MACHIAS, Maine — Stepping into a domestic violence altercation can be among the riskiest situations that those on the front lines of law enforcement ever face.
“What an officer is walking into is the most lethal point of a relationship,” said Travis Willey, a patrol lieutenant with the Washington County Sheriff’s Department. “Each situation is different and is very dynamic, and these are some of the most dangerous calls to which police respond.”
How police respond can keep a victim safer or put that person in more jeopardy, he said. “You’re dealing with a very intimate situation between two people at one of the most stressful times of their lives. And when substance abuse is involved, it makes it more unpredictable.”
Willey is the liaison between the Sheriff’s Department and Next Step, the domestic violence project that for 20 years has served domestic abuse victims in Washington and Hancock counties. The agency provides shelter to those dealing with spousal abuse, offering counseling and providing alternative living arrangements in safe houses for battered spouses and their children. Next Step maintains a 15-bed shelter at an undisclosed location in Washington County, with stays ranging from a few days to a few months.
“Domestic violence is about power and control,” said Rebecca Hobbs, the executive director of Next Step. “It’s a lethal relationship, and it’s a very difficult childhood to live in an abusive home. Leaving can be very traumatic, and it’s difficult as a victim of abuse to know what’s best for the kids. We talk with victims about safety and whether there are other safe home living options. We also need to assess whether they are able to live in a communal setting.”
Willey said Next Step caseworkers are essential to the process of victims preparing statements that can be used in prosecuting abusers on charges ranging from assault to criminal threatening, criminal mischief and harassment.
“Next Step’s involvement keeps victims on board,” Willey said. “It improves the quality of the case for the District Attorney’s Office, which increases the chances of conviction.”
Such statements are also crucial, he said, to obtaining court-issued protection orders.
“Protection orders can sometimes provide the break that allows Mom and Dad to regroup and to get the help they need,” Willey said. “There are some success stories out there.”
On a per-capita basis, domestic violence is less of a problem in Hancock County than in Washington County, Hobbs said. That, she says, may be related to higher unemployment, poverty and substance abuse in Washington County.
“Last year we served 900 people, and 400 of those were in Washington County, which has a population that is much smaller than the population of Hancock County,” she said. “It’s more of an issue here.”
Hobbs said her agency is in the process of recruiting and training volunteers who staff a telephone hotline that fields calls from victims of domestic violence. The next training session is on April 7, she said. For more information, call 667-0176.