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Black women at 3-times the risk from homicidal domestic violence

DALLAS — Domestic violence is a crime that cuts a painful swath across all races, socioeconomic levels and cultures.

But experts in the field say that one set of victims — black women — is at a far greater risk to experience the grimmest of all domestic violence statistics: They are about three times more likely to die at the hands of a partner or ex-partner than members of other racial groups. Intimate-partner homicide is also among the leading causes of death for black women ages 15 to 35.

And, the experts add, their plight may not change anytime soon because of complex underlying causes that in some cases stretch back generations: unemployment, poverty, lack of education, incarceration and violent environments.

“A lot of groups have economic issues, but a lot of groups have not had the economic issues we’ve had for as long as we’ve had, for the reasons that we’ve had,” said Dr. Gail Wyatt, a professor of psychiatry and bio-behavioral sciences at UCLA for 35 years.

“This is not just an African-American problem, but we are disproportionately affected by it.”

Domestic violence killings have become a high-profile issue in Texas. In August 2012, authorities say, 32-year-old Deanna Cook’s ex-husband killed her in her home as she called 911 for help. Records show he had a history of abuse.

Last month, police say, Erbie Bowser shot and killed four people, including his ex-girlfriend and estranged wife, and wounded four others in a horrific domestic violence spree. Bowser also had a history of domestic abuse.

In 2012, Dallas police recorded 12 intimate partner murders, and six of the victims were black women. Overall, the department recorded 13,324 family violence offenses - 7,366 involving African-Americans.

Dr. Jacquelyn Campbell, nursing professor at Johns Hopkins University and a leader in the field, has spent more than three decades focusing on black homicidal domestic abuse. She started at a time when she said it was the No. 1 cause of death for black women.

In 1986, she developed the danger assessment tool to help determine the likelihood that an abused woman would be killed by her intimate partner. The tool is still in use.

Campbell said that while prior domestic violence is the top risk factor in determining future attacks, unemployment is “by far the most important demographic” in putting someone at risk to be killed by an intimate partner.

The latest national unemployment rate for blacks is 13 percent, more than double the 6.4 percent for whites. For black men, that figure is 13.5 percent, compared with 6.2 percent for white male.

“Unemployed white men were as likely to kill their partners as unemployed black men, but because the black unemployment rate is higher, we see more deaths of black women,” Campbell said. “In this society ... having a job is meaningful in terms of one’s sense of masculinity. If they don’t have that prestige, if they can’t control anything else, at least I’m going to control my woman.”

Changing the thoughts and actions of men is a major focus of those attempting to reduce homicidal violence against black women.

“This won’t change unless men are engaged,” said Dr. Tricia Bent-Goodley, a professor of social work at Howard University, another top researcher. “Men must be included because they have been the missing link. Without them, we are going to have (more) women and children losing their lives.”

Dr. Gail Garfield is an associate professor in the sociology department at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice at City University of New York who also has done extensive study in the field. She said socioeconomic factors ranging from chronic employment to high rates of incarceration, combined with others, lead to a feeling of disrespect that can lead to homicidal violence.

“Poor black men ... have simply lost a lot of hope. They have nothing to lose, except for one thing, and that one thing is respect,” Garfield said. “Black people are real big on respect, especially poor black people. However that respect gets defined, once that line has been crossed, you see violence and violation.”

The experts also say other causes are at play that also factor into the deaths of black women at the hands of their partners. These issues go back decades and are steeped in traditions and habits that are difficult to break.

For example, domestic violence researchers say black women often remain in volatile relationships longer than abused women of other races. Bent-Goodley said some “African-American women just don’t feel safe in interacting with some of the systems” designated to help abuse victims, such as the police or even women’s shelters.

Or if they do decide to leave an abusive partner, their plans are often met with resistance by family members or religious leaders. So the violence continues to escalate and many of the women don’t even realize how dangerous their situation is.

Bishop T.D. Jakes, senior pastor of The Potter’s House in Dallas, said faith plays a major role in the issue. But he, too, stressed the other factors that lead to abuse.

“Statistics prove that during the recession, domestic violence increased drastically,” Jakes said. “Anger and rage are building up in the hearts of men who feel helpless and hopeless. And more and more, men have rage that is suppressed. We have got to find a better way to handle our frustrations.”

And in many other instances, black women who are abuse victims, instead of reporting the assaults or leaving, choose to fight back physically. The experts say it’s a cultural standard that is often applauded and admired by those close to the women. But they also note that willingness to “take a punch if they have to” and then give one back can lead to even more intense abuse from an angry spouse or partner.

“One of the things that it means to be a man is to not be beaten up by a woman,” Garfield said. “So it can take one of these things from a woman who is talking back to a man, to a woman who is hit defending herself, to escalating the violence.”

Tonya Lovelace, director of the Women of Color Network in Harrisburg, Pa., said that because they are defending themselves, some women may mistakenly believe that they aren’t really in an abusive relationship.

“We still may be willing to fight back and defend ourselves, where ultimately what we’re trying to do is defend our relationship,” Lovelace said. “By the time we come to the conclusion that we need outside help ... something really severe has already happened. A lot of times we don’t even see these women until they have been killed.”

There is some good news, however. Overall domestic violence cases, including those involving blacks, have dropped dramatically for more than a decade. This trend is expected to continue as domestic violence laws are improved and applied more equitably.

Also, the experts said it is important to note that although studies prove black women are at much greater risk to become victims of intimate partner violence, the vast majority are not abused. And, they add, black men are not naturally inclined to abuse their partners.

But that is not to say that Bent-Goodley and others in her field are trying to play down the problem.

“Yes, it’s gotten better since 1976, but it’s still going on,” said Campbell of Johns Hopkins, adding that both victims and abusers need help. “We need to make sure they get the kind of counseling they need. It can’t be a family secret. They have to get professional help so that they don’t continue the cycle.

“I firmly believe we can get better at this and decrease the number of homicides,” Campbell added. “If I didn’t, I wouldn’t stay in the business.”

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