Column: ‘A thousand question marks’

Kitty Genovese was raped and killed, a crime witnessed by nearly 40 witnesses. In death, she has become the poster child for what is known as the “bystander effect.” (Archive photo)

Kitty Genovese was raped and killed, a crime witnessed by nearly 40 witnesses. In death, she has become the poster child for what is known as the “bystander effect.” (Archive photo)

Several years ago a young crime victim in our community was violently assaulted twice in less than four months by her common-law spouse.

Despite a no-contact order being in place, the victim received multiple text messages from the suspect in the hours leading up to the second assault. Police later determined the victim had received over 70 messages from the suspect in a span of two hours.

A detective scrolled through the victim’s phone and saw that most of the individual messages were just symbols: “?” and “??” and “???.”

The detective asked about the possible intent behind the messages. The victim shrugged her shoulders. “It’s just a thousand question marks,” she said.

Family violence victims caught in a cycle of abuse face many difficult questions and hard choices.

The questions get even more complicated when a victim considers breaking free from an abusive relationship: Can I afford to live on my own? How will the bills get paid? How will a break-up affect the children? What will my family/friends/church/co-workers think?

An unaffected outsider looking in at a family violence situation might also be tempted to ask a question “Why don’t they just leave?”

There are many reasons why victims are reluctant or are unable to walk away from an abusive relationship. The answer to “Why don’t they just leave?” is itself another question: how many of us have the financial ability and the support network of friends and family in place to walk away from our current living situation?

Additionally, victims are most at risk for increased violence when they attempt to re-gain control of their lives by leaving an abuser.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that nearly one in four women and one in seven men in the U.S. have experienced some form of physical violence at the hands of a domestic partner. 

In addition to the physical and emotional impact on individuals, children and families, the financial cost of family violence to society – from lost productivity at work and school, health care expenses, the strain on law enforcement resources – is estimated to be billions of dollars each year.

The financial impact alone would seem to indicate that family violence is a community problem, if not a large-scale public health crisis, as well.

The good news is that law enforcement, criminal justice system personnel and other service providers are receiving more frequent and better training, and are employing new methods in problem-solving family violence situations.

Some of the strategies that appear to be working include: recognizing indicators of abuse beyond the obvious signs of physical violence; giving victims an opportunity to participate in a danger assessment to help make more informed decisions; and connecting victims and families with resources and support in a timely manner. Additionally, service agencies are doing a better job of sharing information and pooling resources to assist victims.

While the public service response has improved somewhat in recent years, the community response to family violence still has room for improvement.

In 1964, a young woman named Katherine “Kitty” Genovese was raped and murdered on a busy street, in a crowded Brooklyn neighborhood in New York City. NYPD detectives contacted over 30 neighbors who’d seen or heard all or part of the attack. Many were asked why they hadn’t called the police or hadn’t intervened to help.

More than one witness told the detectives they simply “didn’t want to get involved.”

In the aftermath of the Genovese murder, the concept of “diffusion of responsibility” and the “bystander effect” were identified to describe this type of community apathy. While not a family violence case, the bystander effect applies to family violence.

This murder is relevant because it demonstrates an indifference to family violence that persists today. Several witnesses in 1964 said they disregarded Kitty’s cries for help because they thought they were witnessing a “lover’s quarrel.”

There’s no question family violence is all too common in our society. Timely intervention can make all the difference. While progress has been made, it will take a community response to better address the problem of family violence.

In the meantime, for most family violence victims, there are thousands of question marks and not enough answers.

October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. James Tobin is a 21-year veteran of law enforcement in Yavapai County.