Originally printed March 14, 2010 in the Iowa City Press-Citizen.
After the death of Sarah McKay and the arrest of Scott Osborn last week, I reread a two-year-old interview I did with Kristie Fortmann-Doser, executive director of the Domestic Violence Intervention Program in Iowa City, shortly after the death of Sheryl Sueppel and her children. I was shocked at how much of the interview seemed to apply as much to 2010 as it did to 2008.
"I'm not surprised," Fortmann-Doser told me when I called her to ask if I could reprint parts of the interview. "As we learn more about criminal statistics in Iowa and the nation, we've been seeing that violent crime has been decreasing overall. But that's not the case with domestic violence and especially with domestic violence that leads to homicide."
Fortmann-Doser gave me permission to reprint the interview, but she wanted me to help clear up some misconceptions about the connections between substance abuse and domestic violence.
"One of the myths out there is that substance abuse somehow causes domestic violence," Doser said. "Drugs and alcohol merely increase the lethality level of domestic violence. They don't cause domestic violence; they just ramp up the severity."
With that statement made, here is a slightly trimmed and edited version of my interview with Fortmann-Doser on March 24, 2008.
Q: As we all learn more about these recent deaths, what issues stand out to you as an advocate for domestic violence victims?
A: That's such a huge question. Domestic homicides usually are so shocking that people don't recognize how they are connected with what we deal with on a regular basis. Since 1995, nearly 200 Iowans have been murdered at home by their intimate partners. But it's still something that we don't always label as "domestic violence."
Q: Why does that label not seem to fit situations in which a victim is killed?
A: Most likely because trying to picture a person killing his or her family is so horrific that we want to set it aside as an anomaly. But it's not. Because Iowa doesn't have the crime rate that other states have, for women in danger, the rate of being killed by your partner is much higher than the national average. And we need to talk about how we don't address such cases as examples of domestic violence. To acknowledge them as such would show how domestic violence can culminate in death.
Q: Is any group more likely to be a victim than others?
A: Domestic violence doesn't happen only within specific demographic confines. It crosses all boundaries: race, class and age. In fact, the only defining factor usually is gender. So, there isn't a typical victim or perpetrator.
Yet it's common for people to make assumptions about domestic violence victims based on who accesses the services that we and others offer. Overwhelmingly, the women who turn to us are the most economically challenged. If you have access to other resources and other support, then the shelter is the last place that you want to be.
Q: How do victims know when the options for reconciliation are exhausted and they are placing themselves or their children at risk by staying?
A: Women in this situation tend to know their partners well. That's an important feature of what we do; we trust the women. We give them as much information as possible so that they can evaluate what is happening to them based on what has happened to other women. We help them assess their own situations, and we give them feedback when they are feeling confused and in crisis.
Q: What about people who know others at risk but don't know how to help?
A: An FBI study found that one in three women are going to be battered at some point in their lives, and that half of all intimate relations will endure a physical attack. So, if you aren't personally affected, then you at least know somebody.
That's why we urge everyone -- whether you are concerned about yourself or someone else -- to call our crisis line. It's available 24 hours a day and is completely confidential. It's just a space to ask questions and to check things out without any pressure.
It's also a chance for people who know someone in danger -- and who don't want to worsen the situation -- to talk with a trained professional and ask:
• What am I witnessing?
• How can I approach this person? And
• What does getting out of a relationship really look like?
Q: Why is that last question so important?
A: Our community tends to be hung up on statements like, "She must leave, and she must leave now." Yet choosing to leave an abuser often is one of the most dangerous choices a victim will ever make. You want to make sure that you have the resources and support ready when they decide to make that choice.
Statistics also show that an abuser will stalk their former intimate partners for an average of 21 months. That means someone leaving the relationship can expect to spend nearly two years trying to keep herself and her children safe from this individual.
Victims are very savvy, strong and resourceful. But they're also very harmed, tired and in a lot of pain. As they strategize how to make the next move, we need to make sure they have the resources, support and space necessary so that they can make those decisions rationally.
Opinion editor Jeff Charis-Carlson can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or 319-887-5435. For information about the Domestic Violence Intervention Program in Iowa City, call 351-1043 or 800-373-1043.