Melinda Henneberger

Tabitha Birdsong was stabbed to death. County’s new approach could stop abusers from killing

Trying to support a survivor of domestic abuse but don’t know how? Here are a few tips

Whether someone has asked you for help or you sense someone is in distress, here are some general guidelines to help support possible victims of abuse, be it physical, emotional, sexual, psychological or financial.
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Whether someone has asked you for help or you sense someone is in distress, here are some general guidelines to help support possible victims of abuse, be it physical, emotional, sexual, psychological or financial.

Last November, I wrote about the slow-motion murder of 40-year-old Tabitha Birdsong, who according to her family, her friends and her own harrowing hand-written journals spent almost a decade trying to get away from the man who has now been charged in her brutal stabbing. She left and hid many times, and at the time of her death was calling the police detective assigned to her case three times a week.

In the nine years between the day Tabitha Gardner married Gene Birdsong in one local park and the morning she was found dead in another, with her umpteenth protective order in her back pocket, Birdsong was arrested dozens of times. Often but not always, the charges against him were for hurting her, in at least five different states. Yet cops and courts and counselors all failed her, repeatedly and then for good.

And instead of asking why he couldn’t just stop, what the world wanted to know is why she couldn’t just go.

Her mother is still finding pieces of her daughter’s bloody clothing, presumably from earlier attacks, in Tabitha’s room at her grandmother’s, along with a virtual library of information on intimate partner violence and the careful notes she kept on all of her contacts with police and shelter providers. A list of dos and don’ts that Birdsong seemed to have dictated to her reads, “Stand by my man and have his back on all subjects. Never send my husband back to jail. Keep quiet in situations I don’t understand. Ask Gene for advice.”

Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker has thought a lot about Tabitha in the months since I wrote about her. And as a result, she’s decided to go forward with a program of “focused deterrence” that elsewhere in the country has significantly reduced the number of homicides and injuries caused by domestic abuse.

“It was Tabitha that caused us to say, ‘Let’s see what we could have done differently.’ That’s why we’re all in the room together,” Baker said after this week’s initial meeting on the project with prosecutors, police, advocates, service providers and the John Jay College criminologist who came up with the model. “Tabitha’s case was a complete and utter failure by the system, and caused us to take a harder look at how we handle [domestic violence] offenders.”

David Kennedy, who developed the program, said, “I have in fact been talking about Tabitha Birdsong all over the country,” not because her situation was so unusual, mind you, but on the contrary, because what happened to her sums up so much of what’s wrong with our usual response to cases like hers.

Would anyone dispute that the way we’ve gone about trying to stop abusers hasn’t worked? As Kennedy puts it, “Somebody whose name we know is terrorizing and worse someone else whose name we know,” yet they are allowed to continue to do so. “On the one side, people have tried to make criminal justice responses work and they don’t, especially not for these extreme situations. Or they’ve tried to make services and safety planning and those sorts of things work and they don’t, especially for these extreme examples.”

Not only that, but “both of those approaches put additional burdens on victims, sometimes really extreme additional burdens. So we want people to call the police and work with prosecutors, which especially for the most vulnerable victims engaged with the most dangerous offenders can be life-threatening. Or, we say leave your life behind — leave the house, leave the job, leave your friends, leave your family, go underground. The only way we can make you safe is for you to effectively go into witness protection, which is something we do for Mafia hit men, not for housewives. And if you sit with it long enough, one of the things you realize is that shelters and that whole approach are an admission by everybody involved in this that we can’t make him stop.”

That structural, agreed-upon impotence only emboldens abusers, cowards though they are. Then, Kennedy says, “everybody sits around and looks at her and says what’s wrong with her head and her heart. Why is she here, why doesn’t she leave, why does she love him, why doesn’t she testify, why won’t she, why won’t she, why won’t she?”

An approach that has shown great promise, in the handful of places where it’s been tried since High Point, North Carolina, was first to implement it a decade ago, is to identify and intervene with the relatively small number of serious, repeat offenders whose violence will escalate until it becomes fatal. “They tell us who they are,” Kennedy says. “The man who killed Tabitha Birdsong had come to the attention of law enforcement over and over and over.”

The program also involves bringing these abusers in on other crimes they commit — think Al Capone and tax evasion — which is done all the time to put other kinds of violent offenders behind bars. And it warns lesser offenders that they too will go away on drug and gun charges if they don’t stop.

How big a deal is all of this? According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, intimate partner abuse accounts for 40 to 50% of all murders of women. The intervention developed by Kennedy cut the percentage of homicides caused by domestic violence from 33% to 6% in High Point.

If our local police are on board with this approach, it can save lives here, too. It may not be easy for officers to shift their focus away from what victims could, should or would do — not because they don’t care, but because all of society has approached this particular brand of violence that way for a long, long time.

“I’ve had to reorder my thinking on what we expect of victims,” too, says Baker, because they generally “make very sensible choices based on their risk.”

Somehow, Tabitha Birdsong was expected to save her own life. But the program her absolutely preventable death is bringing to Kansas City could still help protect others just like her.

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