Convert Outrage into Action to Reduce Domestic Violence

The Register Guard (Eugene, OR), March 1, 2004 | Go to article overview

Convert Outrage into Action to Reduce Domestic Violence


Byline: GUEST VIEWPOINT By Kamala Shugar For The Register-Guard

Three domestic homicides in Lane County in the first 54 days of 2004. Three women dead. The community is rightly outraged. But to whom do we turn our outrage?

Ten years ago, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention awarded Lane County a $3.1 million grant to combat domestic violence. They defined domestic violence as a national epidemic. In six years, we implemented lasting changes in our justice and social service systems to support victims and to hold batterers accountable.

So how is it that we find ourselves with not one, but three, deadly examples of why systemic changes are not enough? Yes, the overcrowded jail failed Paula Benitez, for whom I grieve deeply. But what about the other two victims?

As a community, we must take responsibility. Every 12 seconds, a woman is battered in our country, and our society fails to respond.

Domestic violence is, except when a murder or brutal assault occurs, almost always a misdemeanor. Victims are expected to testify, right in front of their batterer.

During jury selection, I often ask a group of 24 citizens, "How many of you have had your life, or the life of someone you know, touched by domestic violence?" Often, more than half of the people raise their hands. Then more answers come forward - a friend from childhood, a co-worker, a neighbor, a member of your church.

Think back even further. What about your parents? Your best friend's parents? Your adolescent daughter or her friends?

Can you truly say that no one you know has ever been touched by domestic violence? Do you know for sure?

Not all domestic violence shows up as "black eyes and blue tears." A lot of it is invisible. Insults, control, threats, "accidents," forced sex, coercion - and stalking.

That's what Tomas Ortega-Benitez did. He stalked Paula until she was numb to the danger. He was incessant. His threats to kill her were constant and specific. But there are never any witnesses to this private form of daily terrorism.

Why do we demand independent witnesses? Isn't it enough that a victim will stand up in court and confront the man she loves and fears and tell total strangers what he did to her? All the while, she knows that if he is acquitted there will be certain and severe consequences for her testimony.

Or maybe she can't even do that. "Isn't it enough," many victims ask me as they shake with fear, "that I called the police and reported it? Can't you do this without me?"

Or they simply come into court and stand in support of the abuser and silently pray the state will prove the case with their initial call for help, despite their desperate attempts to explain away the injuries on the stand. …

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