February 24, 2020
State Latest News | Child Welfare System | Bangor Metro | Kevin Hancock | Today's Paper

No more killing: Domestic violence response teams work to keep victims out of harm’s way

Amy, Coty, Monica. Mention those three names to people living in mid-Maine and winces of pain and sympathetic shakes of the head invariably follow, two years after the horror occurred.

Amy Lake and her children Coty and Monica were murdered by her estranged husband Steven Lake in June 2011. Steven Lake then killed himself.

Motivated by the Lake case, members of law enforcement and community assistance agencies in Dexter and nearby Dover-Foxcroft have vowed to avoid such tragedies in the future.

October, which is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, will mark the two-year anniversary of the formation of the Piscataquis County Domestic Violence High Risk Response Team. The team consists of members of the sheriff’s department, district attorney’s office, Womancare, Greenville’s police chief and a probation officer. Their goal is to prevent domestic violence homicides in the county.

“There was a lot of outrage following that particular murder,” said Arthur Jette, community outreach advocate for Womancare, referring to the Lake case. “When you look at the population in this Penquis region, Dexter and Piscataquis County in general, it does seem that we’ve had more than our share of domestic violence-related homicides.”

Since 2003, there have been three domestic violence homicides in Maine’s least populated county. Dexter, where Amy Lake lived, is in Penobscot County, borders Piscataquis County and often shares services in the Dover-Foxcroft area. Penobscot County has had 18 domestic violence homicides since 2003, second most of any county behind Cumberland’s 23. Sagadahoc is the only county since 2003 without a domestic violence homicide.

To prevent future tragedies, the Piscataquis County team works directly with victims of domestic violence and devises plans to help ensure their safety.

One of those victims is Sarah, who did not want to use her real name for this story. Sarah said she was in an abusive relationship for many years. She’s been in the hospital. She’s had her life threatened. She felt isolated.

“It reached a point where there were constant threats on my safety and my family’s safety,” she said. The abuse from the man came in many forms — emotional, mental and physical, she said.

Sarah wasn’t allowed by her boyfriend to talk on the phone or be anywhere other than home or work.

She knew she had to get help, but wasn’t sure where to turn.

After talking with a law enforcement friend, Sarah began meeting with the Piscataquis County Domestic Violence High Risk Response Team about a year and a half ago, she said.

“I knew there was an agency, but after being isolated and frightened for so long, it’s really difficult to take that step to let someone into your life,” she said. “I wasn’t aware of how supportive and how amazing they really are.”

She sat down with the team and told them about her situation.

After she filled out a 25-question assessment, the team discussed several options for her to choose from to help make her safe. Plans victims choose are confidential, said Jette.

“This is very much a victim-driven process,” said Chief Deputy Robert Young of the Piscataquis County Sheriff’s Department, adding that the team does not involve the alleged abusers in the discussions. “We can make recommendations that they [victims] don’t agree with or think necessary or want to go with. It’s their life. They have to make the decision. We’ll help them as we can.”

The team has installed security devices on victims’ homes, changed locks on doors, increased patrols of alleged abusers by law enforcement, and in one case, replaced a door of a victim’s home that was destroyed by an abuser.

Another helpful aspect of the group for Sarah has been having someone to talk to.

“Even just having someone to talk to when you’re having one of those days when you’re not sure you’re going to be OK. They’ve given me that strength to know that I’ll be OK,” she said.

‘Intervention can save lives’

Since 2003, there have been 250 homicides where someone has been charged with murder or manslaughter in the state, according to the Maine Department of Public Safety. Of those homicides, 114 were domestic violence-related, or 45.6 percent.

According to the Department of Public Safety, a domestic violence homicide applies to those living in the same household, direct relatives or those involved in a relationship.

There hasn’t been a domestic violence homicide in Piscataquis County since the high risk response team has been in place.

“It’s really about prevention of violence and murder that motivates us doing this,” said Jette. “Intervention can save lives. We won’t know how many [are saved] and we won’t try to take credit, but we have to believe and know that the knowledge we help share with these victims is helping make them safer. It has to save lives over time. There’s no way it can’t.”

Though the team can count the number of women it has helped in its two years of existence — 16 — it cannot quantify success.

“There’s no way to measure successes. You can only measure the failures when it comes to domestic violence,” said Corina Tibbetts, witness advocate for the Piscataquis County district attorney’s office.

For Sarah, taking the step to contact the Piscataquis County Domestic Violence High Risk Response Team was the help she needed to free herself from an abusive relationship and restore her confidence and freedom.

“I hope anyone in that situation, male or female, takes the opportunity to utilize what they have to offer because it’s a really great program,” she said.

Part two: Building a team, coming on Monday.

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