Domestic violence affects thousands of Maine families every year. Advocates in Penobscot County and across the state work every day to help keep victims safe from harm and to raise awareness of causes to end domestic abuse.
Earlier this year, a state panel on domestic violence homicides released its latest report, which recognizes the important work of law enforcement, advocates and communities. It also offers important recommendations on how we can do a better job of preventing future violence, such as training people who work with children to recognize and respond to signs of abuse and implementing policies to prevent domestic violence offenders from coercing victims or witnesses involved in their cases.
I have submitted a bill to put the panel’s recommendations into action, and I urge my colleagues in the Legislature to put it at the very top of the agenda when lawmakers return to the State House in January.
Despite having one of the lowest violent crime rates in the country, domestic abuse accounts for a large proportion of violence in our state. The rates of domestic violence assault and domestic homicide are higher in Maine communities than in the rest of the country. Over the past decade, domestic violence homicides have accounted for nearly half of all murders in our state, compared with about 16 percent nationally.
In 2014 and 2015, while the panel worked on its most recent two-year report, 24 of 46 homicides were categorized as domestic homicides. In the first year of the cycle, eight of the 14 victims of the horrible, senseless tragedies were children. All were younger than 13 years old.
I think we can all agree that just one such crime is one too many, but these statistics show that preventing domestic violence is truly a matter of life and death. Among the panel’s most important observations is that these murders are rarely or never isolated incidents. They are preceded by abusive and controlling behavior, warning signs that signal the serious danger victims are in.
As too many Mainers know firsthand, domestic violence has a terrible impact on the physical and emotional health of the people in the household. This is particularly true for children living in an abusive environment, whether they are exposed directly or indirectly to the violence.
The panel’s recommendations include advice and best practices for law enforcement and the courts, health care professionals and employers. The report highlights the importance of collaboration among the people and organizations that are in the best positions to reach and support victims.
The work of the Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, on which I serve, includes considering measures that help victims of crime such as domestic violence. We have taken important steps over the past two years, including passing measures to improve workplace protections for victims of domestic violence and assault and to protect information about victims from being accessed by their abusers.
Our top priority during the coming legislative session should be to build on that work by doing everything in our power to stop domestic violence and save lives. We should start by implementing the domestic violence homicide panel’s recommendations. In many cases, we know what works to identify abuse, protect victims and prevent the unthinkable. Let’s make sure we are putting that knowledge to work to address the violence that is present in homes across our state.
We can all play a role in preventing violence and abuse — whether we are policymakers, health professionals, neighbors, family members or friends. If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic violence, resources are available and reaching out for help could save a life.
For help keeping yourself safe or with supporting someone in your life who is experiencing abuse, call the Maine Coalition to End Domestic Violence’s 24-hour helpline at 1-866-834-4357. You can also find more resources at the coalition’s website, mcedv.org/need-help.
Rep. Jim Davitt, D-Hampden, is serving his first term in the Maine House and represents Hampden and Newburgh. He serves on the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee and is a professor of justice studies at the University of Maine at Augusta.