Panel urges new attitudes on domestic abuse 

One man wraps a phone cord tightly around a woman’s neck until the whites of her eyes glow red. Another man hurls a 10-pound rock at his partner, shattering the glass behind her. Still another sits his wife in a chair and forces her to recite Bible verses while he kicks her shins with his steel-toed boots.

Crime victim advocates could tell you 566 stories of domestic violence that occurred in Missoula County in 2001, and none of them are pretty.

The Crime Victims Advocate Office provides legal services for victims of violent crimes. The office’s 10 advocates spend most of their time advising crime victims, but also educating the community. Last week, the office convened a community panel to discuss how both victim and offender move through the legal system. During the discussion, an advocate explained one of her office’s major goals: To change the way society responds to partner abuse.

“We want society to stop asking, ‘Why doesn’t she leave?’” says Julie Skillicorn, who has been an advocate for five years in the Missoula City/County Crime Victim Advocate Office. “We want society to ask, ‘Why is he battering?’”

Although some may take exception to the assumption that the batterer is male, statistics bear out such conclusions. “Nationally, they say 95 percent of [partner abuse] is men beating women,” says Katie Parker, a social work intern in the Crime Victim Advocate Office.

When community members start asking themselves why people commit violent crimes, they will be willing to confront offenders, Skillicorn says. “It’s one really simple question,” she says. “Why does he have to hit her?”

In five years, Skillicorn has seen little change in the frequency of domestic abuse in Missoula. “I haven’t seen it decrease by any means,” she says.

That said, services for crime victims have improved considerably in Missoula County, according to those on the panel. In fact, “20 years ago, this panel on domestic violence wouldn’t have existed,” says Parker.

Among those represented on the panel, the crime victim advocates are often the wild card, since they do not make choices on behalf of the victims. Instead, they use an empowerment model that supports the victim’s decision—even if that decision means the victims returns to the home of the abuser.

Instead of telling victims how to act, society needs to put more pressure on offenders, Skillicorn says. “We need to go to the guys that are doing it and tell them that this is wrong,” she says.

Probation Officer Cathy Dorle agrees: “Violence is everybody’s business.”

“We’re doing a good job of empowering victims,” Dorle says. “Now let’s change the offenders.”

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