UNION COUNTY — Every seven minutes a woman is battered in New Jersey and every 15 seconds in the United States. Some of these women will end up dead as a result. They will be strangled, shot, stabbed and mutilated and their bodies either left behind or dumped in the woods, river, ocean or some other desolate place. They will be murdered by the person they thought loved them.
One in every four women will experience domestic violence in her lifetime and 1.3 million women are victims of physical assault by an intimate partner each year. Historically, females 20 to 24 years of age are at the greatest risk of nonfatal intimate partner violence or ending up murdered.
The epilogue for victims that do end up murdered is the same – they usually were battered in the past but returned to their abuser for any number of reasons. However, should a man murder his intimate partner in a crime of passion and plea temporary insanity, the average prison sentence of men who kill their intimate partners is only two to six years, according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence.
According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, in 70 to 80 percent of intimate partner homicides nationally, there was a history of physical abuse in the past. But the sad fact is that domestic violence is one of the most chronically underreported crimes.
Both New Jersey state and local police reported that between 40 and 60 percent of the calls they receive, especially at night, are domestic violence disputes. But even if police manage to separate intimate partners, battering does not immediately end with separation.
According to the U.S. Department of Justice, over 70 percent of women injured in domestic violence incidents are injured after separation.
Why is that? The Union County Prosecutor’s Office Domestic Violence Unit Supervisor David Schneider had a fast answer, but not one that is easily understood.
“They buy the continual story of ‘I love you, it won’t happen again,’” Schneider said, adding “they believe them.”
Victims of domestic violence also often simply fear their abusers, assuming that if they report what’s going on, things will only get worse, Schneider said, pointing out that in turn, abusers recognize this and use it as leverage or a vehicle for manipulation.
A research report by the U.S. Department of Justice, which explored findings from a survey on violence against women, revealed that unmarried, cohabitating couples have higher rates of intimate partner violence than married couples. The point in the relationship when violence occurs is a critical factor. The justice department found that the termination of a relationship poses an increased risk for escalation of violence and men who have killed their intimate partner indicated there were either threats of separation by their partner or actual separation was the event that led to the homicide.
The U.S. Justice Department strongly believes intimate partner violence should be treated as a significant social problem because it is pervasive and serious in the United States. But while this is a multi-faceted problem, they did find a link between violence, emotionally abusive and controlling behavior on the part of the man.
Some of the indicators of this type of a destructive and dangerous relationship included women whose partners verbally abused them, were jealous, possessive and denied them access to family and friends. These findings also suggested that many women in violent relationships are victims of systematic terrorism, experiencing multiple forms of abuse and control at the hands of their partners.
This turned out to be true for Cranford resident April Wyckoff, 43, who was murdered by her boyfriend, Matthew Ballister, 43, of Union in late October.
According to authorities, the mother of two was allegedly held captive in her car before she was killed. She was also attacked while being held and then allegedly restrained in the Ballister home on Mercer Street. Police records also indicated he terrorized Wyckoff before killing and then chopping up her body and hiding it in a deserted area of the Ironbound section of Newark.
As the investigation went on, police found there had been a history of domestic abuse and in May, Wyckoff obtained a restraining order against her abuser. She later reunited with him during the summer.
Notably, the U.S. Department of Justice found the majority of abused women chose not to report that they were physically abused by their intimate partners because they were afraid of their attacker.
However, nationwide only 20 percent of the 1.5 million people experiencing intimate partner violence annually obtained civil protection orders and in most cases the victim returns to their abuser. Schneider is all too aware of this pattern.
“Generally, in these cases, the abuser is the one with the power, not just physical, but financial power, psychological power,” he explained, adding that “victims are relying on their abusers for food, shelter, for help with the kids. It’s the life they know.”
That familiarity can perpetuate a cycle of violence against these victims, Schneider said and, quite possibly, end in murder.
Janice Lilien, Executive Director of the YWCA of Union County sees this abuse first hand because of her work with women who have been abused. She is desperately trying to get the word out so people will understand the danger that lurks in this type of relationship.
Through a comprehensive network of services the YWCA has been assisting victims in finding safety, empowering them to live independent lives free from violence and break the cycle of domestic violence for future generations.
Lilien said despite increased protections, laws, services and awareness about domestic violence, “it still extends its treacherous reach throughout our communities.”
“In this time of increased awareness, it is incumbent upon all of us to speak out and reach out, doing our part to end the violence against women and the lethality that too often results,” she said, adding that even with The Violence Against Women Act protections in place, the gaps in services vastly exceed the need for help.
“In New Jersey, state funding for domestic violence services, such as emergency shelters and court advocacy has remained woefully flat for over seven years, despite increased costs for service delivery and basic operational needs,” Lilien said, adding that victims face the most serious risk when they try to leave an abusive relationship because their abuser has lost control and power.
The executive director points to the fact that victims already traumatized by abuse are often re-traumatized and re-victimized by the legal, judicial and public sector systems that should be assisting them. Legislators, Lilien said, have been slow to enact laws that keep guns from the hands of abusers, or to enact sufficient protections to victims of domestic violence because too many people see it as a family matter or relationship issue.
Lilien repeatedly asked “where is the outrage, when will it end?”
Union County Acting Prosecutor Grace Park has labeled domestic violence an “investigative priority” for her office. She said the prosecutor’s office is working with the Union County YWCA in hosting a countywide awareness forum on the topic of domestic violence, which is expected to take place in April of next year.
“Many of the crimes we investigate and prosecute are inherently overt in nature. They take place out in the open, they generate headlines, they are known to the public. Domestic violence is a far more insidious problem – it’s an issue that’s prevalent in our communities, but too seldom talked about,” Park said.
The acting prosecutor said her office is working to help change this scenario.
“We are committed to leveraging every available resource toward ensuring that perpetrators are held accountable and victims receive the help they deserve. No one should ever feel as though they have to remain in an abusive relationship,” Park said.
The U.S. Department of Justice indicated that approaches to coordinated community response to domestic violence are multiple, but not all are successful because women in abusive relationships simply are unsure of the protection that is available and of prosecuting an intimate partner.
Victim advocacy remains a key component in the prosecution of domestic violence so it does not escalate to murder. But the road is not easy.
The U.S. Office for Victims of Crime indicated battered women find themselves abruptly thrust into a strange and often cold legal system because of their partner’s violence. They are swamped with information, often dislocated and confronted with increased demands for family management in this crisis situation. More often than not it is easier for them to return to their intimate partner and hope the violence does not occur again.
Police strongly suggest that anyone who suspects a family member, friend, neighbor or anyone is being abused by their intimate partner, please call local police to report any concerns. It could result in one less woman being found brutally murdered.
The Union County Prosecutor’s Office urges victims of domestic violence to call the Union County YWCA’s 24-hour hotline at 908-355-HELP (4357) to report incidents of violence.
Next Week: The signs and symptoms of an intimate relationship gone terribly wrong.