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State aims to stop violence against women

Workers say there is a need for counseling and legal assistance in abuse cases.
Monday, March 15, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 6:25 a.m. CDT, Monday, June 30, 2008

Lanell Younger Jackson of Columbia knows too well the cycle of emotional and physical abuse suffered by victims of domestic violence. It begins with words — “stupid,” “idiot,” “pathetic.” Then, as the words become louder and harsher, the grabbing and pushing starts.

“It got worse after he realized I was afraid of him,” Jackson said. “One thing led to another until he was beating me.”

It took three years for Jackson to leave her husband. Although he continued to terrorize her, she never called the police. She was paralyzed by a different kind of fear.

“I was afraid I wouldn’t make it if he went to jail,” Jackson said.

More than 30,000 cases of domestic violence were reported in Missouri last year, according to the state’s uniform crime report. But those statistics may not reflect the true scope of the problem. The Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services estimates that only about one-third of domestic violence incidents are reported to police.

Leigh Voltmer, executive director of The Shelter in Columbia, said victims of domestic violence don’t call police for several reasons.

“They may not want the stigma attached to a victim of domestic violence,” Voltmer said. “Some are even disgruntled with the system that can stop the immediate threat but find the follow-up in the justice system insufficient.”

Fighting back

In January, the state health department released a draft of a statewide strategy for reducing not only domestic violence but also all forms of violence against women, including rape, sexual assault, incest and elder abuse. The proposed strategy, which will be unveiled at a town hall meeting tonight at the Activity and Recreation Center, 1701 Ash St., combines the efforts of various public and private agencies, community organizations, schools and day-care centers.

Violence Against Women: Missouri State Prevention Plan Strategies for Action outlines 16 objectives. Objectives include identifying and securing resources, building community partnerships, developing early treatment programs for offenders and creating a uniform system for collecting data on violence against women.

“The plan is a means to encourage people to think differently about how to do things — to find ways that cost less,” said Joy Oesterly of DHSS .

Increase in cases

The need for better data in Missouri is reflected in conflicting reports on the incidence of domestic violence. In Boone County, for instance, crime statistics show the number of reported cases decreased, from 1,361 in 2001 to 1,123 in 2003. Columbia’s reported cases also decreased during that period, from 726 to 523.

However, advocates and prosecutors say the true number of domestic violence cases is growing. The Shelter, for example, saw a 187 percent increase in the number of women who sought help through its non-resident programs from 2000 to 2003. Last year, The Shelter served 494 non-residents. Another 265 women sought temporary housing at The Shelter, more than double the number in 2000.

Seeking help

Voltmer said those numbers show that while it seems fewer women are reporting abuse to the police, many are seeking help though other means. Voltmer said many women call The Shelter’s hot line or participate in educational programs that give them skills to effectively deal with the problem.

Jackson spent 70 days at The Shelter, where she learned how to take “little steps” that helped her escape an abusive situation and eventually divorce her husband.

“I made little accomplishments each day because it’s like trying to move a huge mountain,” she said. “You need to take it down in pieces.”

Boone County already takes a more community-oriented approach to domestic violence than many places in Missouri. The county’s Domestic Violence Enforcement Unitis composed of three investigators, a victim’s advocate and two assistant prosecuting attorneys.

Voltmer said Boone County has a good system for dealing with domestic violence but that it lacks the mandates needed to ensure victims’ safety in the long term.

Voltmer said that while the proposed prevention plan is a fine way to get people talking about the issue, it allows communities to decide what strategies to implement. The problem in the past, Voltmer said, is that the commitment of many communities stops with the plan and the meeting.

“The plan is far-reaching,” Voltmer said, “but it has no teeth.”

Jackson hopes the plan and the series of 11 town-hall meetings around the state will draw attention to a problem that she thinks is often pushed aside. She said society doesn’t understand domestic violence. Many people wonder why a woman in a mentally and physically abusive situation doesn’t simply walk out.

“Domestic violence is the most complex social issue we’ve ever faced,” Voltmer said, “because it incorporates love and fear, which are opposite human emotions.”


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