Healing through listening, prevention through education

Local nonprofit’s response to domestic violence related homicides
Tue, 11/04/2014 - 10:00am

Story Location:
41 Water Street
Wiscasset  Maine  04578
United States

“We always hope we never have to respond to a homicide, it's our worst nightmare, but unfortunately it happens,” said Stevie Colburn, services director at New Hope For Women.

New Hope For Women (NHFW) is a Rockland-based advocacy organization that serves Lincoln, Knox, Waldo and Sagadahoc counties, and has satellite offices in Bath, Wiscasset and Belfast.

New Hope advocates learn about domestic violence related deaths the same way any of us do — in newspapers, on newscasts or by turning on a computer.

And the moment they find out, as Executive Director Kathleen Morgan described, “on some level we almost stop breathing until we find out more information. We go into this suspended state, but keep on working.”

Finding out exactly what occurred and the identity of the victim or victims often doesn't happen until the next day, or when the information is released.

In the case of homicide, NHFW responds both outwardly to the community and internally to advocates and its crisis hotline volunteers.

Why internally? Because, as Colburn noted, it's highly probable some staff members and hotline volunteers are familiar with the situation.

“Our first thought is to respond to the community, but also within our own house so to speak, because it is devastating to everybody,” Colburn said. “We ask ourselves the same question everyone else does: 'What could we have done to prevent it?’”

Colburn likened NHFW's response to a triage situation. When staff arrive on the scene they “kick into action” one layer at a time, beginning with the family and friends of the victim or victims, then the community.

“When a murder happens within a community, you hear it in the media all of the time — nobody knew anything,” Colburn said. “But in our line of work we know that someone knew something. And that's why community awareness has to continue to increase because it's bystander involvement that can help.”

New Hope works closely with the police departments within the counties it serves, sharing information as part of a reactionary team.

New Hope and law enforcement also work together through preventative measures such as devising safety plans for those both entities believe are in high risk situations. When coming up with these plans, the client and anyone else pertinent to the situation are included.

Morgan said members of law enforcement in New Hope's service area, and throughout the state in general, are very aware of the high risk associated with domestic violence.

Most law enforcement departments have high-risk response teams, which include other agencies and professionals. NHFW is a member of some such teams across its four counties.

To aid in the healing process of a community, New Hope will assist in holding a vigil for the victims. Vigils bring all those affected together to honor the victim/victims, to grieve and to express their shared state of bewilderment, shock and horror about the tragic death(s) of their family member, friend, work colleague, and neighbor.

“A lot of what we do is listen,” Colburn said. “Family members and friends blame themselves. It's really not much different than what we hear from a domestic violence victim and their thinking the abuse is somehow their fault.”

New Hope advocates work with all of those closest to victims and members of the community by making themselves available to them and by building awareness of domestic violence through education.

“Responding to homicide situations, for us, is similar to what happened in Boothbay on McKown Point 10 years ago,” Colburn said. “Certainly nobody ever thinks it will happen where they live, but it does. It's in your own backyard. Certainly what the peninsula (Boothbay) did, by building community awareness, is really a model of something good coming out of a horrible situation.”

The “horrible situation” Colburn refers to occurred Aug. 22, 2004.

News traveled quickly in the region of the homicides of Chevelle “Chellie” Calloway and her mother-in-law, Sally Murray, in West Boothbay Harbor.

Jon Dilley, Calloway's estranged husband, shot the two women in front of the couple’s two young children.

Dilley would later be convicted on two counts of manslaughter and sentenced to 60 years (30 consecutive years for each of his victims).

The model in Boothbay that Colburn referred to evolved into the founding of the region's Domestic Abuse Prevention Council. The first step in that direction was the community-wide forum held in the fall of 2004.

The council was in active existence through 2012 and worked closely with New Hope hosting education forums (which included professional panels), bringing educational presentations to the local schools, providing training to healthcare professionals and spearheading the adoption of domestic violence policies in all town offices on the peninsula, erecting a remembrance tree for the two slain women each Christmas. The council also submitted a community impact statement to the judge presiding over Dilley's case.

“Entire communities are affected,” Morgan said. “Chellie worked in Augusta as a teacher and that community was as devastated as Boothbay. Both of these communities were in immense pain over what had happened.”

Healing conversation

Although the person who committed the crime also has family, friends, coworkers and a community affected by their actions, it's the community of the victim that reaches out to NHFW.

“We listen. They need to talk about it,” Colburn said.

Callers are heard by either the 800 crisis hotline volunteer or by an advocate at NHFW.

A volunteer of three years, Celia (not her real name), said a high percentage of the calls she takes revolve around the children living in a domestic violence situation. The caller is usually a grandparent or other relative concerned for the child's welfare who feels helpless to do anything.

Although all New Hope advocates are trained to address the needs of children, calls of this nature are referred to one of the advocates specially trained to help children directly, or indirectly.

At NHFW, Nicole Fallon, is one of those advocates. She is also NHFW's liaison with Child Protective Services working at CPS four days a week. Fallon works closely with CPS advocates to help them understand situations from New Hope's perspective; to find ways for mothers to keep their children with them — and safe.

Colburn said losing their children is a “very common reason” why a woman will not leave an abusive situation.

“They've been told over and over again by their abuser that they will lose them. It's a fairly frequent conversation,” Colburn said. “As an advocate I will ask the caller if they would speak with a particular advocate and tell them I know she would really like to speak to them.

“And, it gives them a glimmer of hope, the thought that maybe this could be OK. When they call they are thinking its a lot easier stay and deal with the abuse they know and think they can control and keep their children safe and family unit intact. A lot of them will settle for that, not realizing that there's another option.”

Morgan said NHFW is seeing the results of the increased publicity and work that has been ongoing regarding the effects of domestic violence on children — as well as the outreach on the importance of bystander involvement and what bystanders can do when they are aware of DV.

She believes both are really good things and part of the reason New Hope receives more calls from other people finding themselves involved in domestic violence situations due to their connection with a victim/victims.

Morgan cited the work and the education of the public about the effects of domestic violence on children and about domestic violence being a learned behavior, begun by former Attorney General Steven Rowe while in office.

“He (Rowe) started this awareness ... and about the cost of DV to the community, the state, the med system, mental health system, to the social fabric and the social contract ... he had it all laid out.”

When Colburn answers a call from another family member concerned about the welfare of a child, she thanks them for calling.

“And I tell them how wonderful it is that their daughter has a mom who is concerned and observant, and what a wonderful resource and source of strength she can be to her,” Coburn said. “If it's possible, I ask the caller to encourage the daughter to call — it's a long process. Sometimes that never happens. We encourage people to speak up. And we are here to listen.”

For more information on NHFW, visit www.newhopeforwomen.org.

For more resource information, visit the Domestic Violence resource page: www.boothbayregister.com/promotion/x/25896.