PORTLAND — Maine has recently experienced two high-profile domestic violence tragedies, both murder-suicides.

Nathaniel Gordon of Winslow killed his wife Sarah Gordon on June 6, in front of their two children, ages 8 and 9.

One week later, on June 13, Steven Lake of Dexter shot his estranged wife, Amy Lake, and their two children, Cody, 13, and Monica, 12.

For all of us who work in the field of domestic relations, these two cases represent our worst fears. We work with people in conflict every day. At times the anger, grief and frustration are unmanageable.

We try to employ and teach conflict resolution techniques. We encourage mediated solutions, compromise, and setting aside one’s own desires for the sake of a peaceful compromise.

But we must be mindful that where fear, intimidation, control, threats and violence are part of the relationship, the moment of separation and divorce is likely to be the most dangerous.

HARD TO TELL THE DIFFERENCE

From the outside, it is difficult to distinguish between a what is a normally difficult divorce and one that has the potential for tragedy.

As professionals working in this field, we have to take all threats seriously, and use best efforts to assess the risk factors that exist.

Where there is a power imbalance, where one party exerts power and control over the other, or where one party is in fear for his or her own safety or the safety of the children, it is not reasonable to expect the two parties to be able to participate equally in conflict resolution.

The typical encouragement for co-parenting after divorce may not be realistic, wise or safe after a divorce involving domestic violence.

The section of Maine law that governs decision making for children is often referred to as the “Best Interests Statute.”

The law lists 19 different factors to be taken into account when a court makes decisions about children, including their age, their relationship with each parent and the parents’ ability to cooperate with each other.

Not one of the factors includes what’s fair to the parents. The children are not property to be divided, and time with them is not to be counted out like coins.

Much of the anger and venom in the most difficult cases comes when parents lose sight of this fact and instead focus on who “wins” and who “loses” custody of the children.

The court must try to craft an order that creates the best situation for the children, not what suits the parent’s needs and desires.

Before the judge even gets to that question, however, the court must first look at the safety and well-being of the children.

Where there is domestic violence or the threat of domestic violence, Maine law directs the court to act to protect the children’s safety.

All of us, our whole community, suffers when children are exposed to the conflict and violence between parents. It is a trauma that leaves lifelong scars.

The grief and loss, the anger and violence, get passed down from parent to child.

We all have a responsibility, including the courts, attorneys, therapists, teachers, pediatricians, day care providers, parents and grandparents, friends and neighbors. We all must be clear that this behavior will not be tolerated.

RESPECT OTHERS’ CHOICES

The message must be heard loud and clear that each person has a right to self-determination, and if a spouse or partner chooses to leave a relationship or end a marriage, the other spouse or partner must respect that choice.

The most disturbing fact in Steven Lake’s murder of his wife, Amy, and their two children in Dexter was the suggestion that somehow if Amy had been more reasonable with visitation, this would not have occurred.

This is nonsense. Amy Lake is not in any way responsible for Steven Lake’s decision to shoot her and their children dead.

Suggesting that she was wrong to leave this man and to try to protect her children from him is absurd. It’s an attempt to find an excuse for these horrific acts.

We all need to be clear: There is no excuse for domestic violence.

 

– Special to the Telegram