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Domestic violence report suggests new ways to protect victims and survivors in Vermont

Document with the name restraining order.
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This hour, we look into how domestic violence incidents are handled in Vermont and efforts to change some related laws.

Nearly half of all homicides in Vermont between 1994 and 2021 were related to domestic violence, according to a new reportreleased by the Attorney General’s Office.

This hour, we learn more about that report, which is put out annually by the Vermont Domestic Violence Fatality Review Commission. In addition to county-level data on domestic violence, the report includes recommendations for changes to how incidents of domestic violence involving police officers and those under 18 years of age are handled. It also seeks changes to how restraining orders, or relief from abuse orders, are handled by law enforcement.

Host Connor Cyrus spoke with newly sworn-in Vermont Attorney General Charity Clark and Karen Tronsgard-Scott, executive director of the Vermont Network Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, about the report.

Anyone seeking help can call the statewide domestic violence hotline at 800-228-7395 or visit the Vermont Network Against Domestic and Sexual Violence website.

Connor Cyrus: Attorney General Clark, the Domestic Violence Fatality Review Commission's annual report comes out every year, and includes things like stats, trends and recommendations. What would you say is the most important thing for listeners to take away from this?

AG Clark: Well, the most important thing to me is that anyone who is listening to this, who has been experiencing domestic violence knows that there are resources available to them, and that people who understand what they are going through and can help them. But the reason why I think this report is so effective is that the recommendations--because they're based on just a handful of cases--are very specific and very doable.

The headline that I think caught a lot of people's attention in this report was that nearly half of all homicides in the state are related to domestic violence, based on data from 1994 to 2021. Does that tell the entire story of what's happening in our state?

AG Clark: That didn't surprise me because it is a statistic that, as you see in the report, has been really true for decades, sadly. And the thing to keep in mind about domestic violence is so much of it happens behind closed doors. So we have a report when someone dies that is very public, and we all hear about it. But the truth is there is so much beneath that statistic–and not just people who are even physically harmed, but people who are being threatened, repeatedly, intimidated, etc. So there's just so much beneath that statistic.

Karen, can you just give us historical context for all of this? Are the number of domestic violence fatalities going up or down?

KTS: The report actually has a really beautiful graph that shows that over time, some years there are fewer domestic violence homicides, some years there's as many as 61%. But over time, it averages to [about] 50%. And I actually think we can do better.

How do they compare to what's happening in other parts of the country?

KTS: Domestic violence continues to be a primary factor in both crime and health conditions across our country. Vermont is not unusual--we believe around 40% of Vermonters experienced domestic violence at some point in their lifetime. That's a really high number… but for the most part, Vermont is not unusual. Our data is very congruent with other New England states. But the one thing that we have to recognize is that because of the rural nature of our state, isolation can be exacerbated. And what we see for most of the situations where there's a homicide, there has been deep isolation from the community and from systems that are designed to help.

How has the pandemic changed how we address domestic violence?

KTS: When the pandemic hit, immediately, leaders in our state started asking the question what's going on with domestic violence survivors, what's happening in our homes? And we saw that at the very beginning of the pandemic, our hotlines went dark, and no one was calling. But over the course of the first summer of the pandemic, people did start calling in. And what we saw was that they were coming out of homes with severe injuries, with evidence that domestic violence had been happening, but they couldn't leave their homes to get the help that they needed.

And I want to know, when we talk about domestic violence, who are we talking about? Because I understand that there's like this false notion that it really is just like sis, women who this happens to, but it really goes way beyond that.

KTS: Unfortunately, domestic violence impacts every community in our state, regardless of identity, regardless of location, and regardless of socioeconomic status.

Now let's talk about the recommendations you made in the report and some other potential solutions. Attorney General Clark, what would your office and Council on Domestic Violence like to see the Legislature do?

AG Clark: There are four recommendations, and two relate to kind of an operations role for law enforcement. And the second are more of a judiciary, almost housekeeping. The first one is to basically ensure that we institute the best policies when it comes to officer-involved domestic violence. And this is both for officers who might be perpetrating domestic violence, but also those individuals who might be working at law enforcement and experiencing themselves domestic violence at home. So that would be the first one--just to make sure that policies are updated and implemented, because not every law enforcement agency in the state has a policy relating to that.

The second would be to empower the Criminal Justice Council, which is the body in Vermont that licenses law enforcement, to empower them to take disciplinary action against law enforcement officers for misconduct related to domestic violence, and also to collect better data on that.

The next relates to juveniles who are involved with domestic violence. Right now, an aggravated domestic assault charge if the defendant is a juvenile goes to juvenile court. And aggravated assault without the domestic goes to regular court. So what is happening is prosecutors are not using the aggravated domestic, they're just using the aggravated assault so that they can go right to criminal court and not juvenile court. Well, what's happening with that is when it is a domestic violence-related case, all of the systems that are in place to support the victim and the perpetrator are not there.

And the last one is to adapt to the reality of today's technology and process related to a Relief From Abuse order, which is like a restraining order. Before the pandemic, a person who was the defendant in a relief from abuse order case would be at the courthouse when a final order was issued by the court and they would receive it then. Well, now they’re participating via video, they're not physically present to receive the order, and so a sheriff has to serve that order. Well, that is slowing down the process and creating other problems.

How are kids and other family members affected by domestic violence?

KTS: Well, we know from so much research, that children who are living in violent homes are far more likely to be abused themselves, they're far more likely to when they reach their teenage years to be truant, to experiment with drugs and alcohol, to have mental health issues. And there's some correlation between people who have grown up in a violent home, and then their own use of violence in their relationships when they get to be an adult. So it's a real ripple effect.

What can the state do and your organization do to prevent this? 

KTS: Having an attorney general who's paying attention to this, this report and understanding the relationship between her voice and our ability to change these laws and improve our systems is key. When a survivor calls the police, we need them to show up and know exactly what to do to support that survivor and to help ameliorate the risk for harm. When we have family members who are seeing that someone is using violence, or someone's experiencing violence, the that that familial relationship is key, especially if you see someone who's using violence, to interrupt that, interrupt that and to do it with compassion, and representing, you know, just embodying the, their humanity. So people who cause harm are people too. And, and we have to recognize that and, you know, I always, I always think the phrase, I'm really worried about what you're doing to this person is, is a great starting point.

Any other starting points for people that are listening, because I think that that's a really good tip, because when our friend or loved one is being abused, or we suspect that they're being abused, our first reaction isn't to have compassion for that person. So I'm wondering if there's any other tips you have,

KTS: I do think it's really important for us to be able to talk to each other about violence in our loved ones' homes, it's a hard conversation, but it's a really vitally important conversation. It's also really important to understand that survivors know themselves and they know the person that's harming them better than anybody else. And so it would be really important to not call the police on somebody's behalf, to get permission for any action and to help them find the resources that are available to them to get help.

Attorney General Clark, we'd love to get your take on how the state can better respond to and prevent these generational domestic violence cases.

AG Clark: Well, as you know, I took office about three weeks ago, and first on my agenda is creating a schedule for myself of going around the state and meeting with every domestic violence prevention organization that we have. We have nonprofits all over the state, I met with a couple of them last year when I was campaigning. And I know that in meeting with them, first of all, hearing what they have to say and seeing the facilities and all of that, but especially hearing what their input is, what we could be doing differently or better is something that I'm looking forward to doing and have committed to doing early on in my tenure as attorney general.

Karen, are there any specialized programs or services for marginalized communities such as LGBTQ+ individuals or immigrants in Vermont?

KTS: Yes, there are. So at the Pride Center of safe spaces, the program provides support and help for members of the LGBTQ+ community that are experiencing domestic or sexual violence. And then Migrant Justice also offers some support for survivors who are members of the migrant community. The Association of Africans living in Vermont also offers programming. We could do a whole show on that—on domestic violence in marginalized communities. But it's important to know that those communities are effectively working with members of their community in ways that make sense within their cultural context.

And Attorney General Clark, I want to know, how are domestic violence perpetrators held accountable, what does accountability look like?

AG Clark: You know, it's a great question. Ultimately, we have to be focused on the survivor. For those of us who maybe aren't as familiar firsthand with what it would be like to be in a domestic violence home or in a relationship with someone who is abusing us, it seems like, well, why don't you just leave? Or why don't you just, you know, it seems so simple to us. It's actually so complicated. And we always have to defer to the survivor.

Broadcast live on Monday, Jan. 30, 2023, at noon; rebroadcast at 7 p.m.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or tweet us @vermontedition.

Connor Cyrus was co-host and senior producer of Vermont Edition from 2021-2023.
Tedra worked on Vermont Edition as a producer and editor from 2022 to 2024.