Nerissa Shaw loved dancing, fishing and cooking for her family, especially when they gathered for the holidays. The good food and Shaw’s upbeat personality always made those around her comfortable as they played dominoes and cards on special occasions and enjoyed each other’s company.
But this month, the 46-year-old Minneapolis woman’s infectious laugh was stilled forever, and her boyfriend became a suspect in her death — yet another tragedy in the under-the-radar public health crisis engulfing the state: domestic violence. This year, the 35 deaths linked to domestic violence are nearly double that reported for all of 2012, with nearly three months left to go — a shocking toll that ought to outrage Minnesotans.
On Sept. 17, Shaw’s naked, stomped-on body was found wrapped in a sheet along railroad tracks in St. Louis Park. Her boyfriend, Walter Thompson, 54, has been charged with second-degree murder.
The body count resumed in a matter of days. On Sept. 21, Anitra Williams was killed in an Eden Prairie apartment when her husband turned a gun on her and himself.
Then on Sept. 30, the body of Anarae Schunk, a 20-year-old University of Minnesota student, was found along a rural road near Lonsdale about a week after she was last seen in the company of a former boyfriend with a criminal history.
Although authorities have not yet charged the former boyfriend in her death, the Minnesota Coalition for Battered Women has added Schunk to the list of deaths in the state where the suspected, alleged or convicted perpetrator is a current or former spouse or intimate partner.
For 2013, Minnesota is averaging about one domestic violence death per week. That’s why Shaw’s family is speaking out to call attention to this alarming epidemic. As they courageously shared Nerissa’s painful struggle with abuse and alcohol in interviews with a Star Tribune reporter and editorial writer, Shaw’s family noted that they were telling her story for future victims.
“Because there will be another,’’ said Troy Shaw, Nerissa’s cousin, who added that she herself is a victim of domestic violence.
While the number of domestic violence deaths is up dramatically from 2012, it’s a pace that Minnesota sadly has seen before. Deaths in previous years have topped 40, according to domestic violence abuse experts.
The Shaw family’s candor — as well as the high-profile deaths in previous months of Kira Steger and Danielle Jelinek and the disappearance of Mandy Matula — should put this complex public health problem back in the public spotlight. More than 40 domestic violence deaths a year in Minnesota shouldn’t be the norm. Nor should 18 deaths, the number reported in 2012, ever be routine.
The challenge as the state’s death toll spikes is not to grow disheartened in the battle against the age-old of problem of family violence but to push forward and not let good work done in Minnesota slacken.
The state’s domestic violence shelters have long been looked to as national models and are deserving of support by the public and policymakers. The St. Paul Police Department’s “Blueprint for Safety” approach to better assess a violator’s risk level and share information has garnered national praise. So has Stearns County’s “Repeat Felony Domestic Violence Court.”
While strides have been made in court and police intervention, families, friends and neighbors also need to help the thousands of Minnesotans suffering domestic abuse who have yet to seek help, according to experts such as the Department of Public Safety’s Raeone Magnuson and the Coalition for Battered Women’s Liz Richards. About 63,000 victims sought services from advocates in 2012 in Minnesota. Thousands more suffer in silence.
It’s critical to be attuned to changes in loved ones that could signal abuse, then to intercede by helping to connect victims with available resources. Red flags of abuse include injuries and social isolation. The August death of Staff Sgt. Brandon Horst, a St. Paul National Guardsman, is a reminder that while women are typically domestic abuse victims, men can be at risk, too. Horst’s wife and a friend have been charged in his death.
Troy Shaw, Nerissa’s cousin, also correctly pointed out that families have to do more to break the cycle of violence. Rather than ask why the victim didn’t leave the abuser, Shaw said the question is why men abuse loved ones. “It can’t just be a thing that happens, that men tend to do.’’
It will take an ongoing commitment to tackle domestic violence through legislation, community and individual action. It’s a complex issue that will take time, effort and public resources to accomplish. But we owe it to Nerissa, Anarae, Anitra, Kira, Mandy, Brandon and all of the other victims to keep trying.