Obituary: Ellen Pence changed how abuse is addressed

  • Article by: PAT PHEIFER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 11, 2012 - 8:38 PM

Her work, including the "Duluth model," altered police and social services' response to domestic violence.

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Ellen Pence

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Ellen Pence was a powerhouse who influenced the way law enforcement, social service and even advocacy organizations handle domestic violence.

"In short, there are women alive right now that statistically wouldn't have been if Ellen hadn't done her work," said state Sen. John Harrington, DFL-St. Paul, and a former St. Paul police chief.

Pence, whose best-known work was as an architect of the Blueprint for Safety, a plan that coordinates the response of multiple agencies to domestic abuse victims and offenders, died Friday from metastatic breast cancer. She was 63.

In the months before her death, Pence, of St. Paul, was working on the response of family courts in cases of domestic abuse and racial disparity in the child welfare system.

"It's just this amazing way of looking at what women and children truly need when there are cases of child abuse and neglect, how the systems are set up to help them and then to identify the gap between what they need and what they actually get," said Kristin Weber, a senior associate at the Center for the Study of Social Policy, a New York- and Washington, D.C.-based group that worked with Pence.

Pence also had begun to work on the criminal justice response to sexual assault, said her partner, Amanda McCormick.

In an interview in April 2010, Pence admitted she was a workaholic, but friends and colleagues talked repeatedly about how she managed to combine hard work and good times.

"All her social gatherings were about friendship and having fun, but they were always places where ideas got generated and things got planned," McCormick said.

Pence said in the interview that she had a fairly idyllic childhood. It was her mother who spurred her toward community activism, she said.

Pence was working for the Minneapolis Housing Authority when she helped open the Harriet Tubman Shelter in 1977. She was administering four women's shelters and a public education program for the state Department of Corrections when she and a handful of others decided to start a program that focused on institutional change.

They received funding from the Bush Foundation and took the program to Duluth. It was there, in 1980, that the Domestic Abuse Intervention Project, aka the "Duluth model," began. It became the framework for the Blueprint for Safety and was implemented in St. Paul in 2010 and later nationally.

State Rep. Michael Paymar, DFL-St. Paul, worked with Pence for 30 years. They were co-founders of the Duluth model and developed a curriculum for domestic abuse offenders in 1985 that is "probably the most widely used approach ... in the country," he said.

"As a woman, as a feminist, who worked a lot with battered women and saw the pain that they went through, you would think she would be angry and wouldn't be able to work with male offenders, but ... she was able to reach them.

"I think they learned a lot from her," Paymar said.

"If you want to change the world, if you want to change people, you have to do it with love in your heart. And she did."

Paymar said he and Pence collaborated "up until the very end." Their most recent project was a documentary, "With Impunity," that is expected to air on TPT, Channel 2, in June.

Shelley Johnson Cline, executive director of St. Paul Intervention, said Pence's death is a huge loss but her work will continue.

"It's almost like we've lost a limb, we've lost a piece of ourselves," Johnson Cline said. "But with all Ellen has given, her work will only grow."

Besides her partner, Pence is survived by a son, Liam McCormick, 5; her mother, Audrie Pence, of Shoreview; sisters Carole Miller of Fridley, and Fran Myran of Stillwater, and a brother, David, of Mankato.

A memorial service will be held from 2:30 to 6 p.m. Saturday at the Rauenhorst Ballroom at the University of St. Catherine, 2004 Randolph Av., St. Paul.

Pat Pheifer • 952-746-3284

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