ELLSWORTH — In that old television classic “The Honeymooners,” Ralph’s cocked fist as he threatened his wife, “Right in the kisser! You’re going to the moon, Alice!” drew laughs every week. But today, that would be seen as a form of domestic abuse.
Not only does domestic abuse occur in different ways but what we, as a society, view as abuse changes as the culture changes. Raising awareness of the issue and educating the public is usually seen as the first step to changing attitudes, behaviors and reactions to domestic violence and abuse.
National Domestic Abuse Awareness Month, organized since 1987 by the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, is a good time to highlight that. According to the Maine Coalition to End Domestic Violence (MCEDV), 1 in 4 women and 1 in 10 men have experienced sexual violence, physical violence or stalking by an intimate partner and 1 in 10 women and 1 in 50 men have been stalked by an intimate partner in their lifetime. The numbers are higher for those who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.
In Maine, for 2019, a domestic violence assault was reported to law enforcement every 2 hours and 22 minutes and domestic violence assaults comprised 33.9 percent of the total assaults reported to law enforcement, according to data compiled by the Maine Department of Public Safety.
And in Hancock County in 2013, the latest local data found, 177 domestic assaults were reported for every 100,000 in population, Downeast Community Partners stated in its 2020 report. In Washington County, that number jumped to 394 domestic assaults.
“Law enforcement plays a big role,” NextStep Domestic Violence Project Executive Director Dorathy Martel recently noted. “Often the calls we get in the middle of the night come from law enforcement. Even if the perpetrator is arrested, law enforcement will reach out to say, what can we do to help this person?”
NextStep serves around 950 to 1,000 domestic violence victims in Hancock and Washington counties yearly, with a 24-hour helpline, emergency shelter, legal assistance, support groups and other services. In 2020, the nonprofit had 10,407 face-to-face contacts with victims, served 916 people, sheltered 45, and arranged advocacy in court for 423 people. Nearly 5,199 calls came in through the hotline and e-contacts, and 33 volunteers contributed 3,098 hours.
More than 90 percent of relationship violence that is instrumental in maintaining control of the other person, which is the more systematic, persistent and harmful type of violence, is perpetrated by men. This leads Martel to say that domestic violence is a gender-based crime.
“That’s not a popular view,” she said. “The piece about privilege gets the most pushback. [People] don’t see [perpetrators] as privileged, especially if they are struggling financially and feel politically marginalized.”
Sexual harassment is not the same as domestic abuse, but they often arise from the same attitudes and beliefs. And it seems clear from national reporting on the #MeToo movement that, if unchecked, sexual harassment can turn to sexual abuse.
When two recent George Stevens Academy 2021 graduates wrote to The American, calling out what they and some fellow students see as a pervasive “guy culture” at the independent high school based on their research project, Head of School Tim Seeley replied with his own Letter to the Editor, stating that he was “pleased that they felt able and empowered to come to us to tell us their concerns, ideas and hopes for GSA.” He noted that a coordinator for community, equity and inclusion had already been hired. He did not specifically address the allegations of sexual harassment and assault of girls at the school. The young women wrote that students don’t feel safe speaking up about mistreatment and “girls are especially afraid, because they have been harassed and assaulted in their place of learning and the school has turned its back on them and their experiences.”
Amy VanDorn is the social worker at Ellsworth High School and works with teens on healthy relationships.
“We certainly deal with teen dating violence,” she said. This can happen when a couple are not ready for the emotions that can go along with a romantic relationship. It also can come from not having healthy examples to follow, she said.
“A lot of times [the victims] minimize it,” VanDorn said. “Standard responses are: He’s not like that. It only happened once.” The student may leave the relationship, she continued, or try and work on it, or “stay because they perceive they’re in love.”
“Right, wrong or indifferent, the person is feeling a need,” VanDorn continued. “And sometimes they don’t feel they deserve anything better, which is sad to see. It sets them up for a series of unhealthy relationships.”
As a mandated reporter, VanDorn said incidents among students have reached the level where she makes a report to police or state authorities. But often, she said, the situation is remedied by speaking with parents.
“I think we’ve had some success stories,” she said. “A lot of our work is just about empowering students, educating them on setting boundaries and limits, self-worth and self-esteem.”
When an Ellsworth police officer is called to the scene of domestic abuse or assault, his or her response is based on the department’s domestic violence policy, which it’s required to have in place by state regulations. Its overall aims, according to the Ellsworth Police Department’s (EPD) policy, is to: “(1) break the cycle of domestic violence by preventing future incidents or reduce the frequency and/or seriousness of such incidents, (2) protect victims of domestic violence and provide them with support, and (3) promote officer safety when dealing with domestic violence situations.”
Those are lofty goals, especially when many victims may take the side of their abusers. Law enforcement officers “have to respond to what they see in front of them,” Martel noted, but this may not always be clear in a volatile, emotional situation. The EPD domestic violence response policy includes a method to determine who is the “predominant aggressor” in a situation and the appropriate law enforcement response — that is, which person, or both, may face arrest.
Some officers, such as the late Hancock County Sheriff’s Deputy Luke Gross, take the extra step with victims, Martel said, but overall domestic violence victims have mixed experiences with law enforcement.
Prosecuting domestic violence arrests can be tricky because “very often” there is a lack of evidence or the victim refuses to cooperate, Ellsworth City Manager and Police Chief Glenn Moshier said.
“I can’t really comment on what goes on in the District Attorney’s Office regarding these cases, but what I can say is that when our investigation provides us with enough probable cause to make an arrest, our officer makes the arrest and gathers the evidence to support the prosecution,” Moshier said. “What happens to those cases beyond that is outside of our control.”
Martel said there are age-old reasons for domestic abuse cases faltering in the courts.
“We don’t get better outcomes for victims because there’s people in our country who will support violence,” she said, and blaming the victim for being promiscuous, young and how she dresses is still a frequent response from society-at-large. “We see that all the time. It also could be any one of us, if we get unlucky, which is the piece I think we don’t want to confront.”
If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic abuse or violence, contact NextStep at 667-0178 or nextstepdvproject.org.