Education, media could be helpful in domestic violence prevention

By Jennifer E Chase
April 1st, 2010

Maine’s motto calls the state “Vacationland,” but for homicide victims felled by domestic violence, Maine is hell.

Although the state boasts the country’s lowest homicide rate, for the last decade, half of Maine’s homicides have been directly related to domestic violence, according to the Maine Coalition for Ending Domestic Violence (MCEDV). The state is looking to the latest report by the Maine Domestic Abuse Homicide Review Panel to advise how to reduce occurrences of a horror that could be diminished by educating youth, noting warning signs and steering abuse victims to the havens Maine has created to help save lives.

The review panel was established in 1997 from legislation by the Maine Commission on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault. “The spirit behind the panel was to draw closer attention to domestic violence homicide in the state and analyze statistics to see if recommendations could be made to decrease them,” says Jill Barkley, public awareness and policy coordinator for the Maine Coalition to End Domestic Violence.

Information for the report is compiled by Maine’s Department of Public Safety in collaboration with the Maine Attorney General’s Office. In February 2010, the panel released its eighth report, noting that of Maine’s 31 homicides in 2008, 20 or 65 percent were related to domestic violence. That number decreased in 2009 to 25 homicides, of which 10 were domestic violence related.

There was, however, an increase in homicides committed by mentally ill family members against other family members. And of intimate partner homicides, nearly all victims were in the process of leaving the relationship.

Amid the 27-page review, the panel made recommendations to a number of agencies: the state’s mental health system; the Departments of Health and Human Services and Education; the state’s legal system; MCEDV; the Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault; and addressed how change could be realized through the media and public awareness. It applauded the good work of several community outreach programs for talking with victims and survivors about the safety risks associated with returning to their former homes or meeting with ex-partners after or at the end of their relationships.

According to Barkley, part of MCEDV’s responsibility is liaising between organizations working on behalf of ending domestic violence and working on legislation and policies that will do the same.

On March 11, Maine’s legislature passed through committee LD 1143, a bill that would condone a study by the Maine Commission on Domestic and Sexual Abuse to clarify and strengthen language requiring courts to give added attention to the effects on children who witness domestic violence.

“Parent rights and responsibility issues are a huge issue in terms of children who witness domestic violence,” says Barkley, who believes the bill would have no problem becoming law. “This was a success. We’re excited.”

Hand-in-hand with legislation is educating youth about abuse prevention, which was a major piece recommended by the panel and supported by efforts of MCEDV. “Unfortunately, once we reach adulthood a lot of our belief systems have been established,” says Barkley. “If we can reach our youth at an earlier age … aggressively talking to our youth about what makes a healthy relationship … can be a key to bringing down the statistics.” All nine member coalitions of MCEDV participate in school outreach programs that from elementary to high schools present classes through the health curriculum about respect, bullying and dating violence.

Along with working with schools, says Barkley, coalition members work with media to help promote the best possible message about domestic violence prevention. But she feels more can be done.

“I think the media are well intentioned in Maine and they try to get the whole story out….Maybe they could make the story about some of the warning signs out there and how bystanders can get involved. I feel like, sometimes, reports on homicides are about what a great person the perpetrator was and how ‘no one saw this coming,’ when in reality, probably the people closest to the victim, did.”

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