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Shawn Vestal: Domestic violence is one of Spokane’s biggest public health problems. Time to end the silence.

Hundreds of times every month, someone in Spokane County picks up the phone and calls police to report violence in their home.

A husband beat a wife, or a wife beat a husband, or a parent hurt or neglected a child, or…

Over and over again – 40 times a day, on average, someone in this county makes that call.

Domestic violence makes up a quarter of all crime here, according to statistics compiled by the Spokane Regional Health District. More than 2,000 kids in any given year are abused or witness abuse. Abuse requiring “direct, urgent medical treatment” resulted in $6.7 million in hospital charges in 2016-17.

Meanwhile, federal and state statistics show increases in reported incidences of household violence over the past several years. In particular, the number of reported incidences of domestic violence nearly doubled between 2006 and 2016, according to FBI statistics. It’s hard to know whether such figures show an increased prevalence of the crime, an increased level of reporting, or some combination.

In any event, though, the case that violence in the home is Spokane’s biggest public health problem is a strong one. At the very least, it’s high on the list.

“Regardless of how we compare, the question is, is it acceptable and what are we willing to tolerate,” said Stacy Wenzl, the manager of the data program at the SRHD.

The health district and other organizations have been collaborating on End the Silence, an effort to put more focus and attention on domestic violence. It comes after several years of other efforts to step up the response to family violence – notably through the expanded, collaborative Family Justice Center.

The center, housed at the YWCA, helps coordinate the efforts of city and county cops and prosecutors, victims advocates and others. It was put together in 2014, following a murder-suicide related to domestic violence at Deaconess Hospital.

The center applies more law enforcement and social services resources toward the problem in a variety of ways. Victims are put in contact with an advocate right away – sometimes by phone from the crime scene. Officers also pay a visit to offenders right away – Sgt. Jordan Ferguson called it a “knock this sh-t off” visit – even before they have a first court appearance.

Morgan Colburn, the associate director of counseling and outreach for the YWCA, said that national figures on domestic violence show that rates of abuse have remained steady for decades. She suspects that any increase in the numbers reflect a increased tendency to report the crime; as social taboos that kept the subject in the dark for so long have begun to erode and as public education efforts over many years take effect, more victims are willing to come forward.

“People are feeling they can report it,” she said. “People are feeling the police will respond. People are also getting more education.”

‘Unacceptably high’

The state Department of Social and Health Services produces detailed profiles of county risk factors, using a wide range of statistics and sources. In its December 2017 profile, it showed that reported incidents of domestic violence here have jumped from 2,853 in 2006 to 5,102 in 2016.

The rate per 1,000 residents went from 6.4 to 10.4 – well above the state rate of 7.4.

Over the same time frame, the number of child-abuse referrals accepted by Child Protective Services have risen as well, though the change is not so acute. In 2016, there were 5,787 child abuse referrals accepted by CPS, compared to 4,469 in 2006.

That means for every 1,000 kids in the community, there are more than 51 child-abuse complaints that CPS has deemed valid.

But there are other statistical measures, as well, and they don’t always agree with each other or line up clearly. For its End the Silence campaign, the SRHD cites the number of calls to law enforcement for domestic violence per year – 14,500. That’s how many times someone called police and said there was domestic violence and the police went out, without regard to how the cases went afterward.

“It is going up,” said Ashley Beck, senior research scientist for the SRHD. “What’s important, though, is that it’s high. Both domestic violence and child abuse are high and unacceptably high.”

‘What’s going on?’

Lynden Smithson is an assistant prosecutor for the city of Spokane who works at the Family Justice Center. The center is housed upstairs at the downtown YWCA; its offices includes prosecutors from all court levels in the county, investigators from the city and county, and victims advocates are also housed there.

Smithson said that the city has been charging a similar number of people each year with domestic violence in the past four years – at or a bit below 2,000. In particular, his office has worked to bring down the number of cases where charges aren’t filed because officers lose contact with victims. In the first year of the center’s existence, such dismissals dropped 13 percent, he said.

The subject of dismissals of charges is one that he started paying close attention to, particularly after seeing an SRHD figure that 43 percent of cases here were dismissed.

“When we saw those, we went, ‘Are we that bad?’ ” he asked. “What’s going on?”

Smithson compiled figures for the years 2012-2016 that showed a more complicated picture. Seventy percent of the cases in his office – the city of Spokane only – resulted in either a guilty plea, a deferred prosecution or a different charge. Comparative figures for country prosecutions were not initially available.

Smithson wishes there were more resources available, because he’s seen that having more individual contact with victims, and with perpetrators, pays off. It makes it less likely that a victim might refuse to testify or vanish. It makes offenders understand they won’t just fall through the cracks of an overbooked system. And it puts victims in contact with the greater range of help available to help end the cycle.

Because it is very much a cycle, however much of a cliché that has become. People raised with domestic violence tend to repeat it. And the people who commit violence in the home tend not to do so just once – as the recidivism rate of 1-in-3 shows.

As the year goes on, health district officials will be working on data and public education projects around the subject. One focus at the SRHD will be doing a deeper dive on the stats, trying to paint a more substantial, reliable overall picture of the problem. Others will be looking to build on what they see as a lot of progress in the past few years.

“The good news is we’ve got a lot of people working on it,” Smithson said. “And we’re pretty well-coordinated.”

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