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Bath, Brunswick, other communities shine light on domestic violence

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Bath, Brunswick, other communities shine light on domestic violence

BATH — Purple lights are glowing this week from the Mid-Coast down to Portland, a reminder about domestic violence and a beacon of hope for victims.

City Hall, Winter Street Center and the Library Park gazebo in Bath and Mid Coast Hospital and several churches in Brunswick were among places that participated in the awareness campaign. City Hall in Portland is expected to shine the light for a month.

This visibility campaign, "Glowing Purple: Shine the Light on Domestic Violence," was launched by the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV).

Last October saw a statewide effort in New York of shining purple lights from prominent landmarks and buildings, including Niagara Falls and the Empire State Building, and the effort has spread this month to California, Colorado, Illinois, Pennsylvania and Maine, as well as Washington, D.C.

The local participation came through the Working Group on Family Violence, Bath Police Chief Mike Field said on Monday.

The Working Group meets monthly at Bath City Hall and includes Field and other law enforcement officers, Family Crisis Services of Cumberland and Sagadahoc Counties, Sexual Assault Support Services of Midcoast Maine, and a family violence advocate from Brunswick Naval Air Station.

Jen LaChance Sibley, outreach team leader of Family Crisis Services of Cumberland and Sagadahoc Counties, serves as vice chairman on the Working Group and introduced the idea to the other participants.

Family Crisis Services helps people in intimate partner relationships who are experiencing domestic violence, Sibley said on Monday. The organization has outreach offices in Brunswick, Portland and Bridgton. It helps victims navigate through the court system, filing protection from abuse orders and seeking legal aid.

Sibley said Family Crisis Services' Brunswick office usually sees between 25 and 45 victims a month, while Portland gets 130  to 180 and Bridgton up to 60. The organization offers a shelter in Portland, and a Young Adult Abuse Prevention Program in both counties, as well as elder abuse advocacy.

The story behind the purple light is a powerful, but tragic one. Sibley explained that the story has been said to involve Lisa Bianco, a woman from the Midwest who left an abusive relationship in the 1980s. She became head of a program for battered women in her new community, but was killed by her batterer after he was released from jail on temporary furlough.

In tribute to Bianco, the woman's friends and family chose to wear her favorite color, purple, in her honor. The lights that shine this month honor Bianco and other victims of abuse.

According to the NCADV Web site, www.ncadv.org, a domestic assault is reported to Maine police every 96 minutes. It states that 5,459 domestic assaults were reported in Maine in 2006, of which 58 percent were male on female assaults, and 2.5 percent involved a knife, firearm or other dangerous weapon.

Bath police had 33 domestic violence arrests in 2006, which dropped to 23 in 2007 and rose to 31 in 2008. In the past decade, 1998 and 2001 were the peak years, with 41 arrests.

Reported family fights in Bath totaled 109 in 2006, rising to 135 the following year and dropping slightly to 127 in 2008.

Field said the manner of domestic violence can vary, from a push to something more serious, like an injury or threatening with a weapon. A domestic violence arrest can even result from an aggressor taking the telephone away from a victim calling for help, since the act constitutes failure to report a crime.

Criminal mischief has also recently become arrestable under a domestic violence statute, Field said; in this case, the perpetrator causes damage in or around a home.

Domestic violence assault is considered by police to be different from general assault, like a bar fight. That distinction has aided police in several ways, such as providing increased accountability.

"First, if there's an assault at the bar and we get there and it's over with, we can only issue a summons, because assault is a misdemeanor crime," Field said. "But the domestic violence statute allows us to make a warrantless arrest. So if an officer goes to a domestic violence call and there's evidence that an assault has taken place, (and) we didn't see it, obviously, they can make the arrest."

Police can impose strict bail restrictions that do not allow the perpetrator to return to the house or have contact with the victim, and the department can also make referrals to Family Crisis Services.

Field said he hoped people would see the lights this week, wonder what they are about and learn more about it and the overall cause. He said eliminating domestic violence is a constant battle.

"We see it every day in the news," he said. "The homicides in Maine, a good percentage of them are domestic violence-related. The recent one in Westbrook sounds like that was one. We don't want people to lose sight of it ... It's everywhere, unfortunately."

Sibley said 61 percent of homicides last year in Maine were the result of domestic violence.

Though the battle is constant, awareness has increased, Field said. He explained that in the past, people hearing their neighbors fighting might not get involved or report anything to the police.

"We have come a long way," the chief said. "People ... do report it a lot more. But we're still pretty confident that a lot (of incidents) are still unreported. People think it's not their business ... (that) you're interfering with people's lives, but we always try to send the message that if you think something like family violence is happening, let us know or let somebody know, and we'll go from there."

The awareness effort "is really about the community recognizing red flags, recognizing that there's something that might not be right at that house, and being a support system," Sibley said, "because many, many times victims in domestic violence relationships are isolated and feel like they have nowhere to turn. So, with projects like these ... it's shedding the light on domestic violence, but also hopefully starting conversations with people who normally don't talk about domestic violence."

Alex Lear can be reached at 373-9060 ext. 113 or alear@theforecaster.net.