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The latest report from a state panel charged with reviewing domestic violence-related deaths offers a stark reminder that Maine, like other states, has much work yet to do in order to better protect victims of domestic violence.
In the current review period — 2018 and 2019 — 18 domestic abuse homicides accounted for 43 percent of the state’s homicides in those years.
Looking back over the last 20 years, domestic abuse-related deaths have accounted for about half of Maine’s homicides.
Members of the Maine Domestic Abuse Homicide Review Panel — including the state’s attorney general, prosecutors, domestic violence support providers, medical professionals and law enforcement — highlighted the progress that has been made, along with the work that remains to be done.
Perpetrator accountability — through the courts, family and themselves — was a theme of the report, which included a review of both the last two years and the 20 years that the panel has existed. However, it also emphasized the need to better empower family, friends and coworkers of victims, who often know about abuse, to provide help and support.
For example, in 2018 and 2019, about 50 percent of the offenders stalked their victim prior to the homicide, and 50 percent threatened to kill the person prior to the actual homicide. Yet, there were no protection from abuse orders filed with the court in these instances.
In both the two-year and 20 year review periods, 85 percent of the domestic violence homicide offenders were male.
For too long, such statistics would prompt many people to ask “Why doesn’t she just leave,” Francine Stark, executive director of the Maine Coalition to End Domestic Violence, said in an interview with the Bangor Daily News. Stark is a member of the review panel.
Instead, she said, the big question to ask about domestic violence is “I don’t understand why he doesn’t just leave her alone.”
For far too long, society has put a burden on women to leave abuse situations rather than recognizing that men who engage in abuse behavior need to be persuaded to change. That persuasion, increasingly, needs to come from friends, family and coworkers who see signs of abusive and controlling behavior toward an intimate partner. They should recognize that such abuse is often a sign that the perpetrator of abuse needs support and intervention, Stark said.
As many as 69 percent of the perpetrators in the cases the panel reviewed had exhibited suicidal behavior before attempting or committing a domestic violence homicide.
The panel called out health care providers in particular to do a better job of following best practices when interacting with both potential victims and perpetrators. For example, it found that these providers often failed to screen for domestic violence or to follow up with patients who had signs of brain injury and strangulation, which are likely signs of ongoing abuse.
Law enforcement personnel need to better follow best practices as well. Although guns were the most commonly used weapon in domestic violence homicides during the review period, the panel found gaps in enforcement of gun relinquishment orders and accompanying protection from abuse orders.
On a positive note, the panel recognized the success of batterer intervention programs, recently renamed to certified domestic violence intervention programs. The panel called for judges and lawyers to refer people who commit domestic violence abuse to these programs, rather than the less effective anger management programs. The state should also ensure that these programs are accessible to those with low incomes.
During a virtual press conference to discuss the report, Gov. Janet Mills shared her own story of domestic violence, when a man she was dating put a gun to her head. The gun did not go off.
“I will never forget that night and I will always know I was one of the lucky ones,” Mills said. “Many, many others were not so lucky.”
Now is the time to make a difference for those who aren’t as fortunate.
As Stark noted, the coronavirus pandemic has shown a light on “the fragility of our daily lives” and made us more aware of inequalities. As a result, she said: “We are at a crossroads. We’ve built robust services to support survivors. Yet, we still need to influence change over people who think they have a right to power over another human being.”