Silent on abuse: Sacramento report of domestic violence deaths finds friends, family kept mum

Victims came from different socioeconomic, ethnic backgrounds

A new report on domestic violence fatalities showed that not enough friends and neighbors are reaching out when they see trouble brewing.

The Sacramento County Domestic Violence Coordinating Council presented its annual report to elected supervisors on November 1. The 2016 Domestic Violence Death Review Team report examined nine local domestic violence-related homicides.

According to Assistant Chief Deputy District Attorney Paul Durenberger, who presented the report, the nine cases were selected, in part, because they had already undergone judiciary review. While the homicides showed no corollary to race, socioeconomic status or a particular demographic, there was one unifying factor in nearly all of them: Friends and family members were aware of the victims’ situations.

WEAVE CEO Beth Hassett said she found this very concerning. “One of things that was particularly disheartening about this year’s death review team report is that, in almost all of the cases, friends and family and co-workers knew what was going on but nobody knew what to do,” Hassett said. “I would encourage people to seek assistance early. No one’s going to make them leave their relationship, but at least they could start doing some planning around leaving safely.”

Leaving safely can be harder than it sounds. Both Hassett and Durenberger said the fear of reprisal can keep people in abusive relationships longer—and for legitimate reasons.

“The most likely time for a … lethal incident is when the victim makes the conscious decision to leave the relationship,” Durenberger said. “Victims are actually making choices that are based on real fear, and they’re educated choices. … There’s not just an easy out, especially if you have children.”

One of the options that Sacramento County is offering comes in the form of the newly established Family Justice Center. Since its doors opened July 11, the facility has assisted more than 500 people, according to Joyce Bilyeu, the center’s director of client services. The center aims to be a one-stop-shop “for victims of domestic violence, human trafficking, sexual assault and child abuse,” its website states. The center offers temporary restraining orders, safe housing resources and victims’ advocacy.

Bilyeu said domestic violence victims are often bounced from agency to agency, and that having to repeatedly tell their stories can add to their trauma. That, and the uncertainty about where help can be found, can leave victims feeling trapped. “Making sure somebody has all of their ducks in a row … and can leave safely is absolutely critical and life saving,” Bilyeu said. “We’re able to triage them and have all these partner agencies who offer those services all under one roof.”

The domestic violence reported highlighted the center as a cornerstone of the county’s approach to the problem.

Bilyeu emphasized the importance of acting early to prevent long-term danger. “Most abusive relationships don’t start out with that physical abuse,” Bilyeu said. “There’s emotional abuse, financial abuse—some of the things are a little more confusing for the victim. It does escalate over time.”