Shattering patterns of violence is everyone's job

January 09, 1997

Maybe a dozen years ago, a sheriff's deputy in a rural county refused to give me the report on a woman who had been murdered by her husband. The murder, he said, wasn't a crime for public consumption, but a private, "domestic situation."

The implication was chillingly clear. The public, and even the police, had little or no business interfering in the relations between a man and his woman. Sometimes there were bound to be problems and some of the solutions to these problems were less desirable than others. But part of a wife's duty to her husband was to keep him happy enough so he wouldn't want to beat or kill her.

Times change and you won't hear this attitude stated publicly too much anymore.

Yet women are still dying. Four women were lying dead in the Tri-State in the space of 10 days with the turn of the new year, killed, police say, by men angry over their "domestic situations."


And the silence is deafening.

What if four of our people died in 10 days of drug overdoses? What if four were dead in hunting accidents? Dead from AIDS? Dead by the hand of a serial killer? Dead from bathtub falls?

We would be screaming to high heaven for everything from drug crackdowns to stricter bathroom safety regulations.

Yet women die and die and society treats it like a case of the flu.

Just in the past year or so, women have been murdered as they drive to work, in their homes, on the street in broad daylight.

How terrifying this must be. To know there is a predator out there who may show his face at any time. To hear the words "If I can't have you no one will." To have a life with no peace.

Women who are in abusive relationships are frequently scared to report the abuse to police. Even so, Justice Department statistics show, based on abuse that is reported, that abuse is the leading cause of injury for women between the ages of 15 and 44 - more than car accidents, muggings and rape combined.

Why don't women simply leave? Because they sense, and statistics bear out their fears, that they are more likely to be killed if the do.

For their defenses, women must rely on an inadequate number of shelters and a basically worthless piece of court paper ordering an abusive husband to keep away. As we've seen all too many times, paperwork will not stop bullets.

"A court order doesn't have anything that an irrational person will respect," said Nancy Ryan, executive director of the Cambridge, Mass., Women's Commission.

It would be a good idea for communities through the Tri-State to take the lead from Cambridge, which has declared itself a "domestic violence free zone," and is in the process of implementing numerous strategies to put meaning behind the slogan.

Here are a few ideas that either have, or will be engaged:

  • Police establish a domestic violence unit with specially trained detectives and an extensive data base to study abuse patterns and identify potentially explosive cases before they explode.
  • Abused women are given personal safety alarms that sound directly to the police station.
  • Police and Chamber of Commerce sponsor emergency shelter at local hospitals from dusk to dawn when it may be hard to get in to regular shelters.
  • Job training is available for abuse victims to help them become self-supporting.
  • Private industry is encouraged to offer assistance programs to abused employees in need of help.
  • Every visitor to City Hall gets a brochure detailing the early warning signs of abuse. All city employees - receptionists, parking attendants and so on - who come in contact with the public are trained to be sensitive to the needs of abuse victims. Building health and safety inspectors are trained to spot potential abusive situations in the home. When they do, they slip the woman a card with a list of places she can get help.
  • A group of prominent citizens - ministers, coaches, business leaders - co-sign a letter that goes out to every man who has a protective court order sworn out against him. The gist is that abuse is a serious thing and the hope is the men will realize that a lot of people in high places are watching.
  • Schools offer dating/violence intervention projects for teens and anti-family abuse workshops for kids in grades 4 through 6.

If you notice, a key to these ideas is that they involve the entire community. That's because domestic abuse and violence is a bigger problem than a police force or prosecutor's office can hope to solve on its own. Too many women have been killed here to pretend that domestic violence is someone else's problem.

It's the responsibility of everyone to become familiar with the signs of abuse and to act when these signs surface. It's the responsibility of government, of business, of the church. It's the responsibility of youth and seniors. Of everyone.

Interactions between men and woman are deeply personal things. And humans being what they are, it's never easy to know the undercurrents of a relationship or totally assign blame to one side or another. And admittedly, it's just plain awkward to involve oneself in another person's affairs.

But there is a line where behavior becomes unacceptable. "Obviously we don't want to trample on anyone's civil rights," Ryan said. "But the right of privacy to be injured is not the type of privacy the city wants to encourage."

And above all it should be a woman's right not to live her life in fear.

Four murders in 10 days is horrible enough. Even worse would be for the community to do nothing about it.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist.

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