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Sara Foss's Thinking It Through
by Sara Foss

Thinking It Through

A Daily Gazette life blog
Her column and blog rolled into one

Focus moves to preventing domestic abuse

Not too long ago, a friend of mine traveled out of state to visit old friends. The friends introduced her to their new housemate. Later that weekend, the housemate drove to his ex-boyfriend’s house, shot him to death, and then turned the gun on himself.

“He was staying in the same house as us,” my friend said. “He said good-bye to us, and then went out and killed someone.”

I was disturbed by my friend’s proximity to a murderer, but I was also curious about the days and weeks preceding the murder-suicide. Specifically, I wanted to know whether there had been any warning signs. I found it impossible to believe such violence just erupted out of the blue. What had been missed?

Police classified the murder as a domestic violence homicide. Unfortunately, such tragedies are all too common, although I didn’t realize how common until I read Gazette reporter Kathleen Moore’s recent story about a new domestic violence prevention system being implemented in Schenectady. According to city police Chief Brian Kilcullen, officers get more domestic violence calls than any other type of call.

The new domestic violence prevention system is designed to help police, judges and prosecutors determine which suspects are most likely to try to kill their partners if they’re released on bail. One of the things I like about the new system is that it was developed by people who understand domestic violence is a predictable pattern of behavior and can thus be prevented.

On Christmas Eve, a Niskayuna man, 46-year-old Clifford Burns, was charged with stabbing to death his estranged wife, Patricia Burns, 42. Reports indicate he had a history of violence, which should come as no surprise; I would have been surprised if he didn’t have a history of violence.

Schenectady’s domestic violence program will be modeled on a program in Newburyport, Mass., that was the subject of an article in New Yorker magazine earlier this year. In Newburyport, domestic violence experts developed a “danger assessment” tool to predict which domestic violence cases are most likely to turn deadly. Risk factors include threats of murder, attempts to strangle the victim, a history of substance abuse or unemployment, the perpetrator’s access to a gun and escalating physical violence.

The New Yorker article describes a forward-thinking program where a team focused on preventing domestic violence homicides meets monthly to examine and discuss cases.

“As team members went down the list of cases, they looked for changes that might indicate trouble: a victim’s attempt to leave, an abuser going off probation or parole, the violation of a restraining order, the loss of a job, an incendiary Facebook post,” the article reported from one meeting. “In one case, a man assaulted his partner on the way to his batterers-prevention meeting, and was arrested again. In another, a man who had tried to stab his wife with a fork and then threatened to kill her was arrested and held without bail; he had a history of violating restraining orders and probably would be monitored by G.P.S. upon his release from prison.”

Domestic violence is still sometimes dismissed and minimized as a women’s issue, and it’s true the vast majority of victims — roughly 85 percent — are women. However, the problem is so widespread it should be viewed as an issue that affects the entire community. Children raised in homes where domestic violence occurs are more likely to be violent in adulthood, while the cost to treat victims is high — about $4.1 billion each year for medical and mental health services, according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

About 25 percent of women will experience domestic violence in their lifetime. Nearly three-quarters of Americans know someone who is or has been the victim of domestic violence. That’s a lot of people.

What’s becoming clearer and clearer is domestic violence homicides are not, as a general rule, inexplicable tragedies no one could ever have seen coming. Rather, they are the culmination of a history of abuse. If we can do a better job of spotting the red flags and warning signs, we can save lives.

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