Domestic violence reports in Maine climbed for the second year in a row in 2012, but police and victim advocates say it may be that the often-hidden crime is being brought into the open with more victims calling police for help.

However, they say the increase could pose serious problems if funding for domestic abuse  programs such as safe shelters and education programs continue to be cut.

Statistics released last week by the Maine Department of Public Safety show that for the second straight year, domestic violence complaints to police have risen about 4.5 percent. The numbers are compiled from individual police departments and sheriff’s offices.

Maine police recorded 5,593 domestic assaults in 2012 compared to 5,353 the year before.

Domestic violence shelters and emergency hotlines also have reported increases.

Advocates credit a number of forces for increasing the reports — some good, some not.

There is some evidence nationally that the economic recession contributed to an increase in violence, said Julia Colpitts, executive director of the Maine Coalition to End Domestic Violence.

Colpitts said that in an abusive household, the level of violence increases if the abusive partner is unemployed. It’s one reason why advocates, while pushing for accountability, want to make sure offenders can continue working.

“Obviously economics don’t cause domestic violence, but what they have noticed is when that additional economic stressor is there, the crimes get more violent,” Colpitts said.

Richard Rosenfeld, a criminology professor who studies crime statistics at the University of Missouri-St. Louis,  said there may have, in fact, been more domestic assaults.

“I suspect the uptick in domestic violence is real and not a reporting artifact. Other jurisdictions are also experiencing increases,” he said.

Colpitts and others believe that a more significant contributor to the increase is a greater willingness by victims, and by friends, family and neighbors, to report instances of domestic violence.

Advocates applauded efforts by Gov. Paul LePage to raise the profile of the issue with constituents and his efforts to promote workplace safety around the issue of domestic violence. The governor also has supported strengthening laws that hold offenders accountable, like a requirement that serious domestic violence abusers appear before a judge to have their bail set, rather than just before a bail commissioner.

“It is mostly about awareness,” said Adrienne Bennett, spokeswoman for the governor. “What he’s been hugely successful at is getting men engaged in this issue and bringing that to the forefront.”

Bennett said that while most of the funding for domestic violence programs comes from federal sources, LePage used contingency funds to support the electronic monitoring task force, created after Amy Bagley and her two children were killed by her estranged husband in Dexter in 2011. He also supports a current proposal to add $200,000 to Pine Tree Legal Services for domestic violence cases.

One of the keys to addressing domestic violence is creating a safety net so that victims can report abuse. Hotlines, shelters and innovative programs designed to reach out to victims help them gain safety and get the problem out in the open where the criminal justice system can work.

Some parts of the state have implemented the latest approaches to domestic violence, such as employing risk assessment teams to gauge an offender’s dangerousness after an assault, Colpitts said.

Cumberland County is piloting a program called the Enhanced Police Intervention Collaboration.

The program pairs staff from Family Crisis Services with police during patrols. That way, when police are called to a domestic violence incident, a person is immediately there who can help the victim understand what supports are available. It is more effective than an officer handing the person a brochure with a telephone number, said Lois Galgay Reckitt, executive director of Family Crisis Services.

“The good news is we’re making progress with reaching victims at an earlier stage,” Reckitt said. “We’re doing follow-ups with police, demystifying the criminal justice system for victims.”

The response to domestic violence by police has improved tremendously over the years, Colpitts said, another reason why many victims feel more comfortable reporting abuse.

“Law enforfement really has been making an honest effort to make victims feel safe, to provide follow-through,” said Colpitts, singling out Biddeford police as an example of such a department.

Maine’s approach to workplace education around the issue of domestic violence was used as a model to educate supervisors in federal agencies, all of whom are required to develop domestic violence policies for their workplaces, Colpitts said.

But the important work of getting victims to report abuse will fall short of addressing the problem if programs aimed at supporting victims are cut back, she said.

Domestic violence resource centers across the state are experiencing cuts of 10 percent to 20 percent even as the number of crimes reported is growing. Federal funding for domestic violence work statewide was cut $350,000 in the current fiscal year and a number of programs that support the work also have been cut.

In York County, Caring Unlimited’s transitional housing program for victims moving out of an abusive situation and seeking to re-establish themselves suffered a $100,000 cut in federal funds and another $100,000 cut from the Sanford Housing Authority, which has seen its own funding cut. The $277,000 program won’t be able to survive in the future without renewed support.

Bennett, the governor’s spokeswoman, said the governor’s staff is working with the Maine Housing Authority looking for ways to help the York County program.

Caring Unlimited’s budget dropped from $1.6 million in 2012 to $1.3 million in the current year, and the number of agency staff has dropped from 24 to 18, according to executive director Cynthia Peoples.

Colpitts worries that as budgets are squeezed, proactive work to prevent the problem in the first place, like education in the schools, will be cut back.

“A high percentage of abusive relationships start in high school,” she said.

The Uniform Crime Statistics are compiled by local police departments, submitted to the state and ultimately to the FBI. The numbers are used for research and for developing policy.

Maine Public Safety Commissioner John Morris said they also are important when the federal government is dispensing grants that target a particular crime.

The statistics track serious violent crimes such as murder, aggravated assault and robbery as well as property crimes like burglary, theft and arson. Maine has been tracking the number of domestic assaults for more than 30 years.

Historically, there has been some subjectivity in determining which assaults qualify for reporting as domestic assaults, said Alfred Blumstein, a criminologist who studies crime statistics at Carnegie Mellon University. That can lead to variation in those statistics and broader statistics on assault and aggravated assault, he said.

In the area of domestic violence, Maine’s statistics show that 56 percent to 58 percent of the state’s domestic assaults are men on women, about 20 percent are women on men, about 8 percent are parents on children and about 4 percent children on parents, according to the state’s Crime in Maine analysis.

Reckitt, of Family Crisis Services, said the number of domestic violence reports rising or falling in a given year is less important than viewing the statistics over time.

“It’s a very intractable problem that’s not going to be solved quickly,” Reckitt said. “Part of what’s happened is communities have stepped forward and said this is just not OK. It’s also making it more likely for people to say to their neighbor, ‘What are you doing? That is not OK.’ “

 

David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at  [email protected]