Domestic violence a ‘complicated crime’

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WILTON – A forum that brought together law enforcement officers, state representatives, a prosecutor, victim advocates, church and healthcare representatives and victims to discuss domestic issues found one troubling fact: there are no easy answers.

Finding new ways to reach victims, stop the violent behavior and new solutions that work within the criminal justice system were some of the subjects touched on at a  Maine Department of Public Safety-sponsored forum held at Academy Hill School Wednesday night. 

LD 1990, a resolution “to Prevent Domestic Violence and Protect our Citizens,” was unanimously enacted by the Legislature this spring spurred a series of forums across the state. The resolution, the result of a murder-suicide that occurred last year, seeks to review the resources now available to protect and support victims and find out what may be needed.

Those attending the forum offered several ideas that included flyers on who to call for help be available throughout the community, more training of community members to spot abusive behavior and teaching youths appropriate nonviolent responses.

The difficulty of the court’s order and the reality in the family home was brought up. One woman attending said her abusive husband would show up at where she worked and she felt her only recourse was to leave work so she could avoid contact with him. Her fear of calling the police was “they wouldn’t believe me. I had no proof.”

District Attorney Norman Croteau said often it’s one person’s word against another’s and it’s up to investigators and prosecutors to determine what happened and what should happen in court. Often, he said, things get complicated when the victim first files a complaint and then wants the charges dropped.

“They will call and say they want to get back together,” Croteau said. “They try to drop the bail conditions. Nine out of ten ask that contact be allowed.” He added the economic realities of living in rural Maine hit hard when a member of the household is ordered to stay away.

“They’ll say, ‘I need him. It’s winter and who will cut the wood?’ Women feel compelled to go back because there’s no where else to go,” Croteau said. “It’s a very, very difficult and complicated crime.”

The question of what to do for the victims came up as often as what to do for the perpetrators. A group counseling program led by  Bob McLaughlin for batterers is no longer offered with the nearest counseling opportunities in Lewiston or South Paris was seen as a barrier to finding solutions.

Another is finding shelter for the victims.

Rev. Tim Walmer at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Wilton, said there is a need for safe houses in this area. “They’ll call me and ask for a place to live. That is a particular problem,” Walmer said. Transportation is another. 

But the most often mentioned problem is the ability to identify those who need help and connect them with resources that can help.

“Everyone has known someone who has been in an abusive situation,” Janis Walker of the Healthy Community Coalition said. “We need to find ways of helping them.”

State Rep. Janet Mills, an attorney, said she would like to see supervised visitation centers to help with the exchange of children between estranged or divorced parents. She suggested the use of community centers twice a week to help alleviate the difficulty of that situation. She also questioned the mandatory arrest law in a domestic violence complaint as causing too much strain on the victim to actually call for help.  

A local response, Peace in Wilton Families of which many members were present, was formed a few months ago and includes representatives of the Western Maine Community Action, the Wilton Police Department, Sexual Assault Victims Emergency Services, Abused Women’s Advocacy Program, the Wilton Ecumenical Outreach program, Wiles Remembrance Center, the Healthy Community Coalition and interested community members was one of the reasons the forum was held in Wilton. 

The Department of Safety will be presenting its findings to the state Legislature on Dec. 10.  

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