This was death on a scale rarely seen in Maine: Joel Smith of Saco killed his wife, Heather, and their three children late Saturday night before fatally shooting himself.
The scale of last weekend’s killings may set them apart. In other ways, though, we’ve seen similar tragedies all too many times in Maine. We should educate ourselves about domestic abuse and not only reach out on behalf of the victim but also press for policy changes. Nothing will bring back the Smith family, but the rest of us have a chance to help keep such devastating events from happening again.
Police have said that before the shootings, they’d never responded to a report of domestic violence involving the Smiths. Neither Joel nor Heather Smith had a criminal record. And neighbors said they were friendly people who liked to socialize with other residents of their apartment complex.
But these aren’t reasons to discount the possibility of abuse in the Smith household. Abusers have the ability to appear likable to outsiders but present another side to those closest to them.
A friend of Heather Smith has told police that Joel Smith threatened to commit suicide in front of his wife. Suicidal behavior is common among domestic homicide perpetrators. And suicide threats are often used in an abusive relationship to get attention and to persuade the victim to do what their partner wants. Abusers count on victims to keep their secrets and believe that any confidants will be reluctant to interfere in private matters.
Joel and Heather Smith reportedly had sought marital counseling, which is another venue in which abusers exert control over their partners. In an abusive relationship, couples’ therapy “puts victims of domestic abuse at risk as batterers use information gained during joint counseling against their victims,” the Maine Domestic Homicide Review Panel has warned.
Couples’ therapists, however, can be of help to victims. How? They can meet separately with each partner before deciding whether to provide counseling. Even though best practices recommend against couples’ counseling in abuse situations, the therapist still has a chance to ask privately whether there’s been violent or abusive behavior and to help the victim decide how to proceed – practices recommended to all mental health counselors in an April homicide review panel report.
We would go as far as to urge the state to mandate such screenings by all health care providers. Done correctly, they can be an effective means of prevention and intervention .
It may be uncomfortable to speak up when you hear or see evidence of abuse in someone else’s relationship. Domestic violence happens in an atmosphere of isolation, however, and it’s only when that isolation is breached that change will take place.