At least 14 have died in the KC area from domestic violence

Jovan Belcher’s explosion into national headlines over the weekend brought to light a crime often hidden from even the closest friends and relatives of its victims.

Domestic violence is pervasive and a fact of life for thousands of people every year.

Yet many victims endure it in private, whether they are isolated and intimidated into silence by their abusers, or they are ashamed to seek help.

On average, three people are killed every day in the United States by a current or former intimate partner, according to advocates of domestic violence victims.

At least 14 people have died that way this year in the Kansas City area.

Belcher’s killing of Kasandra Perkins, followed by his suicide, was the area’s fourth domestic murder-suicide of 2012.

In at least two other instances, victims survived being shot by perpetrators who then took their own lives.

Police are trying to determine what prompted Belcher’s actions. Others apparently knew that Belcher and Perkins were having difficulties, but those who work with domestic violence victims say friends and family may be unaware of a couple’s problems.

“There may not be outward signs,” said Marie Dispenza of Rose Brooks Center in Kansas City.

Abusers often try to isolate their partners from family and friends as part of their need to control and exert power over their partner, said Martha Means, an assistant city prosecutor in Kansas City.

Victims often are ashamed to admit they are victims, said Means, a former domestic violence program director in Kansas City. That tends to be particularly true when people of a higher socio-economic status are involved.

Even when cases are referred by police for prosecution, Means said, many victims fail to follow through in court.

“They may be intimidated and threatened,” she said.

That is part of the ongoing exercise of power and control that tends to be at the heart of abusive relationships, according to Means.

Organizations that provide shelter and other services to victims say that demand for their services has been increasing in recent years. Some of that can be attributed to the economy.

“When the economy goes down, domestic violence goes up,” said MaryAnne Metheny, CEO of Hope House in eastern Jackson County.

Efforts to increase awareness of the problem and spread word of services available for victims may have spurred more reporting of it, she said.

Plus, police across the metropolitan area have adopted lethality assessment programs to help those considered at the greatest risk of being killed by an abusive partner.

Police in Johnson County began the program last year, which has resulted in a “huge increase” in people seeking services — about 50 extra calls a month, said Sharon Katz, executive director of Safehome.

Officers called to the scenes of domestic violence situations ask the victim a series of questions. The answers help officers determine if the person is at risk of being killed.

The officers call Safehome and have the person talk directly to someone while the officer is present.

Since the program began, about 80 percent of victims who have made those initial calls have availed themselves of follow-up services, said Johnson County District Attorney Steve Howe.

“Getting them to reach out for that follow-up is important to help them find a healthier way to live their life,” he said.

Kansas City police have been using the lethality assessment program since 2009, and Dispenza at Rose Brooks said that resulted in a 300 percent increase in the amount of those seeking services.

“Ultimately, we believe lives are being saved as a result of it,” she said.

Murder-suicides or attempted murder-suicides are not uncommon outcomes, said Metheny of Hope House.

“In domestic violence relationships, the threat of extreme violence is always there,” she said.

The threat of suicide is one of the red flags looked for in the lethality assessments, Means said.

Often, she said, the abuser will threaten suicide as another way to control and manipulate his or her partner.

Belcher’s domestic violence suicide was the second this year at the Truman Sports Complex.

In September, a Kansas City man shot his former girlfriend in a parking lot where she was working as an attendant before a Royals game.

The woman suffered serious internal injuries but survived. The man killed himself in his car.

Last month, another area woman survived being shot in the parking lot of her employer in Grain Valley.

A man described by police as her “estranged domestic partner” was tracked to southern California a few days later. Police in San Diego found him driving the victim’s van. After a brief chase, he killed himself, police there said.

And just two days before Belcher killed Perkins and then himself, a man was shot to death near Harrisonville. His estranged wife was charged with his murder, and according to court documents, she appeared to have attempted to kill herself by taking an overdose of medication after the shooting.

Belcher’s actions show that it is a crime that can occur in every community and in every socio-economic level, experts said.

Dispenza said that while potential victims tend to be reluctant to confide in people, sometimes they may say or do things that could hint at trouble.

If people suddenly quit going to family functions or start missing work or avoiding social situations, it might be time for friends to ask questions.

They might comment that he’s always looking at my phone or checking up on where I’ve been, she said.

Advocates say that if you feel threatened or are facing imminent violence, you should call 911.

Area organizations that provide shelter and services to domestic violence victims also operate 24-hour crisis phone lines. Those include:

Safehome in Johnson County at 913-262-2868.

Rose Brooks Center in Kansas City at 816-861-6100.

Hope House in eastern Jackson County at 816-461-4673.

Synergy Services at 800-491-1114.

There is also a National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800-799-7233.