A View from the Hill
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: July 16, 2000
CONTACT: Michael Auerbach (617) 722-2240
PROTECTING LOVED ONES FROM . . . LOVED ONES
No one ever expects bad things to happen to his town. We read about tragedies in the newspaper and see them on television, but we never foresee these unfortunate incidents hitting close to home. Inevitably, however, every town faces tough times at some point or another. In light of the recent hockey rink tragedy in Reading, we can see that no community can ever be shielded from the pangs of misfortune.
Not every incident, however, makes it to the front page of the newspaper. Some problems remain hidden beneath the surface, such as domestic violence and abuse- one of the least understood crimes of our society.
Domestic violence and abuse is an incredibly widespread problem that can occur in any community. In 1998, there were roughly 1.2 million incidences domestic violence in this country, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. One of out every ten homicides in America during this year resulted from this horrible social epidemic. If you have been following the news, then you know about the incident involving Dr. Richard Sharpe, who allegedly murdered his wife Shannon in their family home in Wenham. Authorities say that this horrible crime was the consequence of a "rocky" relationship that existed between the couple for some time.
Nationwide, family violence costs taxpayers between $5 and $10 billion annually in medical expenses, police and court costs, shelters and foster care, sick leave and other areas. Numbers, however, do not even come close to describing the physical, mental and emotional suffering endured by the victims of domestic violence and abuse.
Perhaps the greatest tragedy of domestic abuse and violence is that these distressing figures are only for those situations that have been reported. Many spouses, family members, or domestic partners do not realize- or refuse to acknowledge- that abuse is occurring and do not report it. The unfortunate result is that the abuse continues to the point of psychological and/or physical injury.
Usually the violence is but the result of a larger, more deeply rooted problem, such as mental illness, alcohol or drug abuse, or a simple lack of communication. When these problems are not addressed, the abusive relationship is likely to intensify and perpetuate itself.
The situation becomes even more complicated when the victim of the violence and abuse strikes back at the perpetrator.
Recently, legal advocates for female victims of domestic violence and abuse have referred to the psychological term, "Battered Woman Syndrome." Here, a woman who has been the victim of domestic abuse or violence may take violent retaliatory measures against her spouse. High-profile examples of Battered Woman Syndrome include the so-called "burning bed" incident, in which a woman burned to death her abusive husband while he slept. Some domestic violence and abuse organizations believe that this syndrome should be referred to as "Battered Person Syndrome," pointing to the fact that in some situations a man who has been verbally or physically abused by his spouse over a long period of time might retaliate in a drastic or equal fashion.
Addressing such a complicated problem requires a multi-pronged approach. The government must continue to strictly enforce laws that protect spouses, family members and domestic partners from such violence. A large section of Massachusetts General Law, Section 209A, identifies domestic violence and abuse, explains a victim's rights, describes the variety of resources available to the victim and outlines authorities' ability to arrest and prosecute those who commit such crimes.
An essential component of our General Laws came about through the landmark "Violence Against Women Act" of 1994. One particular section of this act established a grant program (S.T.O.P) that promotes an integrated response to domestic violence and sexual assault through the coordination of government agencies and non-profit organizations. Federal funding for this program, which has increased to over $3 million in the recent years, is used to enhance the effectiveness of prosecution efforts, train law enforcement officers, and enhance the services of non-profit agencies.
Just last week, the House and Senate debated a "stalker" bill that would define a new category of crime called "criminal harassment." This piece of legislation would make it illegal for a person to exhibit repetitive behavior that places another person in fear- even in the absence of a direct physical threat. Having such a law on the books would significantly enhance the ability of our safety officers to protect spouses and other individuals who live in fear on a daily basis.
We in government must continue to work to protect victims and help law enforcement to prosecute offenders. Furthermore, we must continue to study the sources and causes of domestic violence and abuse. To that end, we can effectively address the roots of this epidemic and hopefully prevent it in the future.
Local communities have roles to play as well. Exemplary are the programs of the police departments of Winchester, Stoneham and Reading, all of which offer important information, confidential domestic violence and abuse hotlines and other useful resources for victims. Winchester's police department has a special program called "Emerge" for the treatment of the abusers themselves. In nearby Woburn, the Middlesex DA's office runs a Victim and Witness Advocacy program for all residents of the county. In addition, many of our communities' churches and civic organizations have shelters and domestic violence and abuse programs to assist any man, woman, or child in need.
The final area of action falls upon the primary locus of domestic violence and abuse: the home. Half of the battle is getting people to recognize the fact that they are in an abusive relationship. Once this is done, the person must summon the courage to do something about the situation.
Part of this process involves victims of domestic abuse and violence, men and women alike, to understand that they are not to blame for the crimes committed against them. They should not feel embarrassed or ashamed to seek counseling or shelter from such abuse. Rather, they should know that there are people out there who want to help.
Together, with the assistance of government officials, family members, and everyday citizens, we can all help to stop the violence and put both victims and abusers on the road to healing.