High-Profile Cases Put Spotlight On Domestic Abuse

Domestic violence training is an integral part of instruction at the Connecticut Police Academy in Meriden. (JOHN WOIKE)

And there's evidence the problem has intensified in the past year: In Hartford, one category of family violence — assault — has risen in each of the past five years; the number of cases coming into state courts is increasing; and more victims are seeking emergency shelter or calling crisis hot lines.

In 2007, slightly more than 20,000 incidents in Connecticut were classified by police as family violence cases — crimes involving a spouse, a former spouse, a relative, a boyfriend or girlfriend, a live-in companion or the mother or father of the victim's child. Included in that number are these:

•22 family violence homicides.

•6,543 assaults.

•107 sexual assaults.

•17 kidnappings.

•149 instances of risk of injury to children.

•6,691 cases of disorderly conduct.

•4,212 breach of peace cases.

•2,013 violations of court orders.

•288 instances of criminal mischief.

Those numbers include scores of women who have been victimized more than once.

Often, it takes six or seven episodes of physical violence or verbal threats "before a woman accomplishes her leave" and seeks refuge with a friend or relative, or at an emergency shelter, Tindill said. From July 2005 through June 2008, about 5,600 women and children came through the 16 shelters under the coalition's umbrella.

Victims do not follow a script in the way they respond. They may stay in an abusive relationship because of economic dependence, fear for their children's safety, or fear that leaving may antagonize the batterer and elevate the violence. For those same reasons, victims often are reluctant to cooperate with authorities, making prosecutions difficult and keeping domestic violence an underreported crime. In 2007, the average conviction rate in Connecticut for domestic violence cases was 24 percent.

"It's a lot less complicated if it's a stranger coming at you and clobbering you," said Barbara Spiegel, director of the Susan B. Anthony Project, which offers crisis services in Torrington. "Then there's no question in the victim's mind that the police should be involved."

Battering and family violence are problems that transcend urban, suburban or rural boundaries. The town of Winchester, which has a population of just over 10,000 and includes Winsted, has a higher per capita rate of domestic crime than Hartford, with a population of 124,500.

But nothing is simple here. The higher numbers in some communities could mean that police and support services are responsive and victims feel comfortable about reporting domestic violence. Conversely, very low numbers of reported incidents in a community could suggest that some victims aren't coming forward, advocates say.

Even though victims often are reluctant to reach out to authorities, the domestic violence caseload in Connecticut's courts is rising — a fact that speaks to the depth of the problem.

In 2006-07, there were 25,901 family violence cases in court; the figure rose to 29,381 in 2008-09.

And in the past 12 months, crisis hot lines and shelters have reported significant increases in contacts with victims. For example, Meriden-Wallingford Chrysalis, which offers services and support for domestic violence victims, reported an 83 percent spike in hot line calls for the first half of this year, when compared to January through June of 2008.