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Domestic violence killings on rise

Battered women may be sticking it out as shelters turn them away
by: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT Jason (name has been changed), jobless and alone in the house he used to share with his wife and stepdaughter, attends weekly domestic violence classes and learns the extent of the emotional abuse he brought on his family.

Jason lives alone now, paying rent to stay in his three-bedroom house in Beaverton that has been foreclosed upon. He would like to say he misses his ex-wife and his stepdaughter - and there are moments in the day when he knows he does, when he misses them in the right way.

But when he thinks of them now, it is impossible to think about the good times separated from the bad, from what he did. He's learned guilt.

The court records say Jason was convicted of felony criminal mistreatment. He says that only once did he hit someone in his family. That was a year ago, when he lost control and began slapping his stepdaughter and pulled her hair violently enough to pull some of it right out of her head. But after nearly three months in jail and a year of court-mandated domestic violence classes, Jason has come to recognize that, for years, even when he wasn't physically assaulting his wife and stepdaughter, he was abusing them nonetheless.

The police code is for domestic violence, but that catch-all term hardly begins to define the full extent of abuse that can take place among families. And the most extreme example - death from domestic abuse -has risen sharply in the Portland metropolitan area at the same time resources to help women wishing to escape abusive homes is shrinking.

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In 2010, there were 13 domestic violence deaths in Multnomah County, up from four in 2009. Washington County saw a similar spike, with 10 domestic violence deaths occurring between November 2009 and August 2010.

Across the country and in Portland, violent crime has been dropping, even through the current recession. But that isn't true when it comes to domestic violence. And the rise has the people who help domestic violence victims worried that economic stress is pushing some abusive partners past the boiling point just when there are fewer options for their victimized partners who need to get out.

Last summer, Portland police rescued a woman and her small children from an abusive husband. Calls were made to the city's domestic violence shelters, but all were full. Agencies that dispense emergency housing vouchers that can be used for short stays at motels told police that they had none left. In the end, according to Sgt. Tina Jones, police dropped the woman and her children at a park where they could set up a tent.

Last year, the Salvation Army, which runs the city's largest women's shelters, turned away 4,002 women asking for emergency shelter, after turning away 2,974 women in 2009.

In 2010, the Salvation Army, which operates the city's after-hours domestic violence crisis line, took 4,657 calls, almost all from women trying to escape abusive homes. That was more than a 1,000-call increase over the year before.

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Tribune Photo: Christopher Onstott • Volunteers at the Portland Women's Crisis Line advise women victims of abuse but what many of those women need - a new place to live - is simply not available. The board in front of the volunteers shows shows every women's shelter in town is full.

Rebecca Nickels, executive director of the Portland Women's Crisis Line, says volunteers are reporting a new obstacle - abused women saying they can't safely call the crisis line because unemployed husbands are around the home all day.

Shannon Barkley, domestic violence advocate for Volunteers of America's Home Free program, says that increasingly, especially toward the end of the month, she has to tell abused women who have asked for help the same thing - there is no shelter available.

Barkley says she gives the women tips on how to stay safe in their homes: Keep a cell phone charged and handy, she counsels. Keep personal ID close at hand in case you have to run. Keep an overnight bag packed, with cash included, just in case. And establish a code with a neighbor, something like raising the blinds a certain way, which will be a signal that the police need to be called.

Volunteers of America Oregon has dramatically increased the number of battered women it is able to help by closing its six-bed shelter. Previously, women there could stay as long as two months, but the shelter was meeting a small fraction of the demand. In its place, the Home Free program is providing emergency housing vouchers that help pay for motel rooms, and working with the women on finding transitional housing in apartments. But the vouchers are often exhausted well before the end of the month.

'If we're not helping provide appropriate options, how can we as a community expect that domestic violence is going to end, or we're going to reduce fatalities?' Jones asks.

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Tribune Photo: Christopher Onstott • Bobbi Clayton has three vivid reminders of her marriage - her wedding ring and two bullets her husband shot into her body in an attempted domestic violence murder/suicide. Clayton survived the bedroom shooting. Her husband did not.

Grim reading

Curiously, the rise in domestic violence deaths has not been accompanied by an increase in domestic violence calls to Portland police. In 2010, Portland police responded to 4,925 domestic violence calls, down from 5,060 in 2009.

Fay Schuler, director of the Salvation Army's West Women's and Children's Shelter, isn't surprised. She says she's heard too many women say they won't call the police because they've heard of cases where the police were unable to help, or cases where child services become involved and removed a son or daughter from the mother's care. She recalls working with a woman recently who had been held hostage in her own basement for days by an abusive husband.

'Not once did she think about calling the police,' Schuler says.

The Domestic Violence Resource Center in Hillsboro reviewed all the recent cases of Washington County domestic homicide and found virtually none of the victims had ever called police or crisis lines. The system, inadequate as it is, never had a chance to help, says La Donna Burgess, the center's executive director.

Burgess theorizes that the recession has women not calling for help because they are fearful they won't be able to get jobs and housing if they strike off on their own. Others say that some abusive men are simply ratcheting up their violence as they lose jobs and feel increased financial pressure.

The Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence reviews every domestic violence homicide in that state. Their data shows that about half of the homicide victims had called police at least once before being killed by their partner.

Kelly Starr, spokeswoman for the coalition, says the cases make for grim reading because of how ineffective the system often is for women who ask for help. Starr describes a funnel effect: Of 84 cases that ended up in domestic homicides, the police had previously been called in on 48. Some of those victims had called multiple times, so 157 different calls for help had been made to police.

Out of those 157 calls, 63 arrests were made. Charges were actually filed in 55 of those cases. Accused abusers made it to sentencing in 38 cases. Of those 38, almost all the abusers were given a sentence that did not include further jail time. And only seven of the original 63 arrested for domestic violence complied with the terms of their sentencing, which included anger management classes and restraining orders barring contact with the victims.

'The story that tells is that, for the victim, there's not a consistent, predictable response they're going to get from the criminal justice system,' Starr says.

If women are getting that message, Starr says, it might explain some of their reluctance to call police, especially if they are hearing from their abusers that they will be killed if they make the call. Starr recommends that abused partners call a crisis line advocate before they call police and put together an escape plan before police arrive.

The Washington state data shows that over the past 13 years, nine out of 10 abusers who killed were men. But the growing trend of murder suicides, in which abusers kill their partners and then themselves, is almost exclusively the choice of men, not women, who kill.

'I put fear into her'

Chiquita Rollins, who served as Multnomah County's domestic violence coordinator for 17 years before her recent retirement, says women suffering abuse have fewer resources available to them than they did a few years ago. The housing crisis, Rollins says, has some families already doubling up or living in smaller spaces, and less extra room to take in the sister or daughter or aunt who may call.

Almost all the Multnomah County domestic violence deaths have been carried out by men using guns, Rollins says, and she believes there has been a growing acceptance in recent years of guns in the home.

Rollins also attributes the rise in domestic violence to a cultural shift that seems to her a major step back.

'It's a kind of resurgence of machismo, being a tough guy is having a resurgence,' she says. 'None of this kinder, gentler Bill Clinton era. There's this sense that men are wanting to assert something.'

What Rollins is certain about is that domestic violence isn't a class issue. She says the recent spate of Multnomah County deaths includes middle class and wealthy people as much as those of little means. They include men such as Jason.

Jason says he used to tell his wife he'd kill her if she betrayed him. In fact, he threatened to kill his wife and stepdaughter the day he hit the stepdaughter and was arrested. A year in domestic violence classes has helped him see how his attitude toward his wife, 'rude, dismissive, disrespectful' in his words, was also a form of abuse. He recalls his bouts of screaming and shouting and says, 'I put fear into her. I understand that.'

Jason was married for three years and earned a healthy income working as a health care professional for years before his conviction. Divorced now, a restraining order keeps him from even apologizing to his ex-wife, which he says he would like to do. His health care license has been revoked, so he's starting trucking school, looking for a new career in a field where his felony conviction won't stand in the way of his getting a job.

There are still moments Jason has trouble figuring out how he became a man who perpetrated so much abuse on his own family. But then he recalls his own boyhood, and the regular belt whippings he withstood at the hands of his own mother, and the wondering mostly stops.

'My job was being compassionate and kind,' Jason says. 'And all of a sudden you act like this abusive ass---- at home. What came to my mind was SS officers in concentration camps. They could kill prisoners and torture them and experiment on them and then go home and kiss their wives and share love and stories. I shocked myself. I lost all sense of what reality was.'

Asked if there was anything Jason's wife, or other women in abusive homes could do to prevent the abuse, he offers a simple, 'No.'

'They need to just run,' he says.

The Portland Women's Crisis Line is 503-235-5333.

National Domestic Violence hotline: 1-800-799-7233.


• Attorney General: Change state's strangle law

Erin Greenawald, domestic violence prosecutor for the Oregon attorney general's office, says that if she could make one legal change to help victims of domestic violence, she would rewrite state laws governing strangulation.

If a husband strangles his wife but does not kill her, the crime is usually considered a misdemeanor. Even if the husband is found guilty, Greenawald says, most often the sentence is for probation, not jail time. Yet studies show that women who are killed by domestic partners often were previously strangled by them.

The Legislature is considering making strangulation a felony, Greenawald says, but previous attempts to change the law have been defeated.

Tina Jones, Portland police domestic violence sergeant, says the change is overdue.

'Can you think of a more powerful control mechanism for instilling fear in somebody?' Jones asks. 'Women can die in four to five minutes by being strangled. I personally think it's reprehensible that it's only a misdemeanor.'

- Peter Korn