePage for making domestic violence a central issue of his administration and changing attitudes at the community level.
LePage continued this push in compelling form during his State of the State address earlier this month, during which he launched several new policies and programs to combat domestic violence. The governor, however, said new policies are only part of the solution.
“Those programs are not necessarily the big answer. … Domestic violence, family violence, it’s a heinous crime, and we need to stand up,” said LePage. “We, the men in this room, need to stand up and shout loud and clear that we are going to protect our women and children.”
Statements like that from the state’s chief executive pack a lot of power, said Colpitts.
“I don’t think we could have achieved the progress we have without that public attention,” said Colpitts. “The governor’s message has been consistently that this is a man’s issue, not just a women’s issue. Men who are bystanders need to become active role models for other men. That’s the part of this message that I’ve seen resonate powerfully.”
Another factor bringing attention to domestic violence in Maine is a grim one: the incomprehensible horror of high-profile assaults and, too often, murders.
One such case was in June 2011, when Steven Lake of Wellington murdered his estranged wife, Amy, and their two children, Monica and Coty, before killing himself. The Maine State Police called the case “a despicable case of domestic violence.”
This tragedy, said Colpitts, was a “tipping point” from which the state has accelerated its progress in the fight against domestic violence.
Penobscot County Sheriff Glenn Ross, whose department was a first responder to the Lake murders, said tragic events do illuminate the problem of domestic violence and serve as reminders that situations can elevate quickly.
“I think society has seen so many tragedies at this point that they realize these situations could have terrible consequences,” said Ross. “Still, it’s not uncommon for a member of the public to not want to get involved in these things.”
And that’s the attitude that needs to change, said Ross and others.
Steven Edmondson, a domestic violence investigator for the Sagadahoc County district attorney’s office, said victims and witnesses recanting statements or becoming uncooperative are among the biggest challenges in his job. But the situation is improving, especially among the general public, he said.
“I still find that a lot of victims are often hesitant to report for various reasons, but the public at large is becoming more aware,” said Edmondson. “A good number of my cases are reported by a neighbor, a passer-by, a citizen or even a co-worker or family member.”
Sheriff Ross said when it comes to stopping domestic violence, the daunting task of changing perceptions on a wide scale is preferential to making incremental changes through legislation, given the costs involved.
“It’s one thing to pass laws; it’s another thing to pay for them,” said Ross. “Every time there’s a new law coming in, there’s a cost for it.”
LePage and the Legislature are working on those issues, but like many new initiatives, it comes down to resources. Several domestic violence-related bills, on topics such as electronic monitoring, creating an offender registry and minimum sentencing limits, will be heard this session.
The MaineHousing initiative is also part of this work, although observers say this represents a fraction of the long-term solution. Those who offer housing assistance to domestic violence victims say despite such initiatives, they remain under pressure.
Cindi Peoples, executive director of Caring Unlimited in Sanford, said her organization could face closing some or all of its 15 transitional homes for domestic violence victims in York County because of funding shortfalls.
Yet, Peoples said, the demand for emergency housing is the highest it has been in her 17 years with Caring Unlimited.
“We’re not expecting any big miracles to happen, but if one doesn’t happen soon something is going to have to close,” Peoples said.
Breaking through on tough social issues means taking the long view, some observers say. Col. Robert Williams of the Maine State Police likened efforts against domestic violence to those against drunken driving and smoking.
Over time, he said, people are becoming less and less likely to ignore the arguments and fighting they hear between the couple next door. Through this, he said, Maine has overcome the first, critical challenge to stemming domestic violence.
“It’s no longer taboo to be a victim of domestic violence,” said Williams.
Comments on MaineHousing’s proposed rule are being accepted by mail to Denise Lord, Attn: Administrative Plan Comment, Maine State Housing Authority, 353 Water St., Augusta, Maine 04330-4633, or by e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org with “Administrative Plan Comment” in the subject line. The hearing is 9:30 a.m. Tuesday, March 19, in the MaineHousing Board Room at 353 Water St. in Augusta.
If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic violence and would like to talk with an advocate, call 866-834-4357, TRS 800-787-3224. This free, confidential service is available 24/7 and is accessible from anywhere in Maine.