Opinion

Kentucky doesn’t require tracking of domestic violence deaths. Is it finally time?

‘We’ve got to do more’ to end domestic violence

Sheriff Kathy Witt says Thursday's Domestic Violence Candlelight Vigil in front of the Fayette County District Courthouse will become an annual event. It begins with a symbolic release of balloons.
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Sheriff Kathy Witt says Thursday's Domestic Violence Candlelight Vigil in front of the Fayette County District Courthouse will become an annual event. It begins with a symbolic release of balloons.

Jennifer Montgomery and Patrice Smith.

They were both shot to death last year in their homes by their husbands, according to police. Colin Montgomery of Danville was charged with murder and William Smith killed himself. In both cases, according to police, their children were in the house.

The names probably don’t mean anything to you, and why would they? Two families were destroyed last year, but domestic violence is so baked into the fabric of our lives that we hardly notice it. Its very pervasiveness makes it practically invisible, except to its many victims.

How many victims, you ask? Ten years ago, Valarie Honeycutt Spears and I wrote a story about the fact that Kentucky didn’t require any public agencies to track domestic violence homicides. That was shortly after the high-profile murder of Amanda Ross by former state legislator Steve Nunn, when people became focused on the problem of domestic violence. But nothing has changed.

What we wrote 10 years ago is still true: “Currently, a hodgepodge of public and private agencies attempt to keep track of various domestic violence statistics, but the information they gather is disorganized and incomplete. The Administrative Office of the Courts collects information on all domestic violence court orders while the Kentucky State Police counts how many people are killed each year , but none of that information is connected.”

(Today, the State Police does collect information on “Lovers’ Quarrels,” but it’s not clear exactly what that entails.)

For example, it would be greatly helpful to advocates, prosecutors and judges to know if protective orders are working in what areas.

The University of Kentucky College of Public Health gets federal funding for its Kentucky Violent Death Reporting System, which collects death certificates, coroner and medical examiner reports, police reports, crime laboratory reports and toxicology reports. Between 2005 and 2017, the system reported 330 homicides that were “intimate partner violence related.” Thirty-five percent of women killed were in that category. But director Sabrina Brown still thinks domestic violence deaths are under-reported in her project because the information she receives is limited to death-scene investigators’ records and reports and doesn’t link to court records.

The Kentucky Coalition Against Domestic Violence still uses a digital clipping service from newspapers around the state, but it’s also imprecise. They also try to cull information from the 15 domestic violence shelters they support around the states. In the Bluegrass region, that’s Greenhouse17.

“To my knowledge, nothing has changed,” said Greenhouse 17 executive director Darlene Thomas. “It would be great to have an accurate count because it helps us to have the information to not only create systemic change, but also tell us how can we best work with police and courts. For me, the more knowledge we have, the more I’m able to protect people.”

State Sen. Whitney Westerfield, R-Hopkinsville, says he would support legislation to collect and link data on domestic violence, but it would require costly upgrades to link computer systems.

“In a perfect world, the prosecutors and defense bar and courts would be using the same system or have access to the same system and could keep track of that sort of information,” he said.

For example, some death information is collected through coroner’s reports, but a coroner wouldn’t have immediate access to information on whether a victim had requested or had any kind of protective order.

Intimate partner violence is linked to many other societal problems, such as child abuse, stalking and sexual assault. TK Logan, who researches violence against women at UK and is a national expert on stalking, is still flummoxed by the lack of information.

“We just don’t care that much,” she said. “Why don’t we know and why don’t we want to know? It could be related to guns, I’m not sure.”

Certainly, gun politics are weighty in Kentucky and across the U.S. In April, 157 House Republicans voted against the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, including five congressmen from Kentucky. Democrat John Yarmuth voted in favor of the bill. Many of them objected to a provision known as “the boyfriend loophole” that restricts those convicted of domestic abuse, assault or stalking from buying or owning a firearm. Federal laws already prohibit spouses or former spouses with domestic violence convictions from owning guns.

It’s possible that Logan has the right idea, that in the midst of progress like #MeToo, we are taking steps backwards. As we wallow in toxic social media, where we harass and malign each other on a daily basis, are we seeing that toxicity become more tangible? On June 23, a 25-year-old Louisville woman named Tyyatta Thomas was shot in the head by a 27-year-old friend named Jose Rodriguez. He wanted to be more than friends, and she was scared, her mother said. She did not, so he killed her.

The press reports didn’t say whether Thomas had filed any kind of protective order or, for that matter, if Rodriguez had license for his gun. So are things getting worse? We won’t know any time soon.

Linda Blackford writes columns and commentary for the Herald-Leader.

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