Gov. Janet Mills shared her own experience with domestic violence during a press conference on Wednesday. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty / AP

If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic violence and would like to talk with an advocate, call 866-834-4357, TTY 1-800-437-1220. This free, confidential service is available 24/7 and is accessible from anywhere in Maine.

Maine’s domestic violence homicides account for nearly half of all homicides in the state, a number that has remained about the same for the past two decades. But the key to change is offender accountability, according to a 20-year Domestic Abuse Homicide Review Panel retrospective released Wednesday by Attorney General Aaron Frey.

Gov. Janet Mills told her own domestic abuse story as part of Wednesday’s discussion, calling herself one of the lucky ones.

The comprehensive look back over 20 years addressed the panel’s fatality reviews of 147 out of 202 homicide cases, including the 129 people who committed domestic abuse. The panel reviewed these cases to identify potential trends in domestic abuse and recommend systemic changes that could prevent future deaths from occurring in Maine.

About 70 percent of the homicides were committed with a firearm, 85 percent of those committing domestic abuse homicide were male and about 65 percent of those killed were female. Additionally, in the most recent period, about 50 percent of the offenders stalked their victim prior to the homicide, and 50 percent threatened to kill the person prior to the actual homicide. Still, there were no protection from abuse orders filed with the court.

In the current biennial review period, 18 domestic abuse homicides accounted for nearly 43 percent of Maine’s total homicides during the two-year period as follows:

— In 2018, 19 people committed 20 homicides, nine of which the Department of Public Safety categorized as domestic abuse homicides.

— In 2019, 19 people committed 22 homicides, nine of which were categorized as domestic abuse homicides.

“Perpetrators of domestic abuse and violence will continue to do what they do until it costs them more than they are willing to pay,” Executive Director of the Maine Coalition to End Domestic Violence Francine Stark said Wednesday during a virtual press conference. “The thing they are most likely to not want to pay is a loss of respect from their peers and their family members.”

Family, friends, neighbors and coworkers, in most cases, were aware of domestic abuse occurring, but did nothing because they did not know what to do, according to the 13th Biennial Domestic Abuse Homicide Review Panel Report, which also identifies system gaps and needed legislative and policy changes related to abuser accountability.

Mills shared her own domestic abuse story during the press conference.

“Some years ago there was a woman who dated a man who was handsome, charming, intelligent and she was in love with him. The man was also an alcoholic and one night in a drunken rage, the man held a gun to her head. The gun did not go off,” she said. “She was alone in a strange city and had no place to go. She packed her bags, turned around and left that place and never turned back.

“The rest of that story is that the woman went to law school, became a prosecutor, later attorney general and now governor of the state of Maine,” Mills continued. “I will never forget that night and I will always know I was one of the lucky ones. Many, many others were not so lucky.”

Mills explained that her experience was one of the reasons she first entered public office so others will not have to know that feeling of being alone, that fear for your life of not knowing where to turn for help.

“This administration is committed to preventing domestic violence,” she said. “To protecting survivors, to creating a criminal justice system that serves and respects all victims of crime.”

In 2018, Mills reinstated Maine’s public health nursing program and these nurses now serve as critical domestic violence screeners. Additionally, several pieces of domestic violence-related legislation have been passed and $5 million was added into the fund to support domestic violence services.

Stark, who sits on the multidisciplinary homicide review panel, said that the accountability of people who commit domestic abuse is currently the state’s focus, and that everyone must be willing to address concerns about people who are acting abusively.

Additionally, the criminal justice system needs to do what it says it’s going to do, Stark said.

“If somebody is [out] on bail and they violate bail, they should be held accountable,” she said. “If there is an order that says they shouldn’t have a gun, they shouldn’t have a gun. And if there are any conditions … that say they are supposed to behave in a certain way and they don’t, they should have the consequence they knew was coming their way.”

Attorney General Frey talked about the ripple effect of domestic violence homicides and he said this review provides very important characteristics, scenarios and information about what it is that led to the devastation of a domestic violence homicide.

“Importantly, it provides a more comprehensive look back over the last 20 years as to not only what has been working, but also demonstrating there is more work to be done,” Frey said.

In addition to law enforcement changes, the panel recommended efforts to maintain and expand Maine’s coordinated community response to domestic violence by enhancing abuser accountability and supporting victim safety.

According to the panel, a coordinated community response involves the criminal and civil justice systems, 24-hour community-based advocacy organizations, health care and behavioral health organizations, faith communities, child welfare organizations, Certified Batterer Intervention Programs, schools, government agencies and many others.

“CCR efforts focus on facilitating new connections and strengthening existing relationships, and may take the shape of task forces, CCR teams, and high risk response teams,” according to the report. “One desired outcome is a strong mutual understanding of the roles of various agencies and systems. Another outcome is an overall higher understanding of the dynamics of domestic abuse and violence, that results in less successful manipulation of systems by perpetrators who consistently seek collusion from others.”

Frey and Mills encourage anyone in Maine experiencing domestic abuse to call the statewide hotline at 866-834-4357.

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Kathleen Phalen Tomaselli

Kathleen Phalen Tomaselli is a reporter covering the Houlton area. Over the years, she has covered crime, investigations, health, politics and local government, writing for the Washington Post, the LA...