When domestic violence escalates to murder, we ask the wrong questions.
“Why didn’t she leave?” we ask.
“How come no one said anything?” we accuse.
“If only she had loved herself or been stronger,” we judge.
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Over the span of nine days this month, three women were found dead — murdered by their husbands or partners, prosecutors say.
On Monday, the body of Lynnette Williams, 27, was found next to a Grandview dumpster. She had been stabbed and set on fire. Police say her boyfriend, Kasanova Callier, 27, told them he had to kill her. He claimed she was a bad mom and was going to stab him. He’s charged with second-degree murder and armed criminal action.
Last week, police found the body of Tanisha Harris, 38, in a Cass County field. She was an associate pastor. Her husband, Robert Lee Harris Jr., 30, a church elder, has been charged with premeditated first-degree murder.
And on the first Saturday of the new year, 19-year-old Elizabeth Richards was found dead in a Kansas City home, naked from the waist down, shot in the head, her wrists bound behind her back. Her 2-year old son was there, unharmed. Her child’s father, Joseph Gonsalez, 23, is charged with first-degree murder, armed criminal action and child endangerment.
“Love doesn’t cost a thing,” Lynnette’s sister Nina Williams told The Star. “It doesn’t hurt, or feel weird. Love is love. If you see warning signs, pay attention to them. I don’t want anyone else to feel the pain we’re feeling now.”
Yes, we must be aware of the signs and call them out for what they are. But the blame is too often centered on what the victim did and did not do. As a result, our conversations surrounding domestic violence make it easier for abusers to abuse.
We subscribe to false ideals of what it means to be successful. Successful people don’t get divorced. They don’t fail in relationships. Strong women with self-worth don’t get hit. They aren’t abused. And real men are too manly to be beat down. Good families don’t let this happen. We ignore reality.
And the lies are killing us — especially our women. Over half of the murders of American women involve intimate partners, according to a recent report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Both sides of the state line are at risk: A 2017 study by the Violency Policy Center found that Kansas and Missouri are among the 10 states with the highest rates of women murdered by men. Missouri ranks 10th and Kansas is seventh.
In a country where women aren’t paid as much as men, hold fewer leadership roles and are raped and sexually abused, we’re sending a message that women don’t matter. We hold them accountable for every injustice against them, even their murders. This isn’t as simple as “Why didn’t she leave or ask for help?”
The right question, says Janeé Hanzlick, Safehome CEO, is why did the abuser do this? The Johnson County domestic violence agency sees over 7,500 women a year. She says victims rarely leave an abusive relationship on the first try. It’s a process. And the reasons have nothing to do with strength or success. Sometimes it’s family pressure. Sometimes it’s isolation. Sometimes victims don’t think they’ve suffered enough to qualify as abused. Emotional abuse counts, y’all.
“None of it has to do with a person’s lack of intelligence or inability to see beyond the immediate future,” Hanzlick says. “The number one reason people stay is economic. If someone has a child or a low-wage job and the abuser is the primary breadwinner, they have to think long and hard about the financial consequences.
“And there’s fear. If a violent person threatens to kill you if you leave, to kill your child or make sure you never see your child, a person may think the safest thing to do is stay. There’s also hope. We as humans have incredible capacity to hope. On your first date, this person didn’t call you fat and ugly and slap you across the face. There is hope that the person will go back to who they thought they were.”
As friends and family, Hanzlick says, we have to support victims. Believe them. Respect their decisions. Don’t give up on them.
Young Women on the Move in Kansas City, Kan., believes that support needs to happen early. The organization helps middle and high school girls develop healthy attitudes, lifestyles and self-love. Many of those girls have witnessed domestic violence.
“They are confused by what healthy love looks like,” says executive director Mary Beth Gentry. “They think if a guy sends 40 texts a day, that is love. If he is following her around, that is love. If he is fussing at her over another guy, that is love. They don’t see that as controlling. We are working on redefining what healthy relationships look like.”
Girls, boys, men and women need to learn those lessons. We need to realize that both men and women can be abusers and abused, says program director Chandra Green.
And we need to end the blame game. Judgment doesn’t save a life. Judgment doesn’t bring back Lynnette, Tanisha or Liz. Judgment doesn’t help their children or us.
“I see a lot of blaming the people around the victims and blaming the victim,” Green says. “People wonder why didn’t anyone stop it, why didn’t anyone realize it was going on, why didn’t the victim say anything. But we have been taught, especially in minority households, to mask our pain. We have been taught what happens in the house stays in the house. We have been taught to act like everything is OK. And it’s not always easy to identify a problem. People around a situation are often so blind to their own pain, it’s easy to look at someone else’s problem and pass judgment.”
What’s hard is facing the truth and changing your mindset. If the flu is a national epidemic, so is domestic violence. On average, 24 people per minute are victims of rape, physical violence or stalking by an intimate partner, the CDC reports. There’s no vaccine for that.
Abuse is a tower of patriarchal building blocks made of sexism, twisted gender roles, emotional abuse, toxic masculinity, homophobia, women hating women, inequity, victim blaming and shaming. Now is not the time to question the victim. The answer is to dismantle the system.
Do you or someone you know need help? Make the call:
▪ Rose Brooks Center: 816-861-6100
▪ Safehome: 913-262-2868
▪ Hope House: 816-461-4673
▪ Newhouse: 816-471-5800
▪ Metropolitan Organization to Counter Sexual Assault: 816-531-0233 or 913-642-0233
▪ Kansas City Anti-Violence Project: 816-561-0550 (help line for people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender)
▪ National Domestic Violence Hotline: 800-799-7233
▪ SafeHaven Shelter: 816-321-7050
▪ Friends of Yates: 913-321-0951
Help the victims
A supply drive for Williams’ 4-month-old son will be held from noon to 4 p.m. Saturday at Southeast Community Center, 4201 E. 63rd St. Donate baby clothes, diapers, formula and wipes.