Why didn’t she just leave?

This is often the most frequently asked question following any shocking incident of domestic violence, such as last month’s fatal shooting of Tanya Lawrence and her 17-year-old daughter, Danielle.

But many domestic homicide victims were already in some state of separation from their spouse or boyfriend at the time of the murder— including Tanya Lawrence.

“She left him a while ago and started dating someone else,” said a Lawrence family member who asked to remain anonymous due to the sensitive nature of this story. “Obviously he wasn’t happy about that.” But, the relative added, theirs had not been an abusive relationship. Tanya Lawrence would not have stayed in such a relationship, the family member said.

Abusive relationships are hard to identify and even harder to escape. Leaving an abusive husband or boyfriend is often more dangerous than staying with him. Research shows that women are at greatest risk of lethal partner violence during the first two months following separation. One study found that three quarters of domestic homicide victims had tried to leave the relationship within the past year.

“The abuser knows he’s starting to lose control,” said Ruth Reynolds, the directory of advocacy at the Victims Information Bureau of Suffolk. “That’s what the abuse is about. Control.

“It’s often a very unsafe time.”

Domestic violence is an increasingly serious problem in New York State. Even as homicide rates statewide decreased in 2013 (the most recent year for which there is data), intimate partner homicides increased by 11 percent.

“This past year with the NFL really brought this issue to the forefront,” said Maggie Goldfarb, director of development of The Retreat, a women’s shelter in East Hampton. “It was a wake up call. People are finally starting to look at the numbers.”

And the numbers are startling.

One in four women will experience domestic violence in their lifetime. More than one in three women in the United States have experienced rape, physical violence and/or stalking by an intimate partner. And a staggering 33 percent of female murder victims are killed by an intimate partner, as compared to only three percent of male murder victims.

“It is so widespread,” said Briana Taylor, executive director of Mercy Center Ministries in Patchogue. “In every town, in every neighborhood, it is happening.”

“You never know what happens behind closed doors,” Reynolds said.

Those close to victims may not be aware of the abuse, especially when victims try to convince friends and family — and themselves, for that matter — that everything is fine.

“Fear keeps people from asking for help,” said Goldfarb. “Fear of the abuser finding out. Fear of the question, ‘What do I do if I admit this is a problem?’”

That question becomes even more serious when the victim feels she has no where to go.

“The partner might be the primary breadwinner, especially if there are children,” Reynolds said. “It can also be difficult to locate affordable housing, especially in this area. Long Island was just named the most expensive place to live in the entire country.”

But help is available. A number of women’s shelters exist in Suffolk, including The Retreat, which has an office on East Main Street in Riverhead, and Brighter Tomorrows, which is located in Shirley.

Mercy Center Ministries in Patchogue also runs three shelters for girls aged 16-21. “The girls that come to us are usually running away from crazy stuff like [Danielle Lawrence’s situation],” said Taylor. “They can come to us no questions asked, and stay as long or short as they like.

“Girls under 16 have to call child protective services,” she said. “Medical neglect, not enough food, drugs, weapons – these are all infractions that can get a child removed from a home by CPS.”

Many of these agencies also provide services that have nothing to do with housing, including counseling and legal advocacy. The Retreat runs the Hope Heals program, which provides financial training for women so that they can be self-sufficient outside an abusive relationship.

The Suffolk County Legislature passed a resolution last Tuesday to help educate domestic violence victims about the resources available to them, as well as the risk of their partner abusing them again.

“As the police are some of the first people to come into contact with victims of domestic violence, it is important that they have access to proven assessment tools and the most effective resources to be serve and protect victims,” said County Executive Steve Bellone.

When Suffolk County police are called to the scene of a domestic violence incident, officers will now be required to give the victim a list of referrals to domestic violence victim services agencies.

Officers will also provide victims with the Danger Assessment Instrument, a free questionnaire that helps women determine the level of danger they have of being killed by an intimate partner. The instrument will be available in both Spanish and English, and it can be taken online as well.

“The key to addressing this issue is to realize that over half of domestic violence victims who are murdered or are the victim of an attempted murder by an abuser did not accurately perceive his or her risk,” said Suffolk County Legislator Kara Hahn, who sponsored the bill. “I am confident that use of this Danger Assessment test, coupled with law enforcement’s efforts, will help prevent victims of domestic violence from becoming victims of homicide.”

Suffolk County Police will also implement a model for risk assessment to evaluate the level of risk for future violence. Cases at the highest level of risk will be investigated further.

Although the bill does not apply to the five East End towns, Riverhead Town Chief of Police David Hegermiller says Riverhead police officers are “very pro-active” in getting help for victims of domestic violence.

“Years ago, we would separate the parties and call the matter resolved,” Hegermiller said. “Now, we do our best to get [abusers] into the system.”

New York State has a pro-arrest law for domestic violence, so that if an officer observes that a domestic violence incident has occurred, they must arrest whichever party they feel is the primary aggressor.

“We have this idea that everybody has their own privacy,” said Goldfarb. “But if you think something is going on, say something to the person. You might be completely wrong. But if you’re not, if you help them find support, it could save that person’s life.”

Domestic violence victim resources

Brighter Tomorrows – 24/7 hotline: 631-395-1800
Mercy Center Ministries, Inc. –  631-447-3978
The Retreat – 24/7 hotline: 631-329-2200
Victims Information Bureau of Suffolk – 24/7 hotline: 631-360-3606

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