NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — The recent murder of a local woman has prompted two city councilors to engage local government in addressing the issue of domestic violence.
Christa Leigh Steele-Knudslien, who moved to the city less than a year ago, was allegedly killed by her husband on Jan. 5. Of the three murders that occurred in the city in the last decade, at least two of them could be considered domestic violence, said Councilor Marie T. Harpin, who with Councilor Benjamin Lamb brought the subject to the council. She also pointed to the disappearance of a Clarksburg woman, also believed killed by her late husband.
"To me, I think that is a shout-out to us, as a body, and government, to point that out and make the community aware of it, and discuss it, and have dialogue about it, and bring it into the open, and have awareness and education" she said at Tuesday's City Council meeting. "That's what Councilor Lamb and I are suggesting."
Harpin and Lamb submitted a communication asking that the council work with the mayor's office and community partners to create "a multipronged approach" to the issue of domestic violence within the community.
"In recent weeks, and in light of the tragic murder of one of our community members, we are in the midst of an elevated community realization that domestic violence is an issue that exists here. While this is not something new, it is something that our residents are increasingly concerned about," they wrote. "With that, we are hereby requesting that this council work with the mayor's office to bring the issue of domestic violence to the appropriate city based commission or board best suited to address the issue."
Elizabeth Michell, a SAFEPLAN advocate with the Elizabeth Freeman Center, offered some statistics so councilors could "get an idea of how big the problem is."
In 2016 alone, North Adams had reports of 152 assaults and 20 rapes.
"Although domestic assaults were not extrapolated out of the assaults in the report, I can say that from witnessing cases in the Northern Berkshire District Court from day to day ... a pretty large number of those was domestic assault," she said.
North Adams and Pittsfield are consistently identified by the Department of Children and Families as two of the four communities in Massachusetts with the highest rates of child abuse and the area has a per capita rate for abuse prevention orders 23 percent higher than the state average — and a 37 percent higher just in North Adams.
SAFEPLAN advocates are part of a statewide, court-based program providing help to victims of domestic violence, sexual assault and stalking regarding planning, restraining orders, and other resources.
Mitchell, serving in Northern Berkshire, said her office has the highest number of clients seeking help.
"Just one of our adult counselors in the North Adams office had 590 client contacts in 2017," she said. "That's how big the problem is in North Adams."
Mitchell said abuse was a difficult problem to discuss but it was imperative there be dialogue, awareness, training and collaboration, and "the City Council and the mayor are the best ways to do it."
"This is very real and I just want to say this is a lcoal government problem," Councilor Rebbecca Cohen said. "As soon as every single one of us stands up to domestic abuse child abuse, and the horror that goes on in people's lives, this will never end."
Lamb at first motioned to refer to the letter to the mayor's office and then, at the suggestion of Councilor Jason LaForest, amended his motion to also send it the Public Safety Committee.
Mayor Thomas Bernard said the challenge was in determining what would be the appropriate entity through which the issue could be addressed. Lamb thought it should not be a new board but rather tapping into existing experience.
"There's some investigation and inquiry there," he said, adding the focus should be on "not just doing this once, talking about it once, but doing it for the long haul."
Bernard acknowledged that people and organizations like Mitchell and the Freeman Center were doing difficult jobs on the front line but they might also be the organizing entity around which to coalesce a plan. It was a matter, he said, of "how we tap into your knowledge and how we use the city in the appropriate way."
Harpin said she was glad that Lamb had approached on submitting a joint communication.
"I think that it's great that ... this is coming from both a woman and a man," she said. "A lot of people think that violence is just a woman's issue, but it's actually a both gender issue, it's a community issue, it's a family issue."
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