CONTRIBUTORS

COVID-19 didn't cause domestic violence deaths

Rekha Basu
Des Moines Register (TNS)

Ranea Bell is remembered as the life of the party, someone who could talk people through their tough times, get shy folks on the dance floor, and laugh in a way that made others join in. But that laughter was cut short in February when Bell, 37, was found dead in her Ames, Iowa, apartment of blunt force trauma to the head.

Now her boyfriend, Richard George Fleck, 33, has been charged with first-degree murder.

It's not even year's end, and Iowa is on track to experience its worst year in a decade for domestic violence deaths. State and national experts blame the COVID-19 pandemic for trapping people at home with limited services. But COVID can't explain why — half a century after the scourge of domestic violence in America made headlines and sparked re-examinations of everything from arrest policies to how we raise our sons and daughters — these attacks are at epidemic levels.

More:Why does York County have so many protection from abuse orders?

More:'He needs to be separated from society': Domestic abuser sentenced to 40 years in prison

York County was tied for third with four other Pennsylvania counties for the most protection from abuse cases filed in 2020.

And, given that it is, why are funds for services being cut, why are bystander warnings being inadequately heeded, and why are men still seeing fit to take out their aggressions, even lethally, on their most intimate and trusted partners? That's not to mention the insidious role of easy gun access in states like Iowa.

Guns used in many killings of domestic partners

Enabled by the prevalence of guns, domestic violence fatalities have risen every year since 2017, according to the Iowa Coalition Against Domestic Violence. Last year, guns killed nine of the 10 female partners who died in domestic violence incidents.

"Guns don't kill people; people kill people" is a mantra the gun lobby will dutifully recite each time a further loosening of restrictions is passed. Well, actually, guns do kill people, and yet we continue putting them in the hands of aggressors.

The Iowa coalition and its member service providers are facing the loss of some $6 million in federal funding for fiscal year 2022 under the Victims of Crime Act.

We can no longer pretend we don't know the scope of the domestic violence scourge. Millions of people got a shocking look at some of its dynamics from a recording of an Aug. 12 Moab, Utah, police stop of a van carrying 22-year-old Gabby Petito and her 23-year-old fiance, Brian Laundrie, on their trip across the country.

A 911 caller reporting a domestic dispute said that, as the pair drove by, "the gentleman was slapping the girl." He said the van stopped and "they ran up and down the sidewalk. He proceeded to hit her, hopped in the car and they drove off." CNN reported on the call after the audio was released.

Gabby Petito. (Courtesy North Port Police Department/TNS)

But the Moab police officer who interviewed a tearful Petito as she blamed herself wrote in his report, "I do not believe the situation escalated to the level of a domestic assault as much as that of a mental health crisis." He filed no charges.

Again on Aug. 27, a couple in Jackson, Wyoming, reported seeing Petito and Laundrie involved in a "commotion" in which "Petito was in tears and Laundrie was visibly angry, going in and out of the restaurant several times and showing anger toward the staff around the hostess stand," according to CNN.

As we all now tragically know, those episodes morphed into her disappearance, which later led to the discovery of her body, dead from strangulation. Laundrie disappeared after a stop home in Florida, and eventually his remains were found in another state. His parents, with whom he evidently had stayed in between those deaths, refused to talk to police, though Laundrie's sister later expressed suspicion of her brother and urged them to talk.

Bystanders become enablers of violence

Survivors of domestic assault will tell you how it's common for victims to make excuses for their abusers, or take the blame themselves, as Petito seemed to be doing in the news video. Sometimes they're conflicted, still in love with the person and not wanting him to get in trouble. Sometimes they're scared of the repercussions if they speak up yet nothing happens to him. But victim advocates will tell you that violence escalates, and that the only way to stop the cycle is with meaningful consequences. And that means cooperation from bystanders, family, police and anyone else involved.

But, time and again, bystanders become enablers, or even participants in the victimization, whether it be a domestic violence assault or a sexual assault by others.

Recently Makéna Solberg filed suit against University of Iowa fraternity Phi Gamma Delta and two of its members. She alleges that, during a fraternity party in September 2020, she was sexually assaulted while too incapacitated to give consent or even remember. Her lawsuit says members allowed it to be filmed, photographed and shared widely.

According to the lawsuit, Solberg, who was 19 at the time, had suddenly become ill and asked for help from one of the men, who responded by offering his bedroom. The suit says the men "planned and conspired to lure her into it," which isolated her from a friend. It said they sexually assaulted her while she was intoxicated and physically impaired. A police detective found a related photo on one of the accused students’ phones, evidently taken in a bedroom. The two were kicked out of the fraternity. But no criminal charges were filed.

The lawsuit also alleges the fraternity "knew or should have known of prior bad acts of (the defendants) and failed to take appropriate preventative actions."

The case has led to protests in support of Solberg, including one attended by 1,000 people outside the fraternity house. A Change.org petition with more than 167,000 signatures demands the fraternity be removed from campus and says, "Since the courts won't give her justice, we need to do it ourselves."

Domestic violence persists with no end in sight

Violence against women, or those perceived to be of less power, may be the longest-running pandemic, and one for which no vaccine is in sight. It knows no geographic borders, no boundaries of national origin, religion, race or ethnicity. It feeds off male and female power differentials in society. It capitalizes on disruptions such as wars, lockdowns and economic downturns.

Sometimes there are mental health issues involved, but too often as in the Utah case, the violence may be ignored with that excuse.

"Isolation may expose or worsen vulnerabilities due to a lack of established social support systems," says a paper from the National Institutes of Health. "The temporary shutdown of non-essential businesses has led to unemployed and economic strain. Quarantine conditions are associated with alcohol abuse, depression, and post-traumatic stress symptoms. Stay-at-home orders may cause a catastrophic milieu for individuals whose lives are plagued by domestic violence."

Systemic violence takes refuge in darkness and reappears in myriad forms, from the sexual assault of children, including by relatives, to increasingly against sexual minorities who don't strictly conform to gender binaries. It's a crime whose impact is too often permanent. Gaining ground on it will require every person of conscience and every institution in society to get involved.

— Rekha Basu is a columnist for the Des Moines Register.