GRAY, Maine (WOMENSENEWS)–With groceries in her car, Jennifer Lessard apparently planned to make several quick stops after work before picking up her two school-age sons one afternoon in May. Instead, she became the 13th victim of domestic homicide in Maine this year, part of a murder trend that’s on pace to exceed every other year since the state began compiling records in 1971.
In an all-too-common scenario in the United States–where a woman’s risk of being murdered by an intimate partner is highest after leaving an abusive relationship–the 40-year-old pharmacist attempted to pick up her belongings at the home of a former boyfriend, whom she had recently left.
Lessard was found dead there, with a gunshot wound to the head. Her boyfriend was also dead, from a self-inflicted gunshot wound, and left a suicide note, according to state police.
Domestic violence is a leading cause of death for women ages 15-44, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. It is a leading cause of death of pregnant women, mortality research shows. And African American and Native American women are at the highest risk of intimate partner homicide.
Sexual violence is so prevalent that it touches every family in the United States, advocates say.
Estimates show that 272,000 sexual assaults against people age 12 and older occurred in 2006.
Crime Drop Benefits Men Most
Since violent crime rates peaked in the early 1990s men have benefited most from a downward trend that has left Americans safer overall.
In the three decades from 1976 to 2005, the number of men killed by female partners has dropped precipitously, from about 1,300 to 329. But homicides of women by male partners has declined far less, dropping from around 1,500 to about 1,200, figures from the U.S. Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Statistics show.
Those female homicide figures reached their lowest point of 1,155 in 2004, but climbed slightly to 1,181 in 2005, the latest year available from the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
The bloody trail of those deaths, along with injuries, crisscrosses the nation each year and overshadows women’s daily lives.
Nearly one-third of all U.S. women report experiencing violence from a current or former spouse or boyfriend at some point in their lives, according to the San Francisco-based Family Violence Prevention Fund.
The impact of violence spreads through families, health care services and the workplace, and is associated with far higher disease risk.
Women who have experienced domestic violence are 80 percent more likely to have a stroke, 70 percent more likely to have heart disease, 60 percent more likely to have asthma and 70 percent more likely to drink heavily than women who have not experienced intimate partner violence, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Declaring an Emergency
At least one governor is putting the problem on the front burner.
In early June Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick declared a "domestic violence emergency" in his state, where deaths at the hands of a domestic partner nearly tripled to 42 in 2007 from 15 in 2005.
So far in 2008, domestic crime has killed 19 people in Massachusetts, according to Boston-based Jane Doe Inc., the Massachusetts Coalition Against Sexual and Domestic Violence.
Patrick signed legislation creating statewide guidelines for hospitals treating victims of violence and called for strengthened training of police officers in the state.
Maine is also taking steps, says Lois Galgay Reckitt, a longtime advocate for battered women in the state who serves on the board of the Denver-based National Coalition Against Domestic Violence.
All police officers will be required to complete domestic violence training next year to be certified, she says, and the plan expands training requirements that are now common in most states.
But while access to crisis services and an informed police response are improving for battered women in Maine and elsewhere, Reckitt says more action is needed.
"We need to start focusing on prosecution of domestic violence offenses as a matter of homicide prevention," says Reckitt, who serves on the board of the Maine Criminal Justice Academy in Vassalboro. "Incarceration might have an impact, but we are having trouble in Maine getting the prosecution to happen."
Not Enough Programs to Help Women
Esta Soler, president of the Family Violence Prevention Fund, which carries out public health campaigns for the federal Centers for Disease Control, agrees with Reckitt and says health care providers can also do more. "Too few women are screened for violence and offered the help and referrals they need."
Despite the ongoing high level of violence, the 2006 National Crime Victimization Survey found declines in sexual and domestic violence since passage of the Violence Against Women Act in 1994, which distributed over $570 million in funding to anti-violence programs across the country this year.
"There’s still a sexual assault every two minutes in the United States, but the Violence Against Women Act has helped focus police, prosecutors and judges on the seriousness of the crime," says Scott Berkowitz, president of the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, an anti-sexual violence advocacy group in Washington, D.C. "The progress shows that we need to fully fund the programs, because the ones that have been funded are working."
But other leaders in the field challenge the 2006 data and any interpretation of it that suggests sexual violence is ebbing.
"I don’t think we can say that violence is declining when the number of people seeking services continues to grow or stay the same," says Rita Smith, executive director of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence in Denver. "It could be that the numbers aren’t being counted right, or it could be that women have stopped using the justice system, but the experience in the field is not that women are safer."
Sue Else, executive director of the National Network to End Domestic Violence, says the 2006 national survey misses thousands of instances of violence because it is not safe for battered women to respond truthfully to questions about the violence that can permeate–or threaten–their lives.
"The National Crime Victimization Survey is not an accurate reflection of what we know about domestic violence prevalence," says Else, which tracked requests for services for one day in 2007, and found that service providers were stretched beyond capacity. "More than 7,700 requests for services went unmet in a 24-hour period in 2007 because there simply weren’t enough resources to help them."
Women in college are particularly vulnerable to gender violence. Over the course of a college career between 20 and 25 percent of female students will be sexually assaulted, according to a 2000 report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
Soler and other advocates share a time-worn perspective on violence against women: Preventing violence means transforming a culture and its institutions.
"Changing attitudes is our greatest long-term challenge," Soler says. "But we are making progress and we can do even more."
Marie Tessier writes frequently for Women’s eNews and the Women’s Media Center about violence against women and legal affairs.