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Domestic violence strikes home

While some stories of domestic violence made national headlines over the past year, there are countless tales of tragedy that receive scant attention.

End Domestic Abuse in Wisconsin recently released a report that documents and analyzes domestic violence-related homicides in 2011 and 2012. The report’s release coincides with Domestic Violence Awareness month.

The group — formerly known as Wisconsin Coalition Against Domestic Violence — hopes the sobering statistics contained in the report prompt communities to become more active in efforts to prevent abuse.

“Our intent is to honor the victims and survivors of domestic violence homicide,” said Patti Seager, executive director of EDAW. “We also want to support Wisconsin communities to create opportunities for intervention and the prevention of homicide.”

In 2011, the stark reality of domestic violence hit home when a Fond du Lac police officer and the wife of a convicted felon were killed in two unrelated domestic violence incidents.

Craig Birkholz, 28, and Nicole Anderson, 33, were among the 37 people who lost their lives in 31 domestic violence incidents in 2011. Last year there were 38 domestic violence homicide incidents resulting in 52 deaths. Five of the incidents resulted in multiple homicides.

Caught in the line of fire

Two homicides recorded in 2011 were the result of legal intervention by responding law enforcement officers. Birkholz was gunned down while responding to an emergency request from fellow officers who were engaged in a standoff with James Cruckson on March 20, 2011.

Earlier that morning, Cruckson’s girlfriend drove to the police station to report that Cruckson had sexually assaulted her. Believing that the woman’s child was still in the home, three police officers entered and were pinned down by gunfire before they could make contact with Cruckson. Birkholz was the second backup officer to respond to the call.

According to police reports, Cruckson and the woman had a history of domestic disputes resulting in police being called to the Lincoln Avenue home multiple times.

Agnesian HealthCare Domestic Violence Program Coordinator Tiffany Wiese said many victims are often hesitant to call police because they fear that their abuser will retaliate against them.

“Until our systems become more consistent in dealing with abusers through prosecution and rehabilitation, victims will probably continue to be fearful,” Wiese said. “Victims should report in order to hold abusers accountable and keep their families safe, but the reality is that this may put the victim and their family in more danger.”

Trying to break free

Many victims of domestic violence stay in a relationship out of fear, said Lindee Kimball, executive director of Solutions Center of Fond du Lac. Last year Solutions Center assisted 225 victims of domestic abuse.

“Victims try to leave their partners about seven times. They go back thinking things will be good for a while,” said Kimball. “It’s all about the power and control that the abuser exerts over the victim. They think it’s easier to go back and deal with it, hoping it won’t happen again. The scariest part is when they do leave. The abuser hates the fact that the victim is taking that power back. That’s usually when something happens.”

In 2012, about half of the intimate partner-related homicides occurred after a relationship ended or when one person in the relationship was taking steps to leave, according to the report.

Last year a relatively high number of children — nearly 25 percent — were killed by their fathers or other adult male household members.

“The male abuser knows what’s dearest to a mother — her children. They know they can hurt her most by taking them or harming them,” Kimball said.

Work in progress

Under state law, Jason Anderson should never have had possession of a firearm. The Fond du Lac man shot his wife as she lay in bed at their Fond du Lac home on Nov. 8, 2011.

While family members say there was no history of domestic violence, one witness told police that Jason Anderson had previously threatened his wife with a gun. Anderson was a convicted felon due to a drug conviction and, therefore, was prohibited from owning a gun. He was sentenced to life in prison for the death of his wife.

Under Wisconsin law judges don’t know if domestic abusers own firearms. And if an abuser lies about owning guns or ignores a court order to turn them over there is often no follow-up and no penalty.

A pending bipartisan bill would allow courts to verify whether people are subject to domestic violence and child abuse restraining orders and direct them to surrender their weapons. The bill would not change the fact that it is not illegal to sell a gun to someone who is the subject of a restraining order.

Wiese said laws addressing gun restrictions in domestic violence cases can be beneficial in trying to hold offenders more accountable or by keeping victims and their families safe by eliminating easy access to weapons.

“Laws are put out there regarding access to firearms ... but that doesn’t mean they are always enforced,” Wiese said. “Restraining orders and offenders being put on probation or serving time are definitely a step in the right direction, but safety is not always guaranteed in these situations. It’s a work in progress.”

A helping hand

Wiese said Fond du Lac County has many services and projects in place to help address domestic violence within the community. Fond du Lac County’s Coordinated Community Response (CCR) and Domestic Abuse Reporting Team (DART) are both put in place to bring together the first responders of these cases to discuss flaws within the system and ways to improve victim and affected family member services.

The Fond du Lac Police Department launched an enhanced victim follow-up protocol this summer led by the Domestic Violence Intervention Team. Officers accompany victims to meetings with counselors/advocates at Agnesian HealthCare or Solutions Center to obtain additional information or offer counseling services victims may need following an assault.

“We wanted to take a proactive approach to ensure that the wellbeing of victims of domestic violence was taken care of and they were getting the resources they needed to help them get out of abusive relationships,” said Assistant Police Chief Steve Klein. “It goes above and beyond just responding to a domestic abuse incident and making an arrest and referring the charge to the district attorney’s office.”

Kimball said friends and neighbors can also assist domestic violence victims, especially those who try to hide the abuse.

“After Nicole Anderson died, many folks started second-guessing themselves, wondering if they had missed signs of abuse. If you’re friends with someone and you suspect abuse, don’t be afraid to ask them because just maybe they’re waiting for you to ask so they can open up that gate,” Kimball said. “And if you think someone is being hurt address it, don’t ignore it. It might be too late next time.”

Colleen Kottke

Fond du Lac Reporter