As we mourn yet another Mainer killed by a man who, police say, abused her and would not countenance that she could wish to be free of him, we’re reminded of the shock waves domestic-violence homicide sends through our communities. Each time, we grieve the loss of the victim and struggle with feelings of disbelief and anger. These emotions can be particularly powerful for the families of perpetrators, often left devastated by their loved one’s actions.

Coverage of Melissa Sousa’s homicide makes clear that many people knew she was in great danger. This is not uncommon: Despite what initial reports frequently indicate, fatality reviews of domestic-violence homicides reveal that people surrounding the couple – friends, family, employers, physicians, service providers – often have at least a sense that something is wrong. Yet too often, we are stuck not knowing how to respond.

One thing we can do is reckon with our deep disbelief that someone we know and care about is capable of purposefully placing their partner and children not just in fear, but also in potentially lethal danger. Even in the face of overwhelming evidence, like when we hear the threats with our own ears or when we see how badly the victim has been hurt, many of us who care for abusive people seem unwilling or unable to take in the reality and gravity of our loved one’s behavior. If we are to prevent future homicides, we must come to terms with these hard truths.

Domestic-violence abusers are our co-workers, teachers, teammates and friends. The persistent mental disconnect that scoffs “No way; not him” serves only to provide useful cover, allowing him to continue to act against his partner and family with impunity. We might tell ourselves we want to “avoid taking sides.” But when we fool ourselves into thinking we can be neutral, we leave victims on their own. As Elie Wiesel so famously said, “Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”

Maine’s Domestic Abuse Homicide Review Panel has recognized this fact for years: Preventing domestic-violence homicide isn’t only up to law enforcement. We all have a role.

Those who murder their partners spend their lifetimes building the belief systems that tell them they have the right to decide whether that person lives or dies. What would happen if the first time someone indicated he thought he could tell his partner what to do, his closest friends said, “You can’t treat her that way”? What would happen if the first time they heard that he insists on controlling the money, his colleagues said, “That’s not right. Here’s a different way; sort yourself out”? What would happen if the first time we heard about him hitting her, we all said, “You need to take responsibility for your actions, and until you do, you are not welcome at our table”?

If you are worried that someone you know may be harming their partner and children, speak plainly to that person about what you’ve seen and why it concerns you. Be clear that you do not excuse their behavior and you need it to stop. Avoid getting pulled into excuses or blame shifting; focus on their actions, not their partner’s. Privately check in with the partner; ask how you can support them and offer them the number to their local domestic-violence resource center. Make a call to confidentially consult with advocates about the complexities of the specific situation. Always consider your choices through the lens of safety for you and the partner, but do not be lulled into thinking that the problem will go away on its own. It will not.

Research on interventions for domestic abusers shows that a coordinated and consistent response from all community sectors has the best chance of successfully interrupting their violence. As community members, we should all ask whether we’ve done everything we can to identify and displace the belief systems that can lead eventually to homicide, and to establish safe and respectful conduct as our collective minimum expectation. Demanding that people change their behavior doesn’t mean we stop caring for them. But sometimes, the best way to care for someone is to expect better from them.


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