A Peabody mother's murder earlier this week offers the latest chilling example of an "epidemic" of domestic violence on the North Shore and across the state, experts said yesterday.
"There needs to be a very tightly woven system of safety and support. Right now, there's a lot of holes in that fabric," said Candace Waldron, executive director of Help for Abused Women and their Children. "It's devastating to do this work and see all these homicides."
In the nearly two dozen areas HAWC works in, five domestic violence-related deaths occurred in 2007 alone. Statewide, that figure is 55.
"There's absolutely a rise in domestic violence, not only on the North Shore but statewide, despite all of our best efforts," Essex County District Attorney Jonathan Blodgett said. The district attorney added that his office has seen a steady increase in the number of domestic violence cases prosecuted in the past three years.
Beverly Sgt. Phil McCarthy, who supervises the Police Department's domestic violence office, said officers responded to about 600 such calls last year in his city alone.
It's definitely an increase from past years, he said. McCarthy noted the 600 figure represented only the incidents police were called to. He wondered how many more never get reported.
"It's truly an epidemic," he said.
A recent example is the case of Jessica Herrera, 25, of Peabody, who was found dead Sunday afternoon in a closet of the apartment she had shared with her boyfriend. On Monday, Ashley Fernandes, 28, pleaded not guilty to a charge of murder.
The fact that Fernandes had reportedly strangled Herrera at least once before, and had a protective order against him dropped by the victim on Valentine's Day, has those who work with victims of domestic violence shaking their heads.
'False sense of security'
Perpetrators of domestic violence commit the crime repeatedly and sometimes victimize more than one person, Waldron said. What's more, abusers violate restraining orders, or police officers don't always arrest them, or the courts let them out, Waldron said. However, a victim who can't rely on the police or the courts often returns to an abuser, lulled back by his or her promises to change violent behavior.
"The system needs to be committed to being the strong arm of the law. If not, it needs to get out of the way," Waldron said. "If not, it gives people a false sense of security."
She worried that many are growing desensitized to the abuse they face.
"We all know that leaving an abusive partner is the most dangerous time," she said. "We can't guarantee to keep the victim safe if we don't have the entire community behind us in doing that."
She also said that some abusive behavior indicates a tendency toward even more extreme violence. Choking — like that reported by Herrera in a Christmas Day incident that prompted her to seek a restraining order against Fernandes in January — is a high indicator that the behavior could lead to homicide, Waldron said.
"When there's strangulation, every law enforcement and criminal justice person should know that," she said.
Some local law enforcement agencies have taken strides to address the problem.
Beverly is one of a handful of area police departments that has a specific domestic violence unit. With grant money, the city also pays the salary of a HAWC employee who follows up on every domestic violence call, McCarthy said.
"Domestic violence wasn't being addressed as well as it should be, so we went out and began writing the grants," he said.
In 2003, Beverly Patrolman Raymond Beals responded to a domestic violence call involving his son, Jason, and the son's girlfriend, Lori Corbett. The patrolman radioed back that "peace had been restored." However, three days later, Jason Beals stabbed Corbett to death, then committed suicide.
In the ensuing years, Beverly police have incorporated annual training, conducted by the district attorney's office, on domestic violence. Officers are trained on how to collect evidence, what to look for and what photos to take, which helps take the burden off victims.
Even if a victim decides not to press charges, the training is designed to afford enough evidence to prosecute an abuser successfully.
In addition, every shift has volunteer officers who undergo specialized training on abuse. These officers consult with others on their shift who may need help addressing a problem situation.
A community matter
While the Beverly department has made strides in combating domestic violence, the issue transcends law enforcement, Waldron said.
She called on all the community players — police, courts, social service agencies and victims' advocates — to adopt a more collaborative approach.
"The culture doesn't take it as seriously as they would if someone was going to the mall and shooting people," she said.
Waldron hopes to educate the community on how to spot the warning signs of domestic violence and how to respond. She wants the reaction to such incidents to be second nature, like performing the Heimlich maneuver on a choking victim.
Blodgett said prosecutors not only work to jail abusers but impose other measures like anger management, stay-away orders and temporary child support.
"We just do all we can do to get that victim paired up with law enforcement and social service agencies," he said. "It's very hard because perpetrators can be very cunning."
Blodgett introduced legislation four years ago that would increase the penalties in many cases of domestic violence. The law recently passed favorably out of the state Senate and into the House.
He's hopeful the bill will be enacted.
Waldron hopes Blodgett's bill will get the support needed to pass as law.
"It's been lingering, languishing, going nowhere," she said.
In the meantime, too many people are dying and children are being orphaned, she said.
On the rise
Domestic violence deaths statewide, includes homicides and suicides.
Domestic violence-related deaths in the 23 areas that social service agency Help for Abused Women and Children works in:
HAWC (Help for Abused Women and their Children) has a 24-hour hot line for victims of domestic violence that can be reached at 800-547-1649.