The tragedy of domestic violence hit home in Washington County on July 3 when a 26‑year‑old Calais man shot 21‑year‑old Megan Sherrard, the mother of his child, and the infant boy. Daniel Pinney was shot and killed by Calais police officers just as Sherrard was fleeing the house where Pinney had taken her and the baby by force. Pinney had been out on bail for a domestic violence criminal threatening charge involving Sherrard, and a condition of his bail was that he have no contact with her. In addition, Sherrard had filed a protection order from harassment and abuse against Pinney on June 11. The mother and infant were taken to a hospital in Bangor for treatment of serious injuries. They have since been released and are now home.
In the face of such a tragedy, community members often wonder what they can do, or should have done, notes Rebecca Hobbs, executive director of the Next Step, an organization dedicated to helping victims of domestic violence and educating the public about awareness. The most dangerous behavior a community can follow is to remain silent or to enable an abuser. The best behavior, she explains, is to take that first step in the presence of abuse, whether it is a racist or sexist joke, a demeaning remark, a comment on social media that fans the agenda of someone who is a perpetrator of abuse. "Encourage people to say, 'That's not funny.' If you get a chance to speak out against something, take it. It takes that first step, and others follow. It takes commitment and bravery to be that dissenting voice."
Hobbs also urges showing support for the victim by offering help. "We have seen attitudes change. People are much more supportive. We first started Next Step as a shelter because people had to flee. Now they have places they can stay, often with families or with others who understand abuse and that the victim needs help and support."
Hobbs says, "When something happens, we always want better laws. But laws are not lacking. It's about enforcing laws, supporting law enforcement and all of us jumping on board with our voice to support victims and the intolerance of abuse."
In 2012, 5,600 domestic assaults in Maine were reported to the police. In the same year the Next Step domestic abuse hotline for Washington and Hancock counties received 2,852 calls. Eight months into its fiscal year 2013, it has received 4,285 calls.
Protecting victims through laws
Laws to protect victims of domestic violence are being strengthened, says panel Chair Lisa Marchese of the Maine Domestic Abuse Homicide Review Panel. The panel releases a report every two years after reviewing domestic abuse homicides for that time frame. During the years between 2010 and 2012, 21 people were murdered in the state by a family or household member. The report notes that in one six‑week period a mother and her two children were killed in a murder/suicide by the children's father, and six children lost their mothers to domestic violence homicide. The report says, "These six weeks of violence have generated unprecedented, yet much needed, focus on the issue of ending domestic violence."
The 2012 report led to a number of recommendations, some of which have gone on to inform the creation of new laws. Timely victim notification is now mandatory when a defendant is released from jail in cases of domestic violence, sexual assault and stalking.
A law to standardize risk assessment use by both law enforcement and the entire judiciary system has been enacted, with an implementation date of January 1, 2015. Training is taking place within different branches of law enforcement and the judiciary. Margo Batsie, a program manager at the Maine Coalition to End Domestic Violence, explains that the domestic violence risk assessment is a very specific tool. The law requires the use of ODARA, Ontario Domestic Assault Risk Assessment, an actuarial tool that indicates the likelihood that a person who has already committed an assault on a current or former domestic or dating partner will do so again in the future. The assessment will be used by law enforcement officers at the time of arrest and will be included in the police report to be used by bail commissioners, the judiciary, probation officers and more.
"It's a powerful tool," Batsie states, but only if used by the entire system. At the moment a few communities in Maine utilize ODARA, such as the City of Saco. She says, "What's interesting is that law enforcement agencies want it right now. I'm encouraged that they're stepping forward. It's just one more response of coming together to help."
Firearms relinquishment is an unsolved piece to the picture of domestic violence homicide, says Marchese. She says that, when there is a protection from abuse order, in Maine the guns can be given to the police or to a family member or relative. Federal law prohibits the ownership of a firearm when convicted of a domestic violence misdemeanor or when a person is subject to a domestic violence restraining order. In addition to federal law, Maine law prohibits people from carrying a firearm if there is a domestic violence protection order against them in Maine or any other state or tribe.
Police departments don't have the storage space or capacity for a great many guns, Marchese says. "It's a real question, what to do with them?" Governor Paul LePage has issued an executive order that the issue be studied. Marchese notes that firearms relinquishment is a legal option for the courts. Whenever the victim requests that they be relinquished, judges should follow that request when setting bail conditions, she says. "The courts are doing that, if the victim asks." The issue, Marchese explains, is that if the guns are turned over to family members they can end up going back to the abuser. She believes this is an important question to ask because 50% of all homicides are domestic violence related, and of those 50 to 60% are committed with firearms. "It's the weapon of choice for people who want to commit a domestic violence homicide."
The connection between suicidal comments translating into homicides was a pattern that took the panel by surprise, points out Marchese of the 2012 report. "People don't take threats of suicide seriously." She adds, "If someone threatens suicide, people need to take them seriously and take the guns out of the house and get them help." The comments can be a precursor to suicide and homicide. The report notes that 70% of the perpetrators of domestic violence between 2010B2012 showed "suicidal ideation prior to the murder‑suicide."
Number affected increases
Whether the Calais domestic violence shooting would have led to a murder‑suicide will most likely never be known. The Maine Attorney General's Office is investigating the Calais police officers' involvement in the shooting of Pinney, and the Maine State Police investigation is centering on the shooting of the mother and the infant. But what is known about domestic violence is the sheer number of people being affected. Next Step served 1,093 people in its fiscal year 2012, up 31% from the prior year. Also well above the previous year's number is the amount of 4,140 hours racked up helping victims with the court system and legal advocacy -- and that's with four months still to go. Last year's number was 3,746. Hobbs notes that these numbers are just from Washington and Hancock counties, the program area of her organization.
"Washington County is no different from anywhere else," says Hobbs. "But issues we think of for the county are the relative age, lack of great jobs, substance abuse. However, people don't become abusers because they're poor. Those factors can escalate the lethality of abuse. Guns, substance abuse -- very often when people use [substance abuse], it increases the risk to victims."
Hobbs stresses, "Abuse isn't about anger. It's about feeling entitled to have power and control over another. Anyone can be an abuser." She adds, "People decide to be abusive, and they can decide not to be." Being supportive of an abuser is the worst thing a community can do, she advises. "I feel for the family of any abuser. But if you have the opportunity to say, 'I don't support that,' do so." She notes, "When a victim reaches out for help and receives a positive response, the better their safety."
The Next Step hotline is free and confidential. It can be used by victims, family members and friends, concerned neighbors -- anyone who has a question about a domestic violence or abuse situation that they need help understanding or handling, says Hobbs. The hotline is also the place to access additional services such as the shelter, transitional housing, educational programs and court and legal advocacy services. The 24‑hour hotline number is 1‑800‑315‑5579.