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VT advocate: 'We forget that domestic violence is in our neighborhood'

Two new cases have made domestic violence and intimate partner violence in Vermont impossible to ignore.

Police are searching for a South Burlington man accused of killing his girlfriend, 33-year-old Anako "Anette" Lumumba, who was found dead with a gunshot wound last week.

On Monday, Vermont State Police announced another case in which a woman is accused of killing her boyfriend, 35-year-old Troy Ford, in Highgate. The woman's mother pleaded not guilty to a first-degree murder charge, and police were searching for the woman and another man.

Auburn Watersong, associate director of public policy for the Vermont Network Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, speaks at the House Judiciary Committee on March 14, 2017.

The statistics are sobering

Each year, Vermonters die at the hands of their family members or romantic partners. The numbers are sobering:

  • 2017: There were 10 domestic-violence-related homicides in 2017, out of 16 homicides total, according to preliminary numbers provided by the Attorney General's Office. Eight of those killed were women and two were men.

  • 2016: There were six domestic-violence-related homicides in 2016, out of a total of 20 homicides. Two of the victims were women and four were men, according to the state's Domestic Violence Fatality Review Commission report.

  • 2015: There were six domestic-violence-related homicides in 2015, out of a total of 16 homicides. Four of the victims were women and two were men, according to that year's report.

  • Burlington: The Burlington Police Department shares data about its domestic violence calls. From October 2011 to January 2018, the department responded to 1,241 domestic violence calls, according to publicly available data. About 71 percent of cases involved a male perpetrator and a female victim.

More: Victim advocate: Domestic violence has ‘no boundaries’

The Burlington Free Press interviewed two experts Monday about the warning signs for fatal domestic violence — and what could be done to prevent it.

Questions and answers have been edited for length and clarity.

BFP: What is domestic violence?

Auburn Watersong, policy director, Vermont Network Against Domestic and Sexual

Violence: "Domestic violence is a pattern of coercive control. It can involve physical abuse but it doesn’t necessarily involve physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse, it can involve economic abuse. It's a pattern of coercive control that is repeated over and over again as a way to keep their victims basically doing what they want them to do."

BFP: In light of the incident in South Burlington, what do you think is important for the public to know about domestic violence?

Penny Shtull, professor of criminal justice at Norwich University: "It's important that we be talking about domestic violence, that this is not a new issue, that this is a pervasive, long-standing social problem, although it historically has not always been perceived as such. I think it takes a heavy toll on its victims, many of whom are women and children. It takes a toll on our communities. It’s a major public health problem, not only in the United States, but in our own neighborhoods."

Penny Shtull is a professor of criminal justice in the School of Justice Studies at Norwich University.

September 2016: Domestic violence shelters forced to turn away victims

BFP: Do you think that as a society, we tend to ignore domestic violence unless there’s a shocking case? If so, why do you think that is?

Watersong: "I do share that view. I feel as though a lot of times we forget that domestic violence is in our neighborhood. We think that it's not going to be in our community or it’s somewhere else, that it happens to other people or it happens less frequently than we think it does.

I think that comes from this history. Historically, domestic violence was seen as a private matter, something that happened inside households. But it's also the very nature of coercive control. ... The nature of coercive control is to keep victims silent and to keep them from reaching out for help. That's the very nature of domestic abuse as we know it."

BFP: What do you think are some misconceptions or myths about domestic violence among the general public?

Shtull: "I think that one of the myths is that victims can always leave. There are many factors that keep women in abusive relationships. I think we tend to blame the victims and say why didn’t they protect themselves? Or why didn’t they protect their children?

"Anyone can be a victim of abuse. I think the perception is that only women who are poor and uneducated are victimized, when literally anyone, from any socioeconomic strata in society, with any level of education, from all backgrounds, can be victimized."

Watersong: "Probably the largest myth is she can just leave if she just wants to bad enough. She can just leave. And the truth of the matter is that is when things become the most dangerous.

"It's too easy often for the public to say, 'Oh, she just doesn't want it bad enough,' or 'she doesn’t care about her safety' — all of that. But the truth of the matter is it’s the exact opposite. She’s weighing her safety all the time. And so that’s one of the big myths.

"I also think that there’s a myth that ‘Oh if she just asked for help, she could get out.’ And I think there’s a lack of understanding about how perpetrators use isolation, and how they burn bridges of relationships for victims so that victims don’t have anyone to reach out any more. Like they don't have their mother to reach out to or their sister to reach out to anymore because the perpetrator has done something to burn that bridge for the victim and isolate the victim. They might be living somewhere far away from family, those kinds of things. It’s not just physical isolation, but emotional isolation that they put the victim through."

BFP: What do you see as commonalities in domestic violence homicides? What are some warning signs or risk factors?

Watersong: "Victims are at the highest risk of homicide when they’re leaving or somehow engaging in some legal separation from their perpetrator. So we know that’s a good predictor, if they’re in the process of leaving. We also know that if there’s been a history of prior physical violence, that’s an indicator that things may escalate and may end up in a homicide.

"We also know that the chances of a homicide increase when the perpetrator is unemployed, when the perpetrator owns a gun, when previous death threats have been made, that’s somewhat obvious.

"And then another statistic that we’re aware of is that when there’s a stepchild in the home, which is an interesting predictor, and you may assume that in that instance it has something to do with power and control over the children, perhaps, in the household.

"So in some ways it is predictable, especially when there’s a history of violence or previous death threats, and it can be preventable."

More: Domestic violence survivor: Nonprofit 'saved my life'

BFP: Is there any way to know whether Vermont is seeing improvement, or getting worse, related to domestic violence homicides?

Watersong: "More than half of Vermont's homicides since 1994 have been domestic-violence-related, and that’s sort of keeping with the statistics nationally. So it's definitely a horrific, horrific statistic. But I don’t think that we’re necessarily an outlier, and I don’t think we’re necessarily seeing an increase over the years.

There's not really a discernible pattern of an increased number of homicides or decreased number of homicides. In 1999 we had 18, in 2006 we had 16 — but then in between then we had one in 2002."

BFP: Are there gaps in Vermont law or policy areas that you think would help to prevent domestic violence homicides?

Watersong: "How are we doing risk assessment of perpetrators, and is that the highest quality of risk assessment that we could be doing? ... I just feel like that risk assessment conversation needs to be more in-depth and more intentional and more across the entire state. We have different communities doing different things. And I think we're working on it though. I'm hopeful. And of course, nothing can happen fast enough. We don't want another homicide.

"The other piece that I feel like we need to look at, too, is our community programming for perpetrators of domestic violence. As a state, we have not put enough financial resources into those community-based perpetrator domestic violence accountability programs.

"If we really want to try to make a dent, and if we really believe that perpetrators can change, then we need to put some serious resources behind those programs. They exist right now, but they're existing on fees that are paid by the perpetrators themselves, many of whom are not people of means, and so we really need to look at how serious is our state when it comes to bending this curve and changing the behavior of these people who are choosing violence."

Find help

Anyone who needs help, resources or advice can call the state domestic violence hotline at 1-800-228-7395.

The state sexual violence hotline is 1-800-489-7273.

Steps to End Domestic Violence, an organization based in Burlington, also offers its support at 802-658-1996.

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