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The tragic consequences of doing nothing

They did not know where to turn for help even as the abuse grew more threatening. Friends and family members were likewise unsure what to do. Then it was too late, as another woman died at the hands of a violent partner or former partner, not infrequently in a case of murder-suicide.

This was the most common theme uncovered by the Connecticut Domestic Violence Fatality Review Committee as it culled through the records of a decade of domestic-violence fatalities in the state, 2000-2009.

"Family interviews conducted indicated that victims were not aware that domestic violence services existed," states the first-of-its-kind report in Connecticut. "If they (family and friends) knew about the violence, they maintained that they did not have the information about how to help."

There are 18 domestic violence agencies in Connecticut. In this region those services are provided by the Women's Center of Southeastern Connecticut. It provides 24-hour domestic violence (860-701-6000) and sexual assault (860-701-6001) hotlines. The domestic violence hotline can help a victim of abuse begin the process of escaping it and rebuilding his or her life. But the hotline can also provide family and friends of a domestic abuse victim advice and counseling on the steps they can take to intervene and work to avert a greater tragedy, said Catherine Zeiner, executive director of the Women's Center.

The review committee consisted of representatives of the Connecticut Coalition Against Domestic Violence (CCADV), victims of abuse, prosecutors and investigators, among others. It had the grim task of taking a close look at 146 "intimate partner fatalities" over the course of the decade. Seventy-one percent of the cases were homicides, the rest murder-suicides.

Other findings:

• In the vast majority of cases some major event, which signaled for the abuser a loss of power and control over the victim, precipitated the fatal attack - a divorce or break-up and loss of custodial rights to children were the leading indicators. After these key events, the potential for violence peaks.

• About 34 percent of victims died of gunshot wounds, 51 percent by stabbing, strangulation or beating.

• The committee concluded that police training in how to handle domestic violence complaints was inadequate.

The handling of an initial complaint is key, said Zeiner. Police inaction, or the arrest of both partners, make it far more unlikely a victim will turn to the police again, she said. Even the filing of a misdemeanor charge against an alleged abuser can diminish the chance of escalating violence, said Zeiner. But if an abuser concludes he got away with it, he will be emboldened, while the victim's feeling of helplessness will grow.

The General Assembly's Task Force on Law Enforcement Response to Family Violence has developed a model policy for handling domestic violence cases. Currently policies vary among departments, said Karen M. Jarmoc, executive director of the CCADV. If passed into law, it would require reporting forms to include a section explaining the reason for a dual arrest; designate a domestic violence liaison in each department; and mandate continuing education hours of domestic violence training for officers.

While police forces already face many mandates, these provisions appear reasonable, given the scope of the problem. Officers typically do not receive any domestic violence training after leaving the academy, Jarmoc told me.

The 18 domestic agencies in the state provide services to about 54,000 victims annually. That number does not include the many victims who never seek help. Women often feel powerless, said Zeiner, fearing that if they turn in or leave an abusive husband or partner they will lose that source of income and sometimes health care coverage for them and their children. Many deny the seriousness of the abusive relationship until it is too late.

"No one deserves to live like that. We can help. And if you know someone in a relationship like that, and they ignore your pleas for them to get help, don't give up on them. Walking away, leaving them more isolated, is often the worst thing you can do," Zeiner told me.

There are no guarantees. Violent abusers will often ignore court orders. No one can provide 24-hour protection forever. But statistics prove that doing nothing is the far greater danger. In many cases the abuse will only stop with the last beat of a victim's heart.

Paul Choiniere is editorial page editor.

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