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Friends and relatives of people with violent tendencies need to be more realistic and not assume someone close to them will not kill them, domestic violence experts said Friday.
Just four months into 2023, Maine has seen 13 people killed in homicides, including seven domestic violence homicides in which a family member or domestic partner was slain, according to Shannon Moss, Maine Department of Public Safety spokesperson.
The domestic violence homicide count shot up this week following four killings in Bowdoin. Joseph M. Eaton, 34, was charged in the killings of his parents and another couple in a Bowdoin home, then allegedly shot at cars on an I-295 exit in Yarmouth on Tuesday and injured three people.
This week’s rampage drew national attention for its savagery, but it was also the latest in a long line of Maine domestic violence homicides. The shooting highlights the need for more domestic violence education among the general public so people can recognize the signs and take action before a situation escalates to a homicide, advocates said.
“Tragic isn’t a strong enough word to describe what happened,” said Regina Rooney, the Maine Coalition to End Domestic Violence’s education and communications director. “The reality is that while we don’t frequently see this wide of a scope of violence, gun violence does exist in our state.”
Rooney has heard people call the killings shocking, and while she understands the human urge to react that way following the grisly scene that police say unfolded this week, she also wants to challenge the idea. Domestic violence and gun violence happen in Maine communities and families every day, and often it goes undetected, she said.
“I think we need to start believing not only that it can happen, but it is happening,” she said. “If we can understand that, we can begin to intervene sooner before people get to using lethal force.”
Rooney characterized domestic violence in Maine as a “persistent problem,” with related homicides accounting for about half of all killings in the state. This has remained fairly consistent for the past two decades, according to a comprehensive report released in April 2021.
The 20-year Domestic Abuse Homicide Review Panel retrospective pointed out that offender accountability is key to change.
In the context of intrafamilial homicide — when a person kills a child, parent, sibling or other family member besides an intimate partner — perpetrators of all ages place children and older adults at greatest risk, according to the panel’s 2020 Biennial Review.
Between 2013 and 2019, the percentage of annual homicides in Maine that were domestic fluctuated, with six of the seven years accounting for 40-45 percent. 2014 was an outlier with 70 percent of total homicides being domestic, according to Maine State Police data. Another outlier was 2020, when domestic violence homicides accounted for 30 percent of 20 total homicides.
Figures from the last three years reflect a shift in the data. Domestic violence homicides accounted for about 52 percent of total homicides in both 2021 and 2022. Now, only four months into 2023, domestic violence homicides represent more than 53 percent of the annual homicide count.
The recent killings and Eaton’s violent criminal history also highlight the strong link between mass shooters and domestic violence, said Joanne Lewis, an assistant district attorney who handles domestic violence cases for Penobscot and Piscataquis counties.
As mass shootings grow increasingly common across the country, data show a majority have a connection to domestic violence.
Domestic abuse and violence can be intimidating subjects. But Mainers have the chance to understand that they may have relationships with people who are capable of it, Rooney said.
“They are not monsters in the bushes or boogie men and women,” she said. “They are people in our lives that we know and care about even.”
Rooney encouraged people aware of a domestic violence situation or those with questions to call their local domestic violence resource center. They’ll be connected to an advocate who can guide them through scenarios and identify solutions about what they can say or do.
It’s often that after a death or horrible outcome, people point out something wasn’t right. That’s where Mainers can challenge themselves and “believe our guts a little more,” she said.