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Domestic violence deaths on the rise in Spokane County and state despite new approaches to addressing issue

By Judith Spitzer Correspondent

Woman assaulted, her possessions burned; family speaks out about domestic violence”

“Woman reports her ex-boyfriend shot at her, rammed her car”

“Woman in Spokane Valley beaten and bloodied, found near a knife and pieces of her tongue”

“Bonner County woman arrested in boyfriend’s death

Those four headlines, all from the month of October, speak volumes about domestic violence in the Spokane community.

Last year nine people died because of domestic violence in Spokane County – eight homicides and one suicide, according to a report from the Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence. In 2014, there were four homicides and two suicides due to domestic violence in the county, and in 2013, two homicides and two suicides.

The numbers have been rising statewide, too. Last year there were 68 homicides and suicides attributed to domestic violence in Washington, up from 56 fatalities in 2014 and 39 fatalities in 2013.

Experts say over the past 30 years, there have been considerable changes in institutional policies, laws and procedures in responding to domestic violence. There’s also been measurable success in raising awareness of family violence.

Even so, “It is still one of leading causes of homicide in Washington state,” said Kelly Starr, managing director of the Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence. “There has been no significant drop in people killed in domestic violence fatalities.”

Starr added, “One of the reasons it is so heartbreaking is that it’s preventable.”

Regina Malveaux, CEO of the YWCA of Spokane, said domestic violence as a public concern affects more women than breast cancer, ovarian cancer and lung cancer combined.

In Spokane, the YWCA has begun emphasizing domestic violence “action” rather than “awareness.”

“Awareness doesn’t prevent domestic violence from happening,” Malveaux said. “In the past it’s been about protecting the victim, but in order to do that we need to stop the violence.”

Spokane has seen major changes in the way victims access services and how perpetrators go through the justice system, she added.

Protecting victims

The Family Justice Center at the YWCA, which opened in early 2015, has combined services so victims can get multiple kinds of help in one place. Victims can talk with advocates, meet with a prosecutor, receive information on shelters, and access counseling and job-readiness services there. There’s free childcare at the YWCA while victims are getting the help they need.

The Spokane Police Officers Domestic Violence Team, a group of officers and detectives who are trained in dealing with domestic violence, are located at the Justice Center as well.

“We’ve made a lot of headway with the Family Justice Center,” Malveaux said. “Spokane police and prosecutors have been very responsive to our issues.”

One of the tools used by law enforcement in domestic violence prevention is a lethality assessment. When officers respond to a domestic violence situation, the screening tool asks 11 questions of victims: Have they been threatened with a weapon? Has the abuser threatened to kill the victim or her children? Does the abuser have access to guns?

Saying yes to three or more of the questions triggers a protocol in which the law enforcement officers immediately connect a victim with a YWCA advocate by phone to address safety planning, housing, or other needs.

“The job of the advocate and the police officer is to lovingly help (the victim) understand the level of risk in their particular situation,” Malveaux said.

It’s a more proactive than handing the victim a card with resources, she said.

Malveaux believes more people in Spokane County report incidents of domestic violence to law enforcement than happens elsewhere, which she said speaks to a healthy relationship between victim advocates and law enforcement in Spokane.

“We know there’s a lot of research that shows people don’t call the police because they don’t feel like there’s any follow-up, so they feel like it’s pointless,” she said. “But maybe women here in Spokane County feel differently compared to other places because we do show reported rates are higher here.”

Starr, of the Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence, contends the issues are complex and “different things work for some people and those same things don’t work for others.”

“We know there is no one system or agency that will resolve this,” she said. “We have to protect victims and hold abusers accountable and prevent violence … way before it’s a potential homicide or suicide.”

Starr said it’s clear that the presence of guns increases lethality. “Victims are five times more likely to be killed in that situation if there is a gun around,” she added.

Chris Henderson shot and killed his wife Sheena Henderson in 2014 at Deaconess Hospital, where she worked. Chris Henderson, who had been evaluated as a possible suicide threat, was released from custody by Spokane Valley police officers and retrieved his guns from the Spokane Police Department. He killed himself after shooting his wife.

The Henderson family fought hard to get two laws passed dealing with domestic violence. The Sheena Henderson Act was signed into law in April 2015 and it sets up a notification system for families when police return a confiscated gun to its owner. The other law passed this year and gives law enforcement more power in getting someone who is having a mental health crisis help in a timely manner. It requires people who have had a previous suicide attempt to have a mental health evaluation within 72 hours.

Gary Kennison, Henderson’s father, said, “losing our daughter is something that should have never happened.”

“We should never have had to have a law,” Kennison said. “But we’ve worked hard to get the legislation passed, and we’ve had a lot of support from legislators.”

Community awareness is key

Starr said she supports those laws, and other laws addressing domestic violence, but “there is a huge gap in the enforcement of laws. Passing a law that is an important step, but steps need to be in place to implement them.”

Starr added that communities are often the key to reducing domesic violence fatalities.

Victims tend to turn to friends, family and co-workers for help much of the time, she said.

“If you’re that one person that a victim turns to, do you have the right information to help that person? If people are turning to community rather than systems, we need people to be involved and we need community as a whole involved. That’s where the solution is going to be for this,” she said.

That includes men, said Morgan Colburn, the YWCA’s associate director of counseling and outreach.

“The accountability method of one man telling another man that ‘I will not stand for the way you treat women’ is far more effective than a group of women saying the same thing,” Colburn said.

Doug Kelly, an Avista regional account executive, heads up a group informally called the Good Guys. At last year’s YWCA Women of Achievement luncheon Kelly brought a table of 10 men with him to the event. This year, after challenging himself, he brought 10 tables of 10 men each to the luncheon.

“At the first luncheon I went to, there were hardly any guys there and I thought, this issue needs bigger and broader support,” Kelly said. “Clearly, men are most often the perpetrators, but men need to stand up and say this is wrong.”

Kelly said something called the “power and control wheel” resonated deeply with him. That’s an info-graphic showing how an abuser may use dominance, children, economics, coercion and threats, emotional and psychological abuse and isolation, as well as physical assaults, to take control of a woman’s life and circumstances.

“I had never thought about it that way … looking at all the behaviors that precede the physical violence,” he said. “How many other ‘a-ha moments’ could we be creating for other people?”

Changing the legal system

Kelly said he plans to meet with the YWCA to ascertain how the group can help address domestic violence.

“It’s an incredible opportunity to show there is more awareness that can be tapped into in the community, not just lunch, but much deeper and broader,” he said.

Crissy Anderson, YWCA senior staff attorney, works with victims on the legal issues a domestic violence victim can face. A program called Wrap-Around Wednesdays offers limited legal advice and help filling out court forms.

Anderson said victims are often manipulated by their abusers in court, particularly in family court, which she calls a silent battleground.

“I think our system is a set-up for victims who have had financial control taken away and the batterer will come in represented (by an attorney) or with all the family resources, after they’ve drained the other person of resources. There is also a layer of complex evidence rules, hearings, and a lot of paperwork barriers to being able to access the system,” Anderson said.

Victims might need a lawyer or advocate because they’ve been evicted, or are losing a job because they’ve had to take off too much time, she added. Victims also can address housing concerns, safety planning, parenting plans and protective orders at the Wednesday clinic.

Malveaux, the YWCA CEO, said the system is overloaded.

“Currently, five to 10 people are turned away on any given Wednesday,” she said.

“Up until recently we were seeing 15 people in an afternoon every week but we recently had to scale back and cut it off at 12 people, because 15 people ends up going way after closing hours,” she added.

Malveaux said the YWCA received word last spring that it was losing more than $200,000 in federal funding for programs. She’s hopeful the city of Spokane will help make up the loss in federal monies, as it did this year.

This story has been changed slightly to reflect that Regina Malveaux’s comments applied to all law enforcement in Spokane, not just the Spokane Police Department.
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