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«This is the biggest public health challenge in all our communities.» Retired Lakeville Police Chief Tom Vonhof

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Gathering goal: End domestic violence

  • Article by: GRAISON HENSLEY CHAPMAN
  • Special to the Star Tribune
  • February 15, 2014 - 2:00 PM

They started gathering 29 years ago, first over brown-bag lunches and recently at a luncheon of 350 at a country club in Lakeville. The objective has been the same: ending domestic violence, which is as present — and hidden — as it was 30 years ago.

This year’s occasion was especially urgent: Last year, 38 Minnesotans, including four residents of Dakota County, were killed by intimate partners or in domestic violence-related incidents. The two domestic violence shelters in the county reported a 41 percent increase in shelter stays and a 25 percent increase over the previous fiscal year for all services for victims, including counseling and legal help.

“This is the biggest public health challenge in all our communities” — more people are injured or killed by domestic violence than any other type of assault, said retired Lakeville Police Chief Tom Vonhof, who spoke recently at the luncheon, hosted by 360 Communities, which runs the shelters in Eagan and Hastings.

Vonhof, who started the awareness event as an officer in the 1980s, also pointed out that while overall crime has decreased for most of the last decade, domestic violence has kept steady.

The statewide toll was especially tragic last year: the 38 people killed were more than twice the number in 2012 and the most since 2006. The Minnesota Coalition for Battered Women (MBCW), which has gathered the data each year since 1989, said that while that number of victims varies from year to year, the red flags for extreme violence are the same: an abuser’s previous threats to kill a victim, their access to a firearm and the victim’s attempts to leave an abuser.

Against conventional wisdom, said MCBW’s report, victims of abuse are more likely to be killed as they try to leave, as “batterers ‘step up’ their efforts to control or intimidate the victim.” Last year the deaths of 15 of the 24 women killed by intimate partners happened after the woman left or while she was trying to leave.

Dakota County Sheriff Dave Bellows said much has changed in how law enforcement fights domestic assault in the past 30 years, when he and Vonhof started at the Lakeville Police Department. On one of the calls in the first months of their careers, the two young officers arrested an abusive husband of a woman with an infant child.

That call was notable because a new state law in 1980 allowed them to make the arrest without witnessing the crime. It was also notable because the infant, who came to be raised in the type of environment that saw his mother abused, eventually grew up to have problems with the law, including, as a teenager, almost killing a 4-year-old in a car accident.

“He showed absolutely no remorse, almost none,” said Bellows. “You’re not born with those traits — those are acquired through watching what’s in your household day in and day out.”

Since that arrest, more laws have been put on the books — today victims can find out when their abuser is released from jail, for example — and starting in the 1990s, county law enforcement has worked more actively with victims, partnering with social services and nonprofits such as 360 Communities to follow up in cases of abuse. Bellows said one of his deputies is assigned to follow up with each victim. The county also works with inmates on anger management and family issues, to attempt to break the cycle with young men who learned violent behaviors from their parents and other elders.

Generational violence is far from the only contributing factor. Victim advocates say that economic factors, such as a lack of affordable housing, tend to discourage women from leaving an abuser. In St. Paul, 17 percent of the homeless over 12 months in 2012 and 2013 were victims of domestic violence, according to a report by the U.S. Conference of Mayors.

At the luncheon, the guest speaker was Peter Hermann, an actor and founding member of the Joyful Heart Foundation, which was started by his wife, “Law and Order: SVU” star Mariska Hargitay. Hermann introduced the group’s NO MORE campaign, which hopes to make domestic abuse an issue that people talk about more openly, as campaigns about HIV/AIDS and breast cancer have done with those issues.

But foremost, Hermann was there to help rally the assembled elected officials, law enforcement, and nonprofit workers. The event, said Hermann, is “a place where people [can] reconnect to the movement,” to get recharged for the work of ending domestic violence. Despite the quiet that often surrounds the issue, he said it is possible.

“Things end,” he said. “This is not different.”

Graison Hensley Chapman is a freelance writer in Northfield, Minn.

© 2014 Star Tribune