Handicapping domestic violence 

Deborah Zumsteg. Virginia Macdonald. Aleasha Chenoweth. Labecca Yetman. Stephen Hackney. Gina McKinnon. In 2004, these people died, the reported victims of domestic violence in Montana, according to the Montana Domestic Violence Fatality Review Commission’s first ever report, released last month.

The 2003 Montana Legislature passed a bill that created the commission and requires a biennial report.

“Unfortunately, the need for the Commission has not lessened in the past two years,” writes Matthew Dale, commission coordinator, in an introductory letter to the report.

The report, written after commission members studied four domestic violence incidents involving 12 deaths, is brief and personal.

“One of the victims had finished high school as a teenage mom and had recently started college,” reads the report. “Another was named an Indian Princess by her high school peers.”

Children were victims, too: “The murdered children ranged in age from 3 to 7. A fifth child was left an orphan at the age of 12.”

In Missoula, reports of domestic violence are up. The Crime Victim Advocate (CVA) office responds to roughly 400 requests for help quarterly, up from 350 requests two years ago, according to a CVA spokesperson. The number of women and children who use the YWCA’s shelter has increased as well, says YWCA director Cindy Weese.

Missoula Assistant City Attorney Judy Wang served on the review commission along with 16 other representatives from across the state. The city of Missoula files 300 domestic violence cases annually, she says, a figure that has gone up over time.

“We see lots of hits, lots of shoves, lots of slaps,” she says.

But increases in the number of cases filed don’t necessarily translate into increases in domestic violence. Another possibility, Wang says, is that local domestic violence is simply “being better investigated and better reported.”

Sen. Carol Williams, D-Missoula, is sponsoring a bill that could strengthen domestic violence legislation. If passed, it would make strangulation a felony in Montana. The crime is currently considered a misdemeanor.

In all of the fatalities reviewed by the commission, a firearm was used. Since 2000, Montana has averaged more than seven family violence deaths each year, according to the report.

“Domestic violence is very serious,” Wang says. “It’s very complicated and in many ways, it’s very socially acceptable.”

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