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Domestic violence: A messy, painful, and ugly part of society

Women’s Freedom Center begins an uncomfortable community conversation about a problem that ‘happens in Windham County daily’

BRATTLEBORO—Chances are your friend, your sister, your cousin, your co-worker, your neighbor, is a victim of domestic violence.

Chances are you’ve witnessed a conversation, a flinch, demanding phone calls, or missed days off work that made you uncomfortable.

Chances are you’ve wondered what to do, say, ask or wondered if you should do, say, or ask anything.

Chances are that you expect the police or domestic abuse shelters will deal with the problem.

But, chances are, when a woman reaches out from an abusive situation, she will reach out to you, her friend, her sister, her brother, her cousin, her co-worker, her neighbor.

“Domestic violence happens in Windham County daily,” said Donna Macomber, co-executive director of the Women’s Freedom Center. “Our hotline is never silent.”

She acknowledged the discomfort surrounding the conversation about domestic violence. The topic is messy, painful, and requires confronting an ugly side of our society.

But, she added, being willing to discuss the uncomfortable in public can move society out of old ruts and toward a better direction.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation estimates only 10 percent of domestic violence assaults are reported to police, according to statistics supplied by Freedom Center advocate Shari, who uses only her first name due to the discreet nature of the center’s work.

In the United States, these assaults rank as the leading cause of injury to women 15 to 44 and the leading cause of death for pregnant women. Shootings account for about 70 percent of homicides linked to domestic violence, and children die about 20 percent of the time.

A real danger

In a recent study on domestic-violence homicides in the U.S., said Shari, researchers found that about half the women contacted law enforcement, three-quarters sought medical treatment, and less than 10 percent had contacted a domestic violence program within the previous 12 months.

“And while domestic violence can happen to anyone, in any kind of intimate relationship, it’s important to keep in mind the gendered nature of the problem,” said Shari. “Ninety-five percent of domestic violence is committed by men against their female partners.”

Shari added that domestic violence takes the lives of three women every day in the U.S.

“This of course happens in the broader social context that teaches violent masculinity, which certainly harms and demeans us all,” she said.

Macomber, Shari, and fellow advocates with the Woman’s Freedom Center held a community discussion and screening of the documentary “Telling Amy’s Story” on April 26 at the River Garden.

The screening and conversation is part of the center’s fledgling community outreach.

Macomber said the center conducts most of its work in secret to protect victims. Yet, if the center wanted to involve the community in changing the tide of domestic violence, it would need advocates.

The film chronicles the events leading to the 2001 shooting of Amy Homan McGee, 33, by her husband, Vincent, in their State College, Pa., home. The Public Service Media Project from Penn State Public Broadcasting was made with funding from Amy’s former employer, Verizon.

Amy, after years of abuse, had decided to leave her husband. Thinking he wasn’t home, she and her parents stopped for Amy to pick up diapers, clothes, and bottles for her young children.

The State College community was small, rural, and regarded as safe.

“But if you can’t be safe in your own home, does it matter if your community is safe?” asked State College Police Detective Deirdri Fishel, who worked on Amy’s homicide case.

By all accounts, Amy did everything right. She contacted family, she worked with the police, she left Vincent, she moved out of town, she tried to leave.

“There are only three possible outcomes in an abusive relationship,” said Fishel. “Either the batterer is going to stop the abuse, or the victim is going to leave that relationship, or someone is going to die.”

The Freedom Center chose the film because it provided a unique look at Amy’s death. Rather than pointing fingers, the community discussed its pain and worked to understand how to prevent future deaths.

Macomber said that when a batterer is intent on harming his victim, it’s dangerous.

“Even the best [escape] plans don’t work,” she said. “The danger is that intent to do harm.”

“Telling Amy’s Story” started as a training video for local Pennsylvania police officers, said Shari. Since 2010, the film has been used as a training video nationwide, aired on television, and used in community discussions. The Vermont Police Academy has added it to the training roster.

Members of the audience shared their experiences with domestic violence. One woman described her fear when she answered the phone and heard the voice of her batterer. He had found her after two decades.

Another woman talked about being stalked. Another spoke of trying to help her daughter’s best friend leave an abusive boyfriend. The friend did not leave the boyfriend, and has since left the area.

Another woman spoke about her abusive husband and asked the advocates for help.

Windham County Sheriff Keith Clark said, “This is a conversation that needs to occur everyday.”

Clark serves on a domestic violence task force with the Freedom Center, the Windham County State’s Attorney’s office, and other members of law enforcement.

Domestic violence is seen as a women’s issue, he said. But men have to step up.

“The problem isn’t lodged with her,” said Shari. “But you can pretty much guarantee that you’ll be going back to his house. That’s where the serial behavior is.”

In her work, Shari talks to women who describe their relationship as trying to survive “living on a razor’s edge.”

“It’s human nature to survive,” she said, adding that victims cope with a level of trauma living under the batterer’s control.

“The reality is he doesn’t have to pull a gun a second time,” Shari said.

Brattleboro Police Sgt. Mark Carignan said he attended the conversation on his own time.

He said that men need to involve themselves in preventing abuse by saying, “Man, that’s not okay,” early when their friend is demonstrating controlling behaviors like sending six texts in 15 minutes to check in on a girlfriend.

But, said Carignan, most men engage only after the controlling behavior turns violent.

“We think of domestic violence as a clenched fist, but domestic violence happens before that,” he said.

According to Shari, violence is a learned behavior. And there’s the hope. Behavior can be unlearned.

To learn more about Telling Amy’s Story visit: http://telling.psu.edu.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #152 (Wednesday, May 16, 2012).

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