Fighting Back: Grim statistics tell only part of the story of domestic violence in N.H.

Monitor staff
Published: 2/2/2019 11:16:25 PM

“Why doesn’t she just leave?”

That is the question people ask all too often of domestic violence victims who choose to stay – sometimes for weeks, months or even years.

“I had one woman sum it up best when she said, ‘I would rather stay with a man who hits me than leave a man who will kill me,’ ” said Scott Hampton, a clinical psychologist and director of Ending the Violence in Dover.

One myth about domestic violence is if a woman leaves her abuser the violence will simply stop and she will be safer because of it. The reality is that 75 percent of women killed by their partners recently separated, with many experiencing an escalation in violence after they left. On average, more than three women are murdered by their husbands or boyfriends every day in the United States.

In New Hampshire, 29 homicides were committed between 2014 and 2015, with a total of 18 people killed as a result of domestic violence, including 10 victims of murder-suicide, according to the state Domestic Violence Fatality Review Committee’s most recent report. Of the six people murdered by their partners during that two-year span, all were women.

During the seven-year span between 2009 and 2015, 98 homicides were committed in the state. Fifty-eight percent were the result of domestic violence.

“Why doesn’t she just leave? The answer is in the question – she has something to leave, she is invested, she has selected this person out of seven billion people on the planet,” Hampton said. “We’re asking victims to overhaul their lives simply because someone else is a criminal. What it says is we really don’t realize everything they have to lose.”

In some cases, she fears homelessness and the shelters are full. She loves her partner and he says he loves her. She blames herself for the abuse and he blames her, too. She has never told anyone he hits her.

Domestic violence is a devastating public health crisis in the United States that affects millions of lives. Approximately one in four women and one in seven men nationally experience severe physical violence at the hands of an intimate partner in their lifetime.

Only recently did the state start tracking domestic violence cases with the implementation of Joshua’s Law, named after 9-year-old Joshua Savyon who was killed by his father in 2013. While court data suggests domestic violence cases are on the rise, experts say the increase could be the result of more law enforcement agencies and prosecutors charging offenders under the new statute. The number of cases increased by 50 percent in a two-year span, from 4,148 cases in 2015 to 6,211 in 2017.

Those criminal cases reveal just a fraction of the scope of domestic violence.

More than 15,000 victims were served by New Hampshire’s 13 crisis centers in 2018, with 9,761 identifying as victims of domestic violence, said Amanda Grady Sexton, the public affairs director for the New Hampshire Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence. State statistics show the majority of victims served by those centers experienced domestic violence and most were women.

“These numbers reflect only those who reached out to a local crisis center for support,” Grady Sexton said. “We know that the scope of the problem is even greater across our state and even more Granite Staters are experiencing violence in the home.”

The number of those served each year has risen by several hundred since 2011. Advocates say the increase would be far greater if the state had the resources to serve every victim who asks for help, including those who need shelter once they flee. Hundreds are turned away each year from domestic violence shelters due to a lack of resources.

“It is unacceptable for lack of resources and space to prevent victims and their children from seeking refuge once they’ve found the strength to come forward,” Grady Sexton said. “Survivors in New Hampshire deserve better.”

For generations, domestic violence was supported in Western culture; women and children were considered property and men used violence as a means of maintaining control. It wasn’t until 1871 that a man’s “right” to punish his wife was challenged in the Alabama Supreme Court. It still took another 50 years for it to become illegal for men in the United States to beat their wives. Even then, the term domestic violence was far from the public consciousness. The women’s movement of the 1970s brought the issue into the forefront, and yet two more decades passed until all 50 states had outlawed marital rape.

Today, as the #MeToo movement against sexual assault and harassment continues to gain ground across the country, advocates say domestic violence victims are identifying with the conversation, but many aren’t ready to speak up in the public platform. Like sexual assault victims, they may feel ashamed and embarrassed to come forward. But there is an added layer of victim-blaming for survivors of domestic violence, in part, because the abuse typically happens over an extended period of time.

A victim may also fear retaliation from her abuser who may have threatened her or the children for seeking help or trying to leave. Others stay because they love their partner and believe they can change him or her over time. They may remember how near-perfect the relationship was in the beginning and believe they can get that back. The abuse often escalates in such subtle and yet methodical ways that the victim may not realize until months or years later what is happening.

The majority of criminal depositions in domestic violence cases are handled by New Hampshire’s district courts, but they tell just part of the story. Statistics show women between the ages of 15 and 44 are most vulnerable.

Even when victims do come forward, sometimes the problems that plague a case are systemic and beyond their control. That was true in Manchester where former U.S. Attorney Emily Rice took over as city solicitor in 2017 after Attorney General Gordon McDonald launched an investigation into past prosecution practices in domestic violence cases. The investigation revealed a failure to keep records as well as a lack of training and supervision. Among the concerns was the repeated practice of dropping charges on the condition the offender complete a batterers intervention program, drug and alcohol assessment and/or counseling.

“The prosecutor’s office did not have the resources to track the completion of those conditions and then to take action if it became necessary based on the offender’s noncompliance,” said Rice, who reinstated criminal charges in about 40 cases. “You can’t take on the role of holding offenders accountable unless you have the resources to engage with multiple contacts to ensure compliance.”

Rice and others said domestic violence is a learned behavior that the people who engage in need to be held accountable for. The state, however, still struggles to do that, experts said.

Consequently, victims feel an even greater burden to keep themselves safe.

“It’s not something they said, it’s not something they did and it’s not something that they deserved; rather, it’s something that someone else decided to do. Yet, we require the victim to  keep track of whether or not the offender is complying, where the offender is and whether or not the offender may appear again,” Rice said. “It can get 1,000 times more complicated in an instant because the perpetrator made a poor decision to act in an unlawful way. To say that it’s not easy for victims is a gross understatement.”


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