Domestic violence brutality increasing in Whatcom County, experts say

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDJune 13, 2010 

DOMESTIC VIOLENCE IN WHATCOM COUNTY

In this March 4, 2009 file photo, an officer puts up police tape outside of Laura McQueen's residence in Ferndale. McQueen and her one-year old son Dominic Blackburn were found dead at their Ferndale home that morning.

KATIE BARNES — THE BELLINGHAM HERALD

Domestic violence is a silent epidemic, as Bryan May likes to say.

"It feeds on silence," said May, the director of Violence Intervention Professionals, which evaluates and treats abusers in Whatcom County.

Now an unprecedented series of domestic-violence slayings in the last 15 months has set off alarms across the county and left community leaders scrambling to gauge the problem's extent and root causes.

In that period, seven people - including two infants - have been killed, and another death has been investigated as a possible domestic-violence slaying.

The latest death occurred May 30, when Wilbur T. Weeks allegedly stabbed his wife, Deborah, to death inside their Sumas home.

The Bellingham Police Department and the Whatcom County Sheriff's Office handle the majority of domestic-violence assaults in the county. Both agencies had an overall decrease in the number of such assaults per capita reported to them since 2004.

However, Sheriff Bill Elfo says that fact belies the true trend - an increase in the severity of the crimes.

"In terms of homicides, this is off the charts," Elfo said. "What has changed is the intensity. I'm more concerned about the severity of it and preventing the collapse of our system."

THE PROBLEM

Statistically gauging domestic violence, which is chronically underreported, is difficult.

Reporting domestic violence to police or seeking a protection order through the court system are often the last resorts for someone in an abusive relationship, said Karen Burke, executive director of Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Services of Whatcom County.

Gauging an increase in the severity of such crimes is more difficult. The Whatcom County Prosecutor's Office didn't have numbers for how many domestic-violence assaults were charged as felonies or misdemeanors in 2009.

The Bellingham Police Department and the Sheriff's Office kept the total number of reported domestic-violence assaults for 2009 but couldn't break them down by severity.

But workers in victim-care agencies confirmed the trend of increasing violence.

Womencare Shelter provides emergency shelter and resources for victims trying to leave abusive relationships. Its workers also perform assessments to gauge how much risk the relationship poses to the victim.

"What we've seen is an increase in the danger-level assessments that we do," said Shannon Webb, the agency's program manager.

The number of women and children who stayed at least one night in the shelter's 18 beds increased by 17 percent from 2008 to 2009, according to agency statistics.

Nationally, three out of four shelters for victims of domestic violence reported an increased number of people seeking help, according to the Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

Calls to Womencare's helpline increased 28 percent last year.

DVSAS does similar assessments, and workers there have noticed the same thing, Burke said.

"I just know anecdotally we're seeing a really big increase in the level of brutality," Burke said. "We're seeing more clients that have more and more risk factors for extreme danger in their relationships."

DVSAS served 55 percent more clients in 2009 than it did in 2008, according to its statistics. Its helpline fielded 32 percent more calls in that same period.

'FUEL ON A FIRE'

The poor economy, officials say, is adding to the problem and hampering criminal-justice and victim-care agencies' ability to prevent more violence.

"I see it like throwing fuel on a fire," Burke said. "Economic freedom is something abusers use all the time to ensure that their partners stay under control. It can really exacerbate issues of abuse."

For victims trying to leave abusive relationships, which is when they're at the highest risk, emergency shelter and long-term transitional housing are getting scarcer as demand for them increases.

At Womencare, the average length of stay increased by six days - a 35 percent jump - last year compared to the year before. As a result, the shelter housed fewer people and turned away more.

Executive Director Kirsten Hammer said the increased length of stay is because demand for transitional housing also has increased, making it less available.

At Dorothy Place, which houses women and children leaving abusive homes for up to two years, the wait list for available rooms has gotten longer, said Debbie Paton, community services director with the Opportunity Council, which runs Dorothy Place.

Hammer said her agency has partnered with Homeless Service Center to offer women ready to move out of the shelter grant-subsidized vouchers to get housing through private renters.

While not all women who come to Womencare are ready for that or may not qualify, it does help alleviate the backlog.

The economy also hampers efforts to confine abusers as the justice system, from police to jails to courts, struggles under budget cuts.

The Bellingham Police Department was without a sergeant to supervise its family crime unit, which deals primarily with domestic violence, for the first three months of this year.

The City Council relaxed the city government's hiring freeze, and the position has been refilled.

Elfo said his office has struggled with furloughed deputies and a hiring freeze.

"It's certainly very challenging to meet the demands we're supposed to," Elfo said. "Whenever we're down a person it creates challenges."

Elfo said his agency's special response team, its version of a SWAT team, is being called out to more domestic-violence related crimes.

In 2008, the team was deployed just four times for all types of problems. In 2009, that figure jumped to 15 times, straining tight budgets because of the overtime and other expenses a deployment requires.

In a week's span this May, Elfo said the team was deployed three times, and two were for domestic-violence incidents.

The first occurred May 24, when Barton P. Prentiss, 55, of Blaine allegedly pressed the barrel of a pistol to his wife's head and threatened to shoot her, according to court documents. Elfo said after the wife fled unharmed, Prentiss barricaded himself inside. The special response team was able to coax him out.

Wilbur Weeks barricaded himself in his Sumas home after allegedly stabbing his wife May 30. He didn't come out until the home was bombarded with tear gas, Elfo said.

The Whatcom County Jail hit a record number of inmates in February and is dealing with issues of overcrowding, Elfo said. This puts added strain on the judges and commissioners to determine how badly someone arrested on a domestic-violence charge needs to be held in the jail.

"Judges are having a tough time balancing who needs to be held and who doesn't," Elfo said. "They have to pick the best of the worst."

Hammer agrees.

"The jail's full," Hammer said. "We're trying to hold domestic-violence perpetrators in jail and we can't."

TACKLING THE PROBLEM

Deputies and officers will respond to reports of domestic violence as quickly as they can, but even the quickest response can't always prevent tragic results.

A Sumas police officer responded within a minute to Deborah Leu-Weeks' 911 call on May 30 about her husband threatening her. In the intervening seconds, Deborah was stabbed multiple times.

Other areas of the county, where law enforcement resources are spread thinner, could see response times take up to a half hour, Elfo said.

"We're spread out over 2,100 square miles," Elfo said. "We try to get there as quick as we can with the resources that we have. The idea is to get there and intervene before it escalates."

Burke said a better approach is getting help for victims before an abusive relationship ever escalates to physical violence. That's why her agency's advocates make efforts to connect with women who call its helpline or 911. Police officers responding to domestic-violence incidents will call the helpline and put the victim on the phone.

Advocates will review verbal domestics - arguments between partners that don't become violent - reported to police and call back the home to see if help or services are needed.

Burke would like to get advocates more mobile and able to reach people who may lack transportation in rural portions of the county.

"We're really trying to expand getting the word out about the services available throughout the county," Burke said.

The Bellingham-Whatcom County Commission Against Domestic Violence takes a wider focus and audits aspects of the criminal justice system on how they handle victims' rights and needs as well as hold offenders accountable.

Interim Director Sue Parrott said past audits have gotten officers to ask victims a series of open-ended questions about past threats they've received, or how volatile their partners are.

While these questions likely won't help the investigations, the answers will be provided to advocates, who can use them to determine victims' risks for more violence.

A bigger assist in ending domestic violence may come from friends or family members recognizing the indicators of an abusive relationship and encouraging the person to get help.

"We've known it was serious," said Andrea Cary-Grant, the commission's former director. "I see a lot of wonderful things in our community in terms of responding to domestic violence, but like everywhere else we still have a lot of work to do."

DOMESTIC-VIOLENCE SLAYINGS

Whatcom County law enforcement agencies have investigated eight deaths believed to be related to or caused by domestic violence since March 2009:

Laura McQueen, 24, and Dominic Blackburn, 1, were found brutally beaten inside a home in the 6100 block of Portal Way on March 4, 2009. McQueen's live-in boyfriend, Daniel E. Johnson, is facing two counts of second-degree murder; a trial date is set for September.

• Lummi Nation member Iva Smith, 52, died in May 2009 from injuries she likely suffered in a beating. Although the Whatcom County Sheriff's Office investigated her death as a homicide believed to be related to domestic violence, a suspect has not been identified publicly and charges will not be filed, Prosecutor Dave McEachran said.

Smith was taken to St. Joseph hospital for treatment, but the hospital didn't notify authorities for five days, when Medical Examiner Gary Goldfogel was told she was likely to die from her injuries. Elfo said the delay hampered detectives' ability to compile evidence in the case.

• 10-week-old Jon "Cecil" Anthony Frazier was beaten to death at a home on Willeys Lake Road near Custer in August 2009. His father, Jon Frazier, has been charged with second-degree murder. His trial is set for June 28.

• 14-year-old Felicity Boonstra was fatally shot at a home in Peaceful Valley in January by her mother's boyfriend, Sean D. Wilson, 41. Wilson then shot and killed himself.

Tawnia Costan, 39, was shot and killed by her ex-boyfriend Daniel Salas, 55, outside a home on J Street in Bellingham in February. Salas later turned the gun on himself as police closed in on him.

Mark G. McCollum, 48, was shot in the chest by his girlfriend, Lynda Holman, inside their home on Lawrence Road in February. Holman said the shooting was accidental, but she has been charged with second-degree murder.

Deborah Leu-Weeks was allegedly stabbed to death by her husband, Wilbur, inside their home on Third Street in Sumas in May. Wilbur Weeks has been charged with second-degree murder.


HOW TO GET HELP

Several agencies offer help to people in abusive relationships in Whatcom County.

• Womencare Shelter has a 24-hour helpline at (360) 734-3438 or toll free at 1-877-227-3360.

• Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Services of Whatcom County also has a 24-hour helpline at (360) 715-1563.

• Lummi Victims of Crime has a 24-hour helpline at (360) 384-2285.

• Western Washington University's Crime and Sexual Assault Services' 24-hour helpline is at (360) 650-3700.

• Additional resources are available at womencareshelter.org and dvsas.org.

Reach PETER JENSEN at peter.jensen@bellinghamherald.com or call 360-715-2264.

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