Prevent the next tragedy

Veronica Williams' death reminds us: We must do more

November 28, 2008|By Molly McGrath and Carole Alexander

On Nov. 17, Veronica Williams, 28, entered a Baltimore City District Court in an effort to break a cycle of domestic violence at the hands of her spouse.

She secured a restraining order and exited the courthouse. A few moments later, her husband allegedly cut her throat. In broad daylight. On a public street. In the middle of Northeast Baltimore.

Four days later she was dead and her husband imprisoned, leaving behind three small children who will likely spend the rest of their lives mending from this unspeakable tragedy.

These events reflect a textbook story of domestic violence: a family destroyed by a pattern of violent events that in most cases persists for years. True, the Baltimore City District Court responded to Ms. Williams' request for intervention. An array of services were available through government agencies, the school system and community organizations. And yet, despite such preparedness, our system was not positioned to intervene effectively to prevent a worse-case scenario.

Simply put, we need to do more.

After Ms. Williams was attacked, public attention toward the family intensified. Commentary in the news reflected surprise that Cleaven Williams, an upstanding community leader, could possibly stand accused of such a terrible act.

Medical teams did their very best to try to save Ms. Williams. The local child welfare and mental health agencies leaped into action on behalf of the grieving family. We can only wonder if some equivalent level of attention, earlier on, might have prevented this tragedy.

Domestic violence strikes families regardless of race, age, marital status or socioeconomic class. Children who witness such violence are likely to spend years struggling with the aftermath; without intervention, they may repeat cycles of violence and dysfunction in their own lives. Domestic violence takes a terrible toll on individuals, families, communities and our city as a whole.

Since January 2007, Baltimore has witnessed 32 domestic violence-related deaths. According to the Maryland Uniform Crime Reporting Program, over the past four years there was an average of 4,627 police reports of instances of domestic violence in Baltimore. The Baltimore City District Court reported more than 9,000 protective orders filed this year alone.

As a community and a city, we can and should expect more of ourselves. Family violence is often preventable through aggressive response from the public and private sectors. Courts, police agencies, social services and the public can each play a constructive role.

Courts can and should be quicker to punish perpetrators of violence with jail time, probation and mandatory prevention programs.

Law enforcement should make greater use of a "lethality assessment" when responding to a call where family violence is present. This tool is designed to prevent domestic violence homicides, serious injury and re-assault by encouraging more victims to get help through domestic violence programs.

Social service providers can screen all new cases for evidence of domestic violence in the home. Community and religious leaders can include awareness education in forums where they are already engaging the public. And agencies and community members can work collaboratively with domestic violence service providers to ensure that victims know help is available.

There are also things each of us can do in our daily lives to help families struggling with domestic violence. We can be quicker to mediate conflict among ourselves and those around us. Instead of letting it hide behind the veil of privacy, we can give voice to the presence of family violence whenever we see it.

We can reach out to any family where we see signs of violence - a bruised cheek, a scared child, an aggressive adult - and let them know there are alternatives and help available.

Keeping children and families safe is the job of everyone in our community. If Veronica Williams has a legacy, let us hope it is a call to action to address this very serious problem.

Molly McGrath is the director of the Baltimore City Department of Social Services. Carole Alexander is the executive director of the House of Ruth Maryland.

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