THERE WAS A significant drop in domestic violence–related homicides in Massachusetts in 2020, according to a new state report, but some worry that there may be a dark underside to what would normally be regarded as unalloyed good news.
Advocates for domestic violence victims say the decrease in domestic violence homicides may actually be a function of more victims staying in violent relationships because of the challenges presented by the COVID pandemic.
“What local programs throughout Massachusetts have been reporting since the summer and on through now is the level of intensity and the severity of the violence that people are experiencing has increased dramatically,” said Toni Troop, a spokesperson for Jane Doe Inc, an umbrella group representing sexual and domestic violence prevention organizations. But Troop said as people are more isolated and more vulnerable to severe violence, many also have fewer options to leave – which may, ironically, lower the homicide rate.
“We know people are at greatest risk of homicide when they choose to leave the relationship,” Troop said.
The report was written by the state’s domestic violence fatality review team, which is made up of appointees from a variety of state agencies, and the Executive Office of Public Safety and Security. The report, based on information compiled by Jane Doe, finds that there were seven domestic violence homicide victims in 2020. That is down significantly from 19 in 2017, 15 in 2018, and 28 in 2019.
Domestic violence is defined in the report as intimate partner violence. In six of the cases, a woman was murdered by a current or former male partner. In three of the cases, the man also committed suicide. Details were not available on the seventh case. Troop said an additional case may be added to last year’s count as more information becomes available.
Troop said numbers in Massachusetts do not necessarily reflect a national trend – while national data are not yet available, anecdotally, her colleagues in other states have reported a wide range in the number of domestic violence-related homicides last year compared with previous recent years.
Jamie Sabino, lead attorney for the domestic violence legal assistance project at the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute, agreed with Troop that the lower homicide numbers likely indicate more people staying in abusive relationships. Sabino said research over the last two decades finds that a significant number of domestic violence-related homicides are tied to actions in probate and family court cases – such as a domestic violence survivor filing for divorce or seeking custody of a child or children.
“During the pandemic, the sense has been that fewer people are leaving. They don’t have anywhere to go because of financial insecurity and quarantines, and the shelter system has been stretched to the limit,” Sabino said. “The fatalities aren’t happening because people are still with their abuser, and abusers tend to use as much force as they need to keep and control someone.”
Court filings related to domestic violence were also down during the pandemic. Although courts did remain open throughout for emergency cases, like restraining orders, it may have been harder for people to get access to the courts if they had to arrange for Zoom or phone hearings, Sabino said. And the probate and family court is backed up with long waits for things like custody or motion hearings.
According to Trial Court statistics, there were 39,500 case filings for restraining and harassment orders in fiscal 2020, which ended June 30, compared to 42,800 in the prior year. In fiscal 2021 to date, there have been around 21,100 filings, a drop of 6 percent from this time last year. The task force’s report says there were around 21,000 domestic violence-related charges filed in fiscal 2020, down from an average of 23,000 in prior years.
However, the report says these numbers “do not accurately reflect the reality of domestic violence here in Massachusetts,” with lower court filings likely a reflection of the pandemic, not a decrease in domestic violence.
David Adams, co-director of Emerge, a Malden-based counseling program for abusive men, and author of a book on why men murder their partners, said the most dangerous point for any domestic violence victim is when she is trying to leave. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Adams said, “more victims and perpetrators are stuck together at this point and so, I think, that that strangely avoids this major trigger for a lot of potential killers.” He noted that many people, including domestic violence victims, are unemployed, which limits their ability to support themselves and makes them more dependent on their abusers.
Both Adams and Sabino worried about what will happen down the line, as the pandemic recedes. Sabino said there is a need for a public relations effort to connect more survivors with domestic violence services, which can help them with safety planning and finding the resources they need to safely leave an abuser.
Adams said the Governor’s Council on Sexual and Domestic Violence, of which he is a member, is trying to develop a plan for preventing domestic violence-related homicides. He said one approach that has already been implemented is giving police departments tools to assess risks in every domestic violence situation and connect victims with a domestic violence advocate.
The report recommends the state investigate ways to provide more stable housing to domestic violence survivors, both through emergency short-term shelters and longer-term housing placements. It also recommends continuing the state’s public awareness campaign, aimed at encouraging healthy relationships among youth.