How many more women have to die before Kentucky starts tracking domestic violence?

·5 min read

On Nov. 9, Erica Burden, just 27 years old, dropped her daughter off at school in Hart County. Then she disappeared. Two days later, her estranged husband, William Burden, was arrested for her murder.

Just another woman in Kentucky killed by an intimate partner, one of many headlines about a crime so baked into our lives that we hardly notice. It’s even possible that COVID — with shutdowns, isolation and financial pressure —made domestic violence worse.

Darlene Thomas thinks that’s what happened. As the director of GreenHouse17, a shelter in Lexington, she thinks COVID contributed to the escalation in the severity of domestic violence cases that she sees. “The rage is intensifying, lots of strangulation cases, lots of threats backed up by serious assault,” she said.

GreenHouse17 Executive Director Darlene Thomas thanked many involved while introducing speakers during a ribbon cutting for apartments for survivors of domestic violence at GreenHouse17 in Lexington, Ky, on June 13, 2017.
GreenHouse17 Executive Director Darlene Thomas thanked many involved while introducing speakers during a ribbon cutting for apartments for survivors of domestic violence at GreenHouse17 in Lexington, Ky, on June 13, 2017.

But she doesn’t know for sure. “It is hard to determine what avenues we need to continue to take in this great state to address intimate partner violence, when we don’t have great tracking. Anecdotally we do, but statistically we don’t.”

That’s because even now in 2021, the state of Kentucky doesn’t actually track the number of deaths from intimate partner violence or even the number of domestic violence assaults.

Here is what I wrote in 2009 and again in 2019. “Currently, a hodgepodge of public and private agencies attempt to keep track of various domestic violence statistics, but the information they gather is disorganized and incomplete. The Administrative Office of the Courts collects information on all domestic violence court orders while the Kentucky State Police counts how many people are killed each year , but none of that information is connected.”

Until 2018, the Kentucky State Police did have a separate part of their annual crime report called “Lovers’ Quarrels,” but that is no longer recorded. State Police spokesmen did not respond to a request for comment.

Numbers don’t tell the whole story of this extremely complex problem, but they give you a good place to start, Thomas says.

“They are critical to understanding the issue,” she said. “How do you create new innovative strategies because the field shifts and fluctuates, when it’s complex to begin with?”

The Kentucky Coalition Against Domestic Violence uses newspaper clippings, court reports and information from their member organizations to track intimate partner homicides, but officials are quick to say that list is far from complete.

Do better

Sen. Whitney Westerfield, R-Crofton, said the state needs to do better.

“I’m appalled that the best information we have comes from Google news alerts,” he said on Wednesday. “We can’t make policy without data.”

To that end, he has made a bill request this week with the Legislative Research Commission, and plans to meet with domestic violence agencies to find out what kind of information they need.

State Sen. Whitney Westerfield
State Sen. Whitney Westerfield

Anything official — that looks at both court records and police reports — would be an upgrade. At a basic level, the state could require State Police to collect all intimate partner violence. But ideally, the state would look at much, much more — court records, protective orders, calls to shelters, the numbers of collateral deaths that so often occur in domestic violence cases. In a perfect world, the bill would also include some funding so that researchers could plumb through the numbers to see what they really mean.

“It could tell us whether things are getting better or worse, and if we’re investing money in the right things,” said TK Logan, a University of Kentucky researcher who is a national expert on stalking. (Incidentally, the State Police tracks stalking, but it’s not delineated whether it’s by an intimate partner or not.) ”This is a public health issue and it affects our children. Tracking that just helps to ask that question— are we doing better or doing worse.”

Women’s issues have seldom taken a top spot at the General Assembly over the years (unless they involve efforts to end abortion rights), but advocates point out that domestic violence affects many other people, including men who are killed by their partners. There are numerous murder-suicides and children and grandparents can be hurt and killed. In addition, domestic violence calls are some of the most dangerous for police. Certainly the issue is related to Kentucky’s shameful status for having the nation’s highest rates of child abuse and neglect.

Meg Savage, chief legal officer for the KCADV, welcomed news of Westerfield’s new bill, but hopes it will be both broad and deep.

“Numbers tell the beginning of the story, but ideally there would be some research component to any legislation that was filed so we could take a deeper dive into the numbers and see what they’re actually telling us,” she said.

She’d like to see the tracking of homicides, but also the many pieces of domestic violence that occur before homicides, like stalking, assaults, sexual assault or strangulation.

“If the state really wants to know how best to address domestic violence that ultimately and tragically may end in someone dying, the numbers are where you start,” she said. “Then you have to do the rest and have provision and funding for someone to do the research to determine what’s going on in these situations.”

Legislators, who are inundated with letters and emails from constituents all the time, need to know this issue matters, too. It’s not rocket science; many other states make it happen. This is not a partisan issue, and it’s one that a super-duper majority, flush with federal COVID dollars, could make happen quickly. They just have to care enough, or at the very least know that their constituents do.

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