Information packets for Ontario Domestic Assault Risk Assessment are seen in 2014, when police in Maine completed training for determining bail for those charged with domestic violence. Credit: Ashley L. Conti | BDN

Overall, crime in Maine decreased for the seventh year in a row. This is good news.

The 9 percent decline in the number of overall crimes from 2017 to 2018 is the largest percentage drop in crime in the past four years.

But, there is one area where the news is still bleak. The number of homicides — still very low by national standards — increased last year, compared to 2018. One troubling statistic remains fairly constant: Each year, about half of Maine’s homicides are attributed to domestic violence.

In 2018, there were 23 homicides in Maine, a slight increase from 21 the year before. Nine of those homicides involved domestic violence; two remain unresolved.

In each of the nine cases, the victims were female and ranged in age from 10 to 59. In the most well-known case, 10-year-old Marissa Kennedy was allegedly beaten to death by her mother and her stepfather in Stockton Springs. Her stepfather, Julio Carillo, was sentenced to 55 years in prison for her murder. Her mother’s trial is set to begin in December. Officials from the Bangor School Department, where Kennedy briefly attended school, made multiple reports of suspected abuse but did not know if state child welfare officials followed up on the reports. Kennedy’s death led to an ongoing overhaul of the state’s child welfare system.

Other 2018 homicides included two women who were shot by their husbands, who then died by suicide. One woman was shot by her boyfriend, who then shot himself to death. One woman was killed by her grandson, another by her son and two other boys.

These horrific crimes remind us that we have much work to do to reduce the prevalence of domestic violence and its deadly consequences.

On a related note, the number of domestic violence assaults that were reported to and handled by law enforcement in Maine dropped by more than 11 percent.

“I have a fairly jaded measure of hope” about the statistics, said Francine Garland Stark, the executive director of the Maine Coalition to End Domestic Violence.

That’s because only a small percentage of domestic violence assaults are reported to police. The coalition and its partners worked with more than 14,000 people who reached out for help last year. Maine Department of Public Safety statistics show that 3,699 incidents of domestic violence assault were reported in 2018. These numbers show that many more people, especially children, are impacted by domestic violence than crime statistics reflect.

In addition, domestic violence assault is only one form of abuse. How many protection from abuse orders are violated, Stark wonders. How many cases of terrorizing are there each year? How about domestic violence stalking?

Without a fuller pictures of domestic violence-related crimes, it is hard to know how safe Maine truly is for women, who are the predominant victims of domestic violence.

There are a variety of reasons why people do not report domestic violence abuse. One of the most common is fear of retribution, which highlights the emotional control that abusers can have on their victims.

To encourage more victims to seek help, Stark says that law enforcement must respond to domestic violence calls with more urgency and be prepared to launch an investigation without the participation of the victim, something they obviously do when investigating a homicide. Prosecutors need to more aggressively prosecute abuse cases and judges need to be more vigilant in considering terms for probation and release, Stark said.

Michael Sauschuck, commissioner of the Maine Department of Public Safety, agrees that law enforcement needs to improve its interactions with domestic violence victims. “We need to build trust with victims so they’ll come forward,” he told the BDN in an interview. At the same time, law enforcement officers must realize that every call is an opportunity to stop a traumatic relationship and, perhaps, to save a life. “When they do call, we need to make sure we do everything we can to help.”

Sauschuck noted that his department works very closely with domestic violence and sexual assault victim advocates. A department press release that accompanied the crime numbers last week quoted Stark and Elizabeth Ward Saxl, director of the Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault. It was the first time these voices were included alongside crime data.

“We want victims to know that, on the law enforcement side, we care about them,” Sauschuck said.

Maine’s history of domestic violence won’t change overnight. But with a better understanding of domestic violence crimes and a concerted effort to support its many victims, Maine can continue to move in the right direction.