In most years, there are no domestic violence-related deaths in Whatcom County. However, in 2009, there were three; in 2010, there were six; and 2011 and 2012 each brought one. Because our community was alarmed by these domestic violence fatalities, the Bellingham-Whatcom County Commission Against Domestic Violence worked with the Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence to convene a domestic violence fatality review panel. The charge of the panel: to find out why domestic violence fatalities have happened in our town, and what we can do to stop them.
The good news: The Whatcom County panel determined that domestic violence homicide is preventable in Whatcom County. But if these deaths are preventable, why haven't we prevented them?
The panel identified three primary findings: First, abusers consistently were not held accountable. Second, the abuse could not be stopped by victims alone. Third, many people knew about the abuse, but did or said nothing to stop it.
Abusers consistently were not held accountable. The criminal justice system did not respond effectively to domestic violence, nor was it routinely addressed in family court. Moreover, family, friends and others in the abusers' social circles did not intervene to stop the domestic violence. And to avoid accountability, abusers manipulated their victims and children, along with schools, child welfare, and the legal system. In one reviewed case, the victim called the police less than one month before the homicide; she told the officers that she was afraid her abuser would kill her. The police arrested the abuser. But the abuser was not charged with a domestic violence crime, and he spent only one night in jail. One month later, the abuser shot and killed the victim. In each of the cases reviewed, our community had an opportunity like this one to hold the abuser accountable, but failed to do so.
The abuse could not be stopped by victims alone. Victims tried multiple times, and in multiple ways, to get help. They called 911, talked to friends and family, and left the relationship, and they still weren't safe. But it should not be just their responsibility to find safety. The reviewed cases made it clear that domestic violence impacts all of us, not only the people in the relationships. Children were killed or left without parents, families and friends were left without loved ones, and entire communities mourned.
In one of the reviewed cases, the victim left her abuser, called the police when he continued to harass her, and was looking for safe, permanent housing. But it wasn't enough. The abuser followed her one morning, and shot and killed her. Because of situations like this, we learned that domestic violence victims need the support of the whole community to be safe.
Many people knew about the abuse, but did or said nothing to stop it. Victims turned to friends, family, neighbors, coworkers, and pastors for help, but didn't receive it. In most instances, people wanted to be helpful, but didn't know how, and so chose to do nothing. In one case, family, friends, roommates and neighbors all witnessed the abuser's use of violence, and were concerned about the victim's safety. But none of them wanted to be involved with the police or courts, so they did nothing. In every reviewed case, as in this one, someone had either a strong intuition or definite knowledge that something was very wrong, but didn't take effective steps to stop the abuse. To address these findings, the panel identified more than 70 recommendations for various sectors of our community. There are recommendations for the legal system, child protection, schools and colleges, mental health and health care providers, faith communities, neighborhood associations, domestic violence advocacy organizations, social service agencies, batterer's treatment providers, housing professionals and employers.
Domestic violence homicide is preventable in Whatcom County; to stop it, we all must say "not in our town" and take action to hold abusers accountable and support victims. To be a part of ending domestic violence, read the full Whatcom County report at www.dvcommission.org/resources, identify recommendations that relate to you, and implement those recommendations in your life and your spheres of influence.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Susan Marks is director of the Bellingham-Whatcom County Commission Against Domestic Violence. If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic violence, you can call one of Whatcom County's local 24-hour helplines for free and confidential assistance: Womencare Shelter at 360-734-3438 or DVSAS at 360-715-1563.