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Domestic violence advocates 'healing at different speeds' after slaying of advocate

During a trip to the state Capitol this month, Jessica Honish thought about Trish Waschbisch and smiled.

Honish and her colleagues from Rainbow House Domestic Abuse Services had just been introduced as the winners of a new honor from the Governor’s Council on Domestic Abuse. The award is called the “Trish Waschbisch Legacy Award” in memory of Waschbisch, a colleague slain this spring in what prosecutors say was a dispute with her boyfriend.

“I was thinking how proud of us Trish would be,” said Honish, the lead advocate for Rainbow House, which assists survivors in Marinette, Oconto and Menominee (Mich.) counties. “The trip was a chance to spend the day with Trish’s mom and dad, just reminiscing about what we had accomplished together.”

Much of the focus at Rainbow House these days is about recovery — for the clients who benefit from the agency’s advocacy and legal outreach efforts, and for the staff and volunteers adjusting to life without Waschbisch. She worked at the center for 13 years, the past two as interim director.

Brent Kaempf, now 49, is charged in connection to the fatal stabbing of Waschbisch, 45, in late April in the home they shared in Peshtigo. Kaempf was arrested in Milwaukee County less than 24 hours after Waschbisch was found slain.

His case is set for trial in late January.

The toll continues

Across the state, domestic violence continues to claim lives.

A report in September by The Wisconsin Coalition Against Domestic Violence said 52 women, men and children died in domestic violence homicides in 2012, 15 more than the number killed a year earlier. Half of the victims in 2012 were slain at their homes.

“I’m always telling people how important this (domestic violence) issue is,” Marinette County Sheriff Jerry Sauve said.

Sauve, a veteran of almost 30 years in law enforcement, declined to discuss Wasbisch specifically until Kaempf’s court case had concluded. But he said he regularly reminds deputies that when they are responding to a domestic dispute, “We could be preventing a homicide.”

The state’s oldest victim in 2012 was an 82-year-old West Bend woman shot to death by her husband, who then killed himself. The youngest was a Kenosha County infant who died shortly after her 18-year-old mother was badly beaten. The baby was covered in bruises when she was born; she died soon after.

Brown County had five people die in domestic-violence incidents in 2012, according to the coalition. Fatal incidents also happened in Outagamie, Marinette, Marathon and Wood counties.

People in the advocacy community mourned Waschbisch’s death, holding a candlelight vigil and doing other things to honor her memory. Honish said the people who knew her draw strength by thinking about the energy and resolve that Waschbisch brought to her work.

'Healing at different speeds'

Advocates say the numbers of people seeking help has not declined in the six months since Waschbisch was killed. While they say it’s positive that victims are comfortable seeking counseling, shelter and other assistance, several remain concerned that continued demand means that the problem has not abated.

Green Bay’s Golden House, for example, is on pace to serve more than 1,000 abuse survivors again this year. Other authorities in Brown, Door and Marinette counties all say that demand for their services remains strong.

Brenda Curtis, office manager at Sturgeon Bay-based HELP of Door County, said she regularly will encounter people who are surprised to learn that abuse occurs in the county, which is known as a destination for relaxing getaways. Two people in the county died in domestic homicides in 2012, according to the WCADV report.

“It would be nice if we could work ourselves out of a job,” Curtis said. “We are busier, and some of that is that more people are comfortable coming for help. But domestic violence is not decreasing, and I don’t know if it will ever completely go away.”

Back at Rainbow House, the winners of the Trish Waschbisch Legacy Award remember their colleague and vow to continue her work.

“All of us have been healing at different speeds,” Honish said. “But we know that if this had happened to anyone else — anyone of us — Trish would have been right there.”

Doug Schneider

Appleton Post Crescent