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Domestic Violence Gains Public Health Support

This article is more than 11 years old.

Following shocking statistics that showed incidents of domestic violence on the rise in Massachusetts, Governor Deval Patrick recently declared domestic violence a public health "emergency":

Everyone can and should do something to prevent domestic violence.

The statistics: there was an almost three-fold increase in domestic violence deaths in the state between 2005 and 2007.

Last year, there were 42 murders and 13 suicides related to domestic violence, up from 15 murders and four suicides in 2005.

And its no better this year. So far 29 deaths from domestic violence have been reported in Massachusetts.

Those numbers are all the more sobering, considering rates of domestic violence have been declining nationally and across much of New England.

The figures come from the advocacy organization Jane Doe Inc., which argued something had to be done.

We are talking about this in terms of developing a discipline of vigilance about these issues.

Mary Lauby, Jane Doe's Executive Director, believes vigilance means involving the public health community in Massachusetts to fight domestic violence:

Of all the possible ways that victims of domestic violence might be identified, or who is most likely to come in contact with a victim of domestic violence, it really is the healthcare system.

That was certainly the case for Sherri Raftery from Saugus, who was first victimized by her parents, and went to live in foster homes through the child advocacy organization The Home for Little Wanderers.

Later she suffered abuse from her husband, Dennis. Raftery says heath care workers intervened during her pre-natal visits to Massachusetts General Hospital, where the HAVEN program connects victims with services.

It was sorta subtle. He didn't hit me, he had hit me, but it wasn't right away. It was verbal, mental emotional, it was comments, it was subtle. Eventually I did get a black eye when I was pregnant with Sabrina. And he went to jail for six months.

That occurred 10 years ago. Since then, Raftery has made a break from the abusive relationship with Dennis.

Her daughter is 10-years-old now — happy and healthy --and has occasional contact with her father.

(Oakes) How did you end up getting out of that situation, beyond him going to jail for six months? (Raferty) What I did was I reached out to Haven at Mass General Hospital for battered women, and I also lived at different battered women's shelters, and I also went to battered women's support groups. And I had a willingness to get out and not stay. I had to look at my past, I had to realize that some was familiar as a child, and I had to work through that with therapy to say this is not how I want my life to be and it's not how I want my daughter to be raised. She never witnessed domestic violence. (Oakes) Because this all happened when you were pregnant? (Raftery) Yes, I did it at first for her, but eventually I was able to do it for both of us. (Oakes) Governor Patrick at the urging of many people concerned has declared domestic violence a public health emergency. The idea is for healthcare providers to screen for domestic violence and provide victims with more resources. Do you think that's a practical solution? Do you think the declaration has made or will make a difference? (Raftery) I think it's excellent that he's willing to step up and realize this is a bigger problem than we realize. In fact a lot of times, there could be people who are right next to you and you don't even know they're being abused by their partner because they're silent victims. I've met women in their seventies who say don't do what I did, don't stay. He came after me with a machete. That rang to me. I remember that.

Private, behind the door silence, and public complacency have both contributed to the rise in domestic violence in recent years.

State Department of Public Health Commissioner, John Auerbach:

There simply hasn't been the attention to the issue in either the public health, the healthcare and public safety communities that there had been for a while, and we want to bring that awareness back again. (Bob) Why do you think there has been complacency? (Auerbach) I think some of it has been related to funding. In the early part of the new millennium, there were reductions in terms of government funding in a number of different areas. It may also be that there's greater attention on domestic violence when there are a few high profile cases. And when there are not, there's just not the kind of attention to the on-going violence that occurs day in and day out. (Bob) What's the goal in all this, Commissioner? (Auerbach) The goal is prevention. We want to see the number of domestic violence homicides and suicides be zero.

Auerbach says the public health community is aiming for that goal by using new screening protocols, and stepping up training for medical staff and police officers on how to recognize the signs of domestic violence.

The Massachusetts Medical Society says physicians support the initiative.

If these new efforts are successful, fewer victims, like Sherri Raferty, will have to contemplate what it means to be "lucky" to have come out alive.

I'm lucky but then again, I'm lucky I'm not getting hit? It's a right not to be hit. But I do say that because not only am I not in it anymore, I'm not dead, and my daughter didn't grow up that way. I just wish there was another word to use rather than lucky.

To find out what resources are available for victims of domestic violence, go to our website, www.wbur.org. This report was produced by WBUR's Sarah Bush.

This program aired on August 18, 2008. The audio for this program is not available.

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