Monday, February 27, 2012

Media and the Public Miss the Mark in Identifying Domestic Violence

Article Written By *Ava Rose and Robin Sax with input from Debi Biederman-Ash, Patti Giggans (Peace Over Violence) Hillary Selvin (NCJWLA), Terra Slavin (LA Gay Center), Ruth Williams (NCJWLA

The headlines come in every day, from cities, suburbs, rural communities, and elite enclaves:
“Authorities say a man fatally shot his estranged wife at the Hemet Courthouse Wednesday, then turned the gun on himself in his car a few miles away…. Both victims were at the courthouse to attend a hearing regarding child custody/support issues.” (, 1/04/12) 

 “An employee opened fire outside a northeastern Georgia food processing plant Thursday, fatally shooting his wife before killing himself, authorities said.” (Atlanta Journal Constitution, 1/05/12). 

“Bayonne was reeling Tuesday from a spasm of butchery after a jealous man murdered his estranged wife, her boyfriend, and his rival’s baby boy."  (NY Daily News, 12/06/11).

Or just today: A pregnant woman was allegedly beaten and held captive for nine days in a bizarre ordeal that ended when police in the Central Valley town of Ceres arrested her boyfriend and two other men Tuesday. The victim's boyfriend, 21-year-old Richard Garibay, found a message on the woman’s phone on Jan. 27 that he didn't like, according to Ceres police.” (LA Times, 2/09/12)

So often, the reports characterize the attacks as “bizarre,” “unexplained,” and “shocking.”  The authorities are unsure what motivated the attacks.  Sometimes, the perpetrator is even identified as one of the “victims.”  And always, the reports describe the disbelief of families, friends, coworkers and neighbors, who never saw it coming.  Events like these are so often presented by the media as “unexpected and unexplained.“  But are they really?

If you do a Google search, you will find hundreds of these incident reports, and if you read past the first few paragraphs, between the statements of shock and incredulity, a pattern will begin to emerge.  The couple was “estranged,” the victim was the assailant’s former wife or girlfriend, there is a history of child custody “issues,” and the precipitating event was a break-up, divorce filing, or the discovery that the victim had begun another relationship. Often, if you make it down to the last paragraph, you will find a history of “domestic disputes,” a prior restraining order, or even a previous charge of spousal battery.  And yet, no one seems to identify the pattern. 

Even after the victim has been severely injured, killed, or goes missing, there is rarely an effort made to connect the dots.  And by reporting these stories as if they were inexplicable disasters rather than cautionary tales, we are missing an opportunity to educate the public about the signs that were missed.  Consider this.  What if domestic violence-related killings were given the level of scrutiny afforded to the passing of Whitney Houston?  What if we took the time to piece together the tragic events leading up to these deaths, as we did when years of substance abuse and sycophantic enabling resulted in Michael Jackson's overdose? Throughout the last week, many people had no trouble saying, "we are shocked but not surprised" by Whitney's demise, because the public has come to recognize the dire consequences of drug addiction.  In the world of Domestic Violence, so often we, too, are shocked but not surprised.  No one sees the pattern better than those of us who work with these victims.  We know, because if you have spent any time with battered women, you are not shocked by these murders at all, just overcome with a dreadful feeling of “here we go again.”  You know that an abused woman is seven times more likely to be killed when she leaves the relationship.  And this is not a random series of unforeseeable events.  In fact, the pattern is all too clear: possessiveness, jealousy and abandonment rage are pervasive in relationships that end in homicide, as are struggles over property and children. 
If you understand domestic violence, then you do not say, as many in law enforcement and the media do, “We do not know what was in the mind of [the suspect].”  You know that regaining control is the driving force in violent relationship, and you recognize that an abuser never feels more out of control than when his partner has left him, or has custody of their children, or takes up with another partner.

Are these events tragic?  Without question.  But are they unforeseen, “one-off” events that could not have been predicted?  The answer is NO.  And would recognizing the patterns prevent all these heinous crimes?  Of course not.  But until friends, neighbors, family, coworkers, law enforcement, prosecutors – and yes, the media – see the picture, we’ll never know how many deaths we could prevent.

*Ava Rose, LCSW is Director of Women Helping Women ~ Community Counseling & Support Services, a program of the National Council of Jewish Women/ Los Angeles, and Steering Committee Member of the Westside Domestic Violence Network.


@GunSensus said...

Thank you for an important post. There is no question that domestic violence killings are common, predictable and preventable. One of the actions we must take is to demand that people who are under a domestic violence restraining order have their firearms confiscated by police, and their records be entered in a timely manner into the NICS database. Too many of these men find it easy to get guns they then use to harm women and children.

State laws differ on the confiscation of guns, but where that is the law, police must uphold it. Often they are reluctant to take this step, just as they are reluctant to respond to dv calls. Lives are lost because of this. It shouldn't be acceptable.

A Voice of Sanity said...

"What if domestic violence-related killings were given the level of scrutiny afforded to the passing of Whitney Houston?"

Or better still, Anna Nicole Smith whose death still pops up as rewarmed speculation to this day.

Sandy said...

My sister-in-law was married to a control freak with ties to the Mafia. Once they were divorced, after many years of personal abuse and threats, her mother urged her to come with the four children and live with her (in another state) until the divorce was finalized. My SIL said she was "going to be fine, not to worry" and refused this offer.

The day before... the very day before they were to appear in court on the custody issue of the children, she 'disappeared' and four months later in a routine dragging of the East River, her skull was found with a bullet hole behind where her ears should have been.

Her soon-to-be ex had an alibi, he married his secretary (who it was widely believed was a party to this crime) and he refused to let his mother and father-in-law ever visit the grandchildren.

Years later when the four were old enough to make their own decisions, their mother's parents were dead themselves from grief and old age. He got away with murdering his wife to control his children.

ANd I still wonder to this day if my SIL had moved one state away whether she would have been able to outdistance herself from a man who had the connections to make her disappear. This is a bigger problem than just domestic abuse. It is about men of power and control who have the resources to remove women who no longer serve their purposes.

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