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'Need is still so high': Domestic violence agencies in western Mass. discuss caseloads, inequities

A blank Massachusetts complaint for protection from abuse form.
Carrie Healy
A blank Massachusetts complaint for protection from abuse form.

There was a surge in domestic violence across our region during the pandemic — and nonprofit agencies that provide assistance to survivors of domestic violence say they remain incredibly busy.

This week, following a high profile fatal stabbing in western Massachusetts, we checked in with a couple of these organizations.

“Our courts are incredibly active with restraining orders, with custody cases that include abuse," said Amanda Sanderson, the acting director of the New England Learning Center for Women in Transition, which serves Franklin County. "The Children's Advocacy Center is doing a lot of work for child sexual assault. We are already 400 crisis line calls over what we saw last year.”

And that's still with several more months left in NELCWIT's fiscal year.

Sanderson said the organization has done more counseling appointments and more safe plan assistance with clients. Everything, she said, is significantly above where they were last year.

“The need is still so high,” Sanderson said.

And in Hampshire County, Safe Passage has seen similar trends, executive director Marianne Winters told NEPM.

Marianne Winters, Safe Passage: That tracks what we're seeing and experiencing in terms of our data and our volume. We are hearing more and more from people who are looking at accessing safe housing, making a change, going back to courts, filing for divorce and so forth.

Carrie Healy, NEPM: A recent high profile fatal stabbing in Holyoke of Eileen Monaghan saddened those she worked with across the state. Authorities allege the perpetrator was a Chicopee firefighter identified by coworkers as her boyfriend. He's been charged with murder and is being held without the right to bail.

This case involves a white victim, and studies have found that white victims of all crimes get disproportionate media coverage. What message do you think that sends to non-white clients that you work with?

Well, I think it tracks with the way systemic racism operates — that people who identify as white or appear to be white have more privilege, have a higher level of connections, and are seen as more legitimate in terms of societal attention.

Very often we see with people of color that, when there's a homicide or when there's a high-profile case, that high-profile very often includes things about the victim that fit the stereotype of people of color. And very often when it's white people — like one example I saw, the number of people who were offering “thoughts, prayers, condolences…”

I also think that there's something interesting about focusing on the headlines saying this homicide happens in Holyoke when it's known that a majority of people in Holyoke are people of color. Yet both the victim and the perpetrator lived in different areas. So that feeds into the stereotype that, you know, communities like Holyoke, like Springfield perhaps, are more dangerous or it seems more likely to happen in Holyoke, when really that just happened to be the location.

We should note that the victim was from Chicopee, and the alleged perpetrator was from Springfield and worked in Chicopee as a firefighter.

I wonder, following those headlines this week, does the work that you do at Safe Passage change? Do you change your message to the people that you serve, and are they coming at you differently than before this kind headline that shows what this kind of domestic violence can do?

That's an interesting question. Well, I think it does heighten people's fear and awareness. And I think very often people look at what they've been doing in terms of safety planning or what precautions they may be taking around relationships. It helps them understand perhaps the dynamics of their relationship. So it doesn't automatically change how we approach, because we have a very individualized approach. We ask people how all of the elements of their lives are affected and help them figure out the best course of action or the best decisions that they need to make at the moment.

The way racism operates within the overall court system does impact people's decisions around whether or not they seek criminal legal remedies and whether or not they think that they're going to be taken seriously in that venue. So, it helps us think through what non-criminal legal resources may be part of a strategy for survivors to stay safe and build their sense of safety and security.

Could you explain further how the courts might not be serving up justice for survivors the same for all survivors?

I mean, we certainly see lower reporting rates from a criminal perspective by people of color than white people. I think that there's a cultural sense that it's based in kind of systematic, different treatment of people of color and people identify as white within criminal processes.

Also, what the criminal process assumes is a good outcome or justice — which might mean punishment, incarceration — is not necessarily what the survivor is most interested [in] or what would be the best outcome for that survivor.

So, for example, if the perpetrator is a person of color, they are likely to be treated more severely, maybe have a longer sentence. The implications are going to be deeper. And if there's a financial tie, if that survivor is also a partial or full breadwinner of the household, that means that it's a quicker road toward instability for the entire family.

Someone going to prison has a huge implication. It's not just a punishment. It takes out whatever stabilizing factor that person had on the family. And even if the couple is separated, if there was a child support agreement or some way that that person's income was supporting the family, that's all gone as well.

So, in general, people don't necessarily have the same idea about what justice looks like as the criminal legal system. 

Safe Passage, in Hampshire County, says if you are in danger, call 911, or call their helpline, Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., at (413) 586-5066 or (888) 345-5282 (toll-free).

NELCWIT, in Franklin County, says if you or someone you know is experiencing emotional, physical, or sexual abuse, there is someone to talk to. The NELCWIT Crisis Line is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Se habla español. (413) 772-0806. They can talk with callers in over 200 languages through a telephone interpretation service. Call the Crisis Line to be connected with an interpreter. TTY: (413) 772-0815.

YWCA, in Hampden County, has a 24-hour domestic violence/sexual assault hotline, available at (413) 733-7100 or toll-free at (800) 796-8711. Llamanos Spanish-language sexual assault hotline: (800) 223-5001.

Carrie Healy hosts the local broadcast of "Morning Edition" at NEPM. She also hosts the station’s weekly government and politics segment “Beacon Hill In 5” for broadcast radio and podcast syndication.
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