Does abuse lead to murder?

Sarah Fortney probes into the possibilities of domestic abuse leading to murder, in a report for Frederick News-Post. Between three and five children are killed by their parents each day in the U.S., according to the American Anthropological Association. Although only a third of family murders involve women as killers, according to a study by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, in one category of family murder — parents killing children — men are less likely to be the killers. Within less than a month of each other, two local men took their own lives after murdering their young children. It’s anyone’s guess why a parent would hurt a child, said Dave Sargent, law enforcement trainer for the Maryland Network Against Domestic Violence.

“I don’t think any experts know what the driving factors are,” Sargent said. Sixteen children were killed in Maryland as a result of domestic violence in 2004, according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

When six local children were killed within weeks, it was a statistical anomaly. Carol Danforth found the bodies of her two children in the woods off Barnesville Road on April 3. Her 1-year-old son and 2-year-old daughter had been hanged. Their father, Gerardo Roque, had hanged himself nearby. A few weeks earlier and about 20 miles away, four children were found dead in their Danielle Drive house. Three girls were suffocated and their brother died from skull fractures.

Police believe their father, Pedro Rodriguez, whose body was also found in the home, killed the children before committing suicide by hanging. Deysi Benitez, the childrens’ mother, has been missing since March 18. Sargent believes several components might contribute to domestic violence. Power and control could lead an abuser to threaten a loved one.

Using force to make a point or to solve a problem is something people learn by example, he said. “Anger is not the cause of domestic violence. It’s a learned behavior.” Just because someone witnesses a parent abusing a spouse doesn’t mean that person is destined to become an abuser, Sargent said. However, it is one of the greatest risk factors. Domestic violence affects everything, he said, particularly children.

Domestic violence 101 Dr. Dana Cable, professor of psychology and thanatology at Hood College, said the recent murders are instances of domestic violence. He also said it’s rare for infanticides, the intentional killing of a child by a parent, to happen as these did in neighboring communities within weeks of each other.

When parents murder their children, he said, they might believe they’re doing it out of love. Parents might rationalize that they are keeping their children from suffering; that isn’t necessarily domestic violence, Cable said. Domestic violence is the control of one partner over another in an intimate relationship as defined by the American Academy of Family Physicians.

It’s next to impossible to know the severity of a dispute or predict whether it will result in a homicide, said Bill Douwes, Frederick Police Department crime analyst. “There is never a way that we can even see the lethality potential.”

Women are more likely to kill their children and 93 percent of murders committed by females were against relatives, according to a 1999 report by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics. But men are more likely to be the abuser in a relationship — of the 627,400 partner victimizations in 2004, 475,900 were against women and 151,500 were against men, according to the U.S. Department of Justice Office of Justice Programs.

As a result of domestic violence, 63 people were killed in Maryland between July 2005 and June 2006, according to the Maryland Network Against Domestic Violence. Of those victims, six were men who killed themselves after committing or attempting to commit a domestic homicide or assault; four were children.

Cable said of domestic violence, “It can be a precursor to murder, but not always.” The Frederick Police Department responded to 412 domestic violence calls in 2006, up from the 383 made in 2005. Barbara Martin, director of Heartly House, said domestic violence is one of the least reported crimes in the country. She suggests signs to look for if a person might be involved in an abusive relationship.

“One of the most obvious is increase of isolation,” she said. When a friend becomes withdrawn, doesn’t return phone calls and is much more guarded when she or he does talk on the phone, Martin said a red flag should go up. Other signs include increased anxiety and drive for perfection. A person isn’t necessarily in a dangerous relationship, she said, if that person normally exhibit these behaviors. “What you’re looking for are changes in these patterns,” she said.

She strongly recommends workplace efforts to help someone who might be in a violent situation at home. Friends, family and co-workers can encourage their loved ones to get help. What victims of domestic violence need the most is someone to listen to them without trying to solve their problems, she said, “A nonjudgmental system of support.”

Domestic violence is a crime, Martin said. Neighbors might not get involved because it’s behind closed doors. If nothing is done, she said, “Lives can be lost.” A difficult subject Domestic violence calls are difficult to handle, Douwes said. The worst are those involving children because of their vulnerability. Regardless, he said, “A victim is a victim is a victim.”

Douwes said it can be difficult for outsiders to know how or if they should intervene if their neighbors are fighting. People could call the police, but they rarely do, he said. The Department of Justice estimates about 25 percent of domestic violence assaults are reported to police. Three months before Benitez disappeared, she told her uncle, Jose Pintero, of Texas, that Rodriguez beat her. She said she didn’t want to leave him because she loved him.

Rodriguez had threatened to kill Benitez several times, according to her friend, M. Garcia. Rodriguez seemed nice to other people but treated his wife poorly, Garcia said. Danforth said Roque could be domineering and violent at times as a boyfriend, but she said he seemed to adore the children. She also said she was concerned he might hurt her for ending their relationship, but she never thought he would do anything to her children.

No records show Benitez or Danforth sought help as victims of domestic violence, although organizations such as Heartly House keep their clients’ identities confidential. Police have come a long way in terms of responding to domestic violence, said Frederick Police Chief Kim C. Dine. More than 30 years ago, an officer might tell the abuser to take a walk, unsure of how to handle the dispute. A domestic violence crime can now lead to arrest, Dine said.

The first Maryland civil order of protection from domestic violence was drafted in 1980. The law defined abuse and household members and established a 15-day protective order, which could include an order to refrain from abuse to a “vacate the home” order and an order to get counseling. The maximum time a protective order can be in effect in domestic violence cases increased from 200 days to 12 months in 1997. In 2006, a family law was created in Maryland requiring the Office of the Secretary of State to establish an Address Confidentiality Program for victims of domestic violence.

Dine said the Frederick Police Department is working with other agencies across the state to provide immediate assistance for victims of domestic violence. People in abusive relationships often believe they bring the abuse upon themselves, Cable said. They’re usually convinced they did something wrong and, in the end, everything will be OK.

“The victim generally has low self esteem,” he said. Sargent urges people to become educated about domestic violence, especially neighbors, friends and family who are aware of the abuse, before it ends in death.

“They need to call (the police),” he said. “People need to be aware. There are things we can do.”