There were a dozen empty seats in the House gallery in January 2000, as then-Gov. Angus King delivered his State of the State address. The seats were reserved in memory of the nine women and three children who had died by homicide in domestic violence situations the previous year, accounting for half of the murders in Maine.

More than 20 years have passed since King declared that domestic violence was Maine’s “Public Enemy No. 1.” A lot has changed in the last two decades as a succession of governors have renewed Maine’s commitment, but one thing has remained constant. In 2020, just as in 2000, domestic violence was involved in about half of the year’s homicides, and the same is true for all the years in between.

October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, a time when we are asked to think about the abuse that’s taking place behind closed doors in every community and what we can do to end it. The last two decades have seen investments in training for police officers, prosecutors and judges, as well as increased support for community-based domestic violence and sexual assault programs. But the persistence of domestic violence as a factor in Maine’s homicide statistics should serve as a reminder that whatever we have been doing is not enough.

One thing that has changed in the last 20 years is how much more we know now about domestic violence. We no longer think of abuse between current or former spouses or partners as a “family matter,” or that violent acts are “crimes of passion,” committed in a moment of uncontrollable rage in an otherwise healthy relationship.

We know that although perpetrators often claim the violence was an isolated incident, that’s rarely true. Most cases involve a pattern of manipulation and intimidation aimed at asserting power and control. Emotional abuse, isolation, economic control and shaming often precede or exist alongside the violence. And many of these controlling behaviors occur in front of friends, relatives and coworkers who could have intervened.

We know that homicides represent only a small fraction of the instances of abuse in our state. There are hundreds of calls to police departments reporting assaults every year, and thousands of calls to domestic violence and sexual assault hotlines. And the real number of cases is likely much higher, because interviews with abuse survivors indicate that incidents are rarely reported at all.

We also know that most of the perpetrators are men, and many of them hold beliefs about patriarchy and male entitlement that make them think they are supposed to control women and children.

We also have a better idea about what survivors need in order to get out of abusive relationships.

Access to health care, affordable housing and food are essential for people who have been cut off from social support networks and family finances.

Abusive partners need to be held accountable, which can mean time in jail, but jail alone is not enough. Court-supervised batterers programs and community-based public education are needed to get the message out that abuse is wrong and can’t be tolerated.

And outreach needs to be made into marginalized communities, including immigrant communities, where language, cultural barriers and fear of authorities keep people from seeking help.

On a national level, we need to pressure our elected officials to renew the Violence Against Women Act, the 1994 law that provided billions of dollars in grants for lifesaving programs aimed at stemming domestic violence, sexual assault, dating violence and stalking. Congress allowed its authorization to lapse in 2019.

Domestic violence is still Maine’s Public Enemy No. 1, and ending it should be everyone’s responsibility. We all need to educate ourselves and call out abuse when we see it, supporting family members, friends or even strangers when they are trying to get out of an abusive situation.

Let’s not let another year go by without making more progress on this persistent social problem.

Reprinted from The Portland Press Herald.

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