Public urged to help stop domestic violence

June 27, 2008
By

SANDRA STOREY

A Jamaica Plain woman was questioned by a local store proprietor as she made a purchase last month. The woman, who asked that her name not be used in this article, said she had a large bandage on her nose and cheek and swelling and bruising on one side of her face from surgery she had earlier in the day.

“I just want you to know,” the proprietor said gently but firmly, with a look of concern on his face, “if someone hit you, you can tell. You can do something about it.”

The woman, who was alone, described her surgery to him and, she said, he then looked relieved.

When she recounted this story to friends, most of them said they thought the storeowner’s action was laudatory. But a few people used words like “nosy” to describe his behavior.

“It’s a shame that attitude is still out there,” said Toni Troop, public relations director for Jane Doe Inc. and a JP resident, in an interview. “If people aren’t willing to embarrass themselves by saying something, the abusers win. It’s good if the victim hears that someone cares.”

Jane Doe Inc., the short name for The Massachusetts Coalition Against Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence, brings together organizations and people committed to ending domestic violence and sexual assault.

“It was courageous of him to say something,” Aimee Thompson, founding executive director of Close to Home in Dorchester, said of the storeowner. “What he did was a wonderful thing.”

Close to Home—whose program is about to be replicated by the state in pilot programs in Martha’s Vineyard, Brockton and the Metro West suburbs—“fosters community-wide responsibility to respond to and prevent domestic violence and sexual assault.”

“We have a tremendous need for more people to get involved,” Thompson said in an interview. “The public is a huge, untapped resource that can do something about this.”

In the face of a rapidly rising rate of domestic violence-related deaths in Massachusetts, advocates and officials are emphasizing the importance of “civic engagement” in prevention efforts. That means “bystanders”—neighbors, co-workers, family members, friends and all community members—are being encouraged to get involved.

Earlier this month, the Massachusetts Department of Public Health (DPH), whose commissioner is JP resident John Auerbach, issued a public health advisory, used for communicating “urgent” information, about a deadly surge in domestic violence in the state over the past year-and-a-half.

“The recent spate of domestic violence-related deaths in Massachusetts is disturbing,” Auerbach said in the advisory, which was directed to the public and, especially, health care providers. “Domestic violence in any form is unacceptable, and we can all play a part in preventing abuse from happening to anyone in the Commonwealth.”

The number of domestic violence deaths in Massachusetts was nearly three times higher in 2007 than in 2005. According to statistics maintained by Jane Doe Inc., there were 15 murders and four domestic violence-related suicides in 2005, 28 murders and three suicides in 2006, and 42 murders and 13 suicides in 2007.

A total of 31 children were directly impacted by domestic violence in 2007. Five children were killed, 13 orphaned, 11 lost their mother, and two lost their father.

So far in 2008, Jane Doe reports that there have been 19 domestic violence homicides and five domestic violence-related suicides for a total of 24 deaths.

A 2003 Centers for Disease Control (CDC) study cited by DPH estimated that each year domestic violence involving an intimate partner results in 1,200 deaths, 2 million injuries among women and 600,000 injuries among men nationally.

The same CDC study estimated the costs of intimate partner violence exceeded $5.8 billion per year, including direct medical and mental health costs for victims and lost productivity.

According to DPH, “Domestic violence is sometimes referred to as a ‘silent crime’ because victims are often too afraid to come forward, and friends and family often do not want to become involved in something that they consider a personal matter.”

In a related local statistic, 84 percent of Jamaica Plain residents said they feel they “can rely on a neighbor for help,” according to a survey conducted by the Boston Police Department in 2006 and reported by the JP Neighborhood Development Corporation at its summit in May.

Domestic violence is called “intimate partner violence (IPV)” by the CDC and is defined as “abuse that occurs between two people in a close relationship. The term ‘intimate partner’ includes current and former spouses and dating partners.”

Massachusetts has no mandated reporting law regarding domestic violence, though it does for child, elderly and disabled abuse. In some other states, certain professionals are required by law to report suspected incidences of domestic violence and/or domestic violence observed by children.

Most people think of women as the victims, but the CDC web site says that of the 1,544 intimate partner violence deaths in 2004, men composed 25 percent of the victims. Repeated studies show domestic abuse knows no boundaries in terms of gender, income, race, ethnic group, sexual preference, age or class. It can occur in any type of intimate relationship in JP or elsewhere.

Community members who suspect they or someone else may be a victim in Massachusetts are being urged to call SafeLink. Locally, the Elizabeth Stone House has a hotline that offers the same services. [See sidebar for numbers.]

“There are important messages that we can give victims of domestic violence,” said Carlene Pavlos, director of the Violence and Injury Prevention Program at DPH, in the public health advisory. “First, what they are going through is not their fault; next, that violence affects their health in many ways; and, finally, that help is available and healing is possible.”

People need not be nervous about calling a hotline for help and advice, Pavlos, who is also a JP resident, said in an interview. Callers’ identities are completely confidential and no one on the other end contacts police.

The first thing the trained person who answers the phone does is make sure the caller is not in immediate danger and that they are calling from a “safe” situation. If the person is in immediate danger, the person who answers helps them do immediate safety planning or helps them find shelter.

What many callers, including “bystanders,” are doing, according to Pavlos, is “reality checking,” describing behavior and observations. The listener tries to draw them out, assuring that callers realize they are not “crazy.” The person on the hotline can offer suggestions to bystanders about what to say and do as well as give referrals to counseling and related resources if the caller wants them.

Often, Pavlos and other experts said, the victim is not ready to leave a situation, and that is taken into consideration. Most important, Pavlos said, is that people on the other end of the hotline let the caller realize they are not alone.

Evelyn Rivera-Beaudreault, co-executive director of the JP-based Elizabeth Stone House, said her agency used to get more calls from concerned friends and acquaintances of victims. She said the number of bystander calls has dropped off recently, and she is concerned people fear for their own safety if they get involved.

The Stone House has groups and other services for a range of women, from those who are still in what they feel are abusive relationships to those who left a long time ago.

Advocates all said that victims may share their concerns about their relationships in any number of venues, and cited sports events, quilting circles, the Laundromat or the workplace as possible places the subject might come up.

Rivera-Beaudreault said “fear and shame” often keep victims from coming forward directly. She suggested bystanders “keep lines of communication open” and consider saying something to the person about their health or safety. Bystanders may also call a hotline for specific advice and possible referral information.