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Liz Mitchell, a SAFEPLAN court advocate at the Elizabeth Freeman Center, speaks at the Northern Berkshire Community Coalition meeting on Friday,

NBCC Forum: 'Domestic Violence is a Matter of Life or Death'

By Rebecca DravisiBerkshires Staff
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Participants in the Northern Berkshire Community Coalition meeting on Friday stood to indicate that they have been touched by domestic violence in some way, personally or professionally.

NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — By the end of the exercise, nearly everyone was standing.

Participants in the Northern Berkshire Community Coalition forum on Friday were urged to stand if they ever had responded to a domestic violence situation, counseled a domestic violence victim, suspected a friend or family member of being a victim of domestic violence, or were themselves affected by domestic violence. Nearly all of the 75 guests stood up.

"So we can see that we're already standing together for victims of relational and domestic violence," Liz Mitchell, a SAFEPLAN court advocate at the Elizabeth Freeman Center, told the group. "We can see the impact that relational violence has on our community."

Mitchell and other Elizabeth Freeman Center staffers led a discussion about relational violence, historically referred to as domestic violence but now often renamed to encompass a larger swath of the population, particularly adolescents who suffer at the hands of partners with whom they do not live. The Freeman Center offers 24-hour support for these victims — mostly women but a small percentage of men, as well, around 2,000 every year from all towns, races and ages — from a telephone hotline (866-401-2425), offices in Pittsfield, North Adams and Great Barrington, and a secure shelter in Pittsfield.

The local statistics are sobering: In 2016, there were 20 rapes and 152 assaults — the large number of which were considered domestic assaults — in the city of North Adams alone. Berkshire County's two cities — North Adams and Pittsfield — consistently have some of the highest rates of child abuse in the state. The Freeman Center has seen a 13 percent increase in clients in North Adams, despite that the number of restraining orders being sought having declined. And 67 percent of murders in Northern Berkshire County were found to be related to domestic violence — including the recent murders of Joanne Ringer of Clarksburg and Christa Leigh Steele-Knudslien of North Adams, both of whom police believe to have been killed by their husbands.

"These women's deaths are tragic reminders that every case of domestic violence is a matter of life and death," she said.

And every case of domestic violence doesn't just impact the offender and survivor, according to Deborah Parkington, director of programs at the Freeman Center.

"The problem doesn't end when the violence ends. It continues and reverberates through our culture," said Parkington, citing studies that have shown that survivors suffer ongoing physical and emotional problems, including depression, thoughts of suicide, and insomnia at higher-than-average rates. 

In addition, domestic violence is a "primary cause" of poverty and adds to housing and food insecurity, as well as being a huge factor in the current opioid crisis, Parkington said. And if there are children involved, either as victims or as witnesses, the trauma manifests in different ways, as well.

"Violence has a huge impact on the children who witness that violence," she said, ranging from the same kinds of physical and emotional problems as the adults to an increased likelihood of entering a cycle of abuse themselves. "Children exposed to violence are more likely to become offenders or victims and perpetuate the cycle."

So what can the community do to help break the cycle of violence? There are law enforcement aspects to the problem, and some police officers who came to Friday's forum reassured the group that an offender violating a court order of protection results in a mandated arrest for the immediate protection of the victim. Longer term, groups of offenders participate in batterer prevention programs — sometimes court-ordered, sometimes on a volunteer basis — that aim to educate them so they don't re-offend again; there are four of these 10-month programs currently happening in Pittsfield. Also longer term, efforts are under way to try to open a shelter in North Adams for victims fleeing abuse, or perhaps more assistance for emergency housing if not a physical shelter, which takes a lot of resources.

But participants in Friday's forum agreed that the best solution to the problem was to eliminate the problem before it starts.

"Men can raise their sons not to be abusers," Mitchell said simply. "Men need to be a visible force. [They need to say], 'Men don't need to hit. Men don't need to abuse.'"

There are programs in the schools to teach young people about healthy relationships and appropriate boundaries, but the experts agreed that unless that message is reinforced by adults outside of school it's unlikely to sink in.

"All children learn how to behave in a relationship by watching their parents," said Mitchell, who shared that she now works with the grandchildren of people she worked with decades ago when she started her career.

The idea that men need to step up and be a louder voice in the solution to this problem was echoed by North Adams Mayor Tom Bernard, who said conversations have been happening at the municipal level on how to encourage that. 

"I don't have the answer to that question at the moment of what that looks like," he said. "That's part of this that I personally take very seriously."

These kinds of conversations that shine a light on the problem and the solutions are an important part of the battle, Parkington said.

"My hope and belief is that when we come together again to discuss the impact, it's going to be a different story," she said. "We're going to be here all of us together, and we're going to be talking about the impact positively, the message that survivors got that they are not alone. They are not alone. The message that abusers got that their behavior will not be tolerated in our community.

"We will continue to see a more positive outcome. Not because of me, not because of you, but because of all of us working together, because this issue impacts every aspect of our community."

Updated on March 20 to correct attribution of a quote to Deborah Parkington.

Tags: domestic violence,   elizabeth freeman center,   NBCC,   

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