In response to recent acts of both terrorism and recurrent gun violence by home-grown psychopaths more should be done to maintain greater control over potentially violent persons. In the Las Vegas concert venue and the more recent Texas church massacre it becomes
increasingly clear that predicting violence is practically impossible. At least this is
what we are led to believe. And yet when it comes to domestic violence
homicide the similarities in cases are almost carbon copy.
In the end, there is always at least a single person who knows what is about to happen and often does nothing to stop it. Whether this duplicity stems from cultural beliefs that what happens behind closed doors is nobody’s busy change in the way in which law enforcement manages these cases is essential. The buy in from police, legislators, judges, probation, and society needs to be fully endorsed for real change to happen and for safety plans to work. Many states across America are planning to enact “red flag” rules that will remove weapons from individuals with a known history of domestic violence e.g. choking spouse during fight. These behaviors toward a victim instill fear and point to the perilous danger that exists.
“Someone with a history, particularly a continuing history of violence, can be presumed to be dangerous.” Frederick Neuman, MD
Coercion and Control
Lenore Walker is a psychologist at the Domestic Violence Institute has published a theoretical description of the coercion and control model of DV. Victims are young and vulnerable to being emotionally and physically controlled. The Texas killer Devin Patrick Kelley had all the makings of a violent abuser from the time he was in high school and only now are people willing to talk about his darker side. Kelley was separated from his second wife who was just 19. Victims like this are often kept away from their families, not allowed to work, or when working are not permitted to handle their own funds. Some victims have to explain every cell phone call or text message they make or receive often being met with jealous fury. By robbing their sense of self keeps intimate partners emotionally isolated and insecure. They are often led to believe they could not live on their own and the children they share will be lost to them if they choose to leave. This “so called” male privilege keeps his partner marginalized and in servitude. It appears at first glance that Kelley was looking for the mother of his currently estranged wife likely enraged over steps taken to keep them apart as the divorce progressed through the courts.
Occasionally police or children’s services are called when intimidation and threats become violent. It is important to provide aftermath intervention and follow-up with families where domestic violence or chronic substance abuse occurs or families tend to disappear. Change is required to pay closer attention to those with whom law enforcement has frequent contact. Over and over
surviving family members speak of coercion and control on behalf of the abused. Lives will be saved when society takes a closer look at red flag violence – these are the preincident indicators that violence and domestic violence homicide are possible. This is not new data nor are the stories very different.
I speak to police agencies and individual officers about DV and DVH offering detail from the psychological autopsy research we conducted on a sensational and tragic case in Dexter, Maine in which Steven Lake killed his 35-year old spouse after 10 years of marriage along with their 2 children. The Lake case was very much like the Kelley murders in terms of the cycle of abuse and its early onset. It was thought that Lake was intending to go on a killing spree but was interrupted in the act by an observant police officer. Recently a police officer participating in the statewide DV task force in Vermont asked whether there is a single most important factor or predictor to the risk of DVH? Some believe the fear of being killed by her spouse and abject cruelty toward step children raise the bar significantly and as such are worthy of crafting one’s DV report and request for orders of protection around. But keeping the victim and her abuser on the radar screen will also reduce her fear and loneliness and offer greater protection. Other risk factors include: choking and recurrent sexual violence – although victims seldom disclose this out of guilt and fear of not being believed.
People knew what might happen
The Psychological Autopsy of Steven Lake consisted of over 200 hours of interviews with immediate family members on both sides. Steven’s aunt was quoted as saying “I never thought he would take the kids” in reference to an acknowledgment of his depression and anger at the impending divorce. She believed Lake would take his own life in front of his wife and children as a final act of punishment they would never forget. But he went far beyond that as we again saw in the small church in Texas this week. We are getting better at teaching children and families that if the see something they should say something. This is the trademark line of the Transportation Safety Administration in its fight against terrorism. The same might be taught to neighbors and friends when domestic violence is suspected or known to be occurring. If you see something then it is incumbent upon each of us to do something to help those in harms way.
WESTBOROUGH, MA January 5, 2018 As we begin to make program recommendations for reducing intimate partner violence it is worth noting that change comes very slowly in protecting those who are most at risk. There is still a paucity of protective measures in place to assess and contain those who are most violent in our society. Retired New Braintree Police Sergeant Michael Sefton was in Augusta, Maine in October 2011 providing testimony about the results of the psychological autopsy conducted by Michael Sefton, Ph.D. Brian Gagan of Scottsdale, AZ, and Ron Allanach, Ed.D. of Conquitlam, BC, Canada and former Chief of Police Joseph Laughlin of Portland, ME. Dr. Sefton, who holds a doctorate in psychology and is a licensed psychologist provider in Massachusetts provides neuropsychological and forensic consultation on domestic violence including domestic violence homicide and assessment of risk. The report that was filed came up with over 50 recommendations directly related to reduced intimate partner violence. The report was cited over 12 times in a recent Maine Law Review publication on proposed Conditions of Bail. Little has changed in Maine since our first report in 2011 and there is no leadership to bring forth legislative dialogue.
The testimony provided to the domestic violence review board offered details about a hideous case of family violence that ended with the homicide of 4 members of the same family and was culminated by an attempt to burn the bodies after the murders and the killer shooting at police officers responding to the missing victim. But they were too late. Their research was conducted over a 3 month period following the homicide deaths of Amy Lake and her children. The team conducted interviews with over 60 persons with direct knowledge of Amy Lake, the victim, her two children, Monica and Cody, and the murderer Steven Lake.
“Although Maine’s statute lists these prohibitions, it lacks the enforcement tools to protect victims against violence associated with guns and other weapons, which is a major factor in Maine’s domestic violence deaths.” Nicole Bissonnette, 2012
Most researchers agree it is nearly impossible to predict when DVH will occur. However, the psychological autopsy provides many obvious red flags that offer clues to an impending emotional conflagration or explosion of anger and blame. The problem in the 2011 case was two-fold. First, the requirement for bail was not seriously considered because Lake had no criminal history – and yet Mr. Lake had demonstrated an unwillingness to adhere to the legal mandates of the order of protection and violated the court order at least 4 times over the year before he killed his family. Given this unfettered lack of personal control, he should have been held for a hearing of potential dangerousness. And secondly, the cache of firearms that Lake was known to have kept was not surrendered to police nor was an effort made to obtain the 22 weapons Lake owned by members of law enforcement. No one thought the guns would be an issue.
Many believe that when the victim indicates a strong fear belief that her spouse intends to kill her that risk of DVH is elevated exponentially and must be taken as fact. These often unspoken fears illustrate the need for supervision, assessment of potential for dangerousness and containment of PFA violators. Substantive red flag factors suggest a true risk of violence exists. The study also found that individuals with heart disease who are depressed will often have higher inflammation levels in their body. Many studies show that a combination of exercise and fatty acids, such as Omega-3 found in salmon, can reduce inflammation and consequently reduce bouts of depression and mood swings.In the sworn statement in 2010 for an order of protection, Amy Lake specifically reported that she feared that her husband might kill her. These fears of death would come to fruition one year later. And they did come true in despicable, horrific fashion.
It is not uncommon that red flags are often present early in the relationship as people reported during our research interviews during the psychological autopsy. Many people we spoke to were aware something agregious was going to happen. These include obsessional jealousy, threats of death, sexual aggression, unwillingness to integrate into extended family, any use of a weapon, and others. In the course of their research Sefton and Gagan interviewed Dale Preston who was convicted of DVH in 1982 and served 18 years in Maine State Prison for the murder. When asked what may have stopped him from killing his wife, Mr. Preston indicate “there was nothing that could have stopped me…” In these cases, a greater awareness of risk or dangerousness is essential and in some cases a person must be contained for the safety of others. Such containment requires NO direct contact with an abusive spouse, GPS monitoring, house arrest, or no bail imprisonment.
The case in Maine occurred in June 2011 – exactly 1 year to the day after the victim obtained a protection from abuse order from her husband. The murders occurred 2 weeks before the divorce was to be finalized and were likely triggered by the abuser’s anger over not being permitted to attend his son’s 8th grade graduation ceremony. The Bangor Daily News presented details of the recent psychological autopsy presented recently in Augusta, Maine. Over 30 states across America have formal homicide review boards. “To make this general deterrence aim successful, abusers must not have access to their victims nor to potential weapons, and the risk of punishment associated with breaking the law must outweigh the abuser’s urge to commit the conduct.” said Denaes, 2012. Bail is a judicial condition that allows a person to be released from jail with the promise to appear in court to answer to charges. Bail also provides for public safety by keeping violent offenders in jail when necessary.
I make an effort to review those published from New England states. Vermont has an excellent annual report of domestic violence homicide and publishes all recommendations and changes in statutory requirements following individual cases of DVH.
Johannes N. Denaes, PUNISHMENT AND DETERRENCE 7 (1974) (“General prevention may
depend on the mere frightening or deterrent effect of punishment—the risk of discovery and punishment
outweighing the temptation to commit crime.”).
WESTBOROUGH, MA July 19, 2016 The Worcester Telegram published the story of a case of domestic violence that occurred in that central Massachusetts city of 185,000. A police officer was dispatched to a residence where a subject was suspected of violating the terms of a restraining order. RO’s – as they are commonly referred to – offer a safety net between the victim of domestic violence and the abuser. RO’s are authorized by a district court judge who is on call night and day. They are not authorized unless substantial threat to the victim exists. These orders are carefully crafted by investigating police officers whose reports highlight the exact nature of the violence and the reason the victim needs protection. Protection orders are offered to the victim after the first sign of physical violence. It has been espoused that the police are not called until after the 6th or 7th episode of domestic violence. DV is a secret affair between members of a family who are often ashamed or embarrassed to come forward for help often until things gradually get worse – sometimes years into a pattern of violent dysfunction. Greater latitude for judges in handling violent offenders must be legislated including holding someone without bail. This rarely takes place due to the fact that so many abusers are law abiding citizens and have no record against which to negotiate bail. Arguably, at some point violent spouses must be held for the safety of the victim and her children as in the case of Jared Remy in 2013. Remy killed his live-in girlfriend Jennifer Martell in front of the couple’s 4-year old daughter hours after being released from custody for violating an order of protection.
In other cases of violence against the police, noncompliant behavior that results in violence toward police officers must be dealt with in kind including no bail holds, dangerousness assessments and GPS monitoring for those who may be released. Past behavior is the best predictor of future behavior. In Massachusetts one police officer lost his life because a career criminal was repeatedly released on no or low bail. Auburn Police Officer Ron Tarentino paid the ultimate price in exactly such a case.
“Hindsight tells us that this guy should have stayed in jail. Maybe, if the court had had more time to spend on the case, that would have happened. However, we can’t generalize from this case to all cases, according to Vic Crain, a New Jersey-based Market Research and Public Policy firm.” Vic Crain, personal correspondence July 2016.
On this day, a Worcester police officer was cut with a steak knife wielded by the angry spouse who was being arrested for violation of the stay away order. Bail conditions must be carefully considered whenever a restraining order is violated. It is a sign that the alleged perpetrator has blatantly ignored a legal court order by contacting his partner in some way – even by telephone or via social media. He need not be menacing against his spouse and family. Violation of an RO may signal an outright decline in the violator’s coping skill and perhaps an ominous sign of impending terminal rage toward a spouse. Terminal rage results in a loss of self control along with an erupting emotional maelstrom of blame and hate – sometimes resulting in a fugue state. Episodes of terminal anger will last just so long and ultimately results in the self-destruction of the abuser. The cycle of abuse in DV is well described by Lenore Walker and is depicted to the right.
In Gardner, MA on 7-19-16, a North Carolina man was charged with burning two vehicles and menacing his ex-wife with a shotgun. He is being held without bail until a hearing can be held to determine if he is dangerous and should be kept behind bars according to the Worcester Telegram story. The Worcester case resulted in charges of violation of restraining order, mayhem, assault and battery with a dangerous weapon and attempted murder. A Worcester Police Officer was severely cut with a knife during the violent arrest.
Decisions on bail of the two cases described are straight forward and no bail was allowed in either until such time as the court psychiatrist or psychologist was able to assess dangerousness. This is where society needs to begin the change in expectations for those involved in DV – measuring dangerousness. The measurement of dangerousness can be nebulous and forensically uncertain.
In August 2013 I published a blog after the death of Jennifer Martell who was murdered in front of her 4-year old daughter by Jared Remy, son of Red Sox broadcaster and former player Jerry Remy. The younger Remy had received one break after another some say linked to his celebrity father’s influence. He was never held until a dangerousness hearing could be undertaken. Had this been done Ms. Martell may be alive today. In retrospect, Jared Remy was a prototypic abuser and ultimately Ms Martell was left unprotected when he should have been behind bars. Whether or not he had bipolar illness, abused drugs – including steroids or likely both Jennifer was no match when Remy launched his fatal attack. But all who know Jared say he loved Jennifer Martell and his daughter.
I have answered calls like these and they are mostly the same. I am trained to look for “red flag signs of violence” that would automatically raised my level of concern. Unfortunately there are people who believe intimate partner violence is nobody’s business. That belief system is harmful. Slowly people are learning that secret violence robs our society of its civility. My police report in all cases would specify the immediate need for a dangerousness hearing – especially when there had been more than one prior order of protection and violating an existing order of protection. Other facts such as substance abuse, loss of job, a blended household, pregnancy and the lack of transportation add to the risks of leaving a violence man in the household.
The reporting party in a recent case had been threatened by the spouse. These verbal threats began as soon “as I said I do”with slight humor. The physical abuse began shortly thereafter. On this day he was angry at his wife wife who had spent the day with her sister and had arrived home the same time as her husband. Dinner was not ready. This led to a significant escalation of his baseline level of anger, suspiciousness and borderline paranoia by the time police were called. He had thrown the dishes all over the kitchen and dining room out of protest – lamenting his lazy wife. His children were frightened and crying.
The signs of violence are finger marks on the neck from choking, forced intercourse, obvious trauma from open or closed fists, threats of death or some other random act of stupidity toward a spouse that leaves her and her children in great fear. Any of these should result in arrest.
Research is clear that separating spouses for the night does not positively impact the level aggression and risk in the household as much as the formal arrest of the aggressor. What usually happens is the police break up the fighting couple by sending the aggressor off to the home of a friend or family member – less often to jail unless there are obvious signs of abuse. Arrest is mandated by law when physical signs of abuse are apparent. It has become all too often the case that hindsight – taken seriously – may have saved a life.
There needs to be a clear consequence for the violation of a protection order – and yet violent abusers are given chance after chance as in the case of Jared Remy. In the research I conducted with 3 colleagues – cited below – failure to hold a spouse when there are numerous red flag warnings. In this case, after holding his family hostage for 3 hours at gun point, a reluctant and frightened spouse called the local sheriff’s department. Patrols found the perpetrator who remarked to his son “your mother has done it this time…” as the blue light were activated. He later went on to murder his wife and his two children – including the boy mentioned in this post.
Allanach, R.A., Gagan, B.F., Loughlin, J., Sefton, M.S., (2011). The Psychological Autopsy of the Dexter, Maine Domestic Violence Homicide and Suicide. Presented to the Domestic Violence Review Board, November 11, 2011
Crain, Vic (2016) personal correspondance, “Hindsight shows us this guy should have stayed in jail”, July 17, 2016.
WESTBOROUGH, MA January 20, 2016 “Childhood sport represents an opportunity for children to learn the value of teamwork, sensible competition, winning, and loosing. Some important lessons in life emerge from the spirit of youth competition,” according to Michael Sefton, Ph.D., Director of Psychology at Whittier Rehabilitation Hospital in Westborough. “I have coached youth hockey up through high school-age boys and have found 99 percent of the families I worked with to be very reasonable and respectful,” remarked Sefton in preparation for the blog post. Just as importantly the games must be fun or children will not want to play. In recent years there has been a growing notoriety of fan behavior while attending the sporting events of children. It is almost a “mob mentality” as parents shout at referees over botched calls, yell at other players, and become obstreperous toward the opposing fans. Sometimes this becomes violent as it did in Reading, MA in 2002 when two men squared off and fought over a youth ice hockey practice resulting in the death of one. “The fight was less about hockey than about the loss of control and unencumbered anger” according to Sefton. For his part, Thomas Junta who outweighed the victim by over 100 pounds was sentenced to 8 years for manslaughter. He was released from the state’s prison in Concord, MA in 2011.
Social scientists have been interested in mob behavior for years and when it comes down to what the underpinnings of fan behavior experts cite alcohol, adrenaline, and blind team loyalty as primary culprits. But as far as parent behavior at childhood sporting event goes some parents become delusional and behave out of some overdriven striving on behalf of their child. Some parents see scholarship money in a child as young as 5-years old when in actuality only 2 percent of athletes will ever receive scholarship funds for playing football for example, according 2008 NCAA published data – most receive only a partial scholarship package and not the coveted “full ride” – published in the NY Times. As a parent I took my children to an NCAA ice hockey playoff event that was so much fun. The kids were given ice time to skate with coaches and players from the playoff teams. During this time I attended a parent education seminar on scholarships and the lengths to which some parents will go to get their child athletes noticed. How is it possible that an angry father might physically attack a volunteer referee over a missed call or become enraged at a youth coach over the amount of playing time a son or daughter receives?
According to Brooke De Lench, Mom’s Team executive director, parents lack the basic coping skills to respond to the ups and downs of their kid’s competition and are injured when their child does not succeed. De Lench seeks a shift from an adult-centered model to a child-centered philosophy as a way of eliminating unruly and sometimes outrageous fan behavior. When fans loose control the results can be deadly. “We lose ourselves when we watch our children play sports” said Sefton who regularly attends high school parents’ night in Massachusetts speaking on concussion. But becoming lost as children play youth soccer or football must never include losing control as it sometimes does. Because for some parents, a child’s failure, or even the perception of failure may evoke strong emotions.
In 2002 during a youth hockey practice 2 children jostled and battled for the puck. One parent, confronted the coach, whose son it was involved in the on ice scrap. He objected to the rough play during the on ice scrimmage. A shouting match ensued followed by the 270 pound Thomas Junta, 45, jumping the much smaller Michael Costin, 44, and punching him violently and killing him in front of his child and other players in the ice arena in Reading, MA. Junta was charged and served 8-10 years in the state’s prison for manslaughter. The lives of both families were destroyed by this event. Both Junta’s and Costin’s boys have grown into troubled men and have themselves served time in prison. This sensational story left quite an impression on me as an outrageous exemplar of state of the art parenting.
Most of us know there is much psychology in youth sports including developing core beliefs about winning and loosing, team cohesion, mastery of physical skills, and the growth of healthy competition. Balance is needed pushing children to become something for which they are may not be physically or emotionally equipped. Just as important parents must recognize their own feelings at their children’s games and accept that some things should not be worthy of the fight to end all fights.
Dr. Michael Sefton is a neuropsychologist and former police sergeant in Westborough, MA . He along with 3 colleagues published a psychological autopsy on the Dexter, ME domestic violence homicide from 2011 and presented the research before the Domestic Violence Homicide Review Board at the state house in Augusta, Maine in November 2011.
“Eighty percent of respondents said they believe domestic violence is a problem, but only 15 percent think it is a problem among their friends, according to the NO MORE Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Survey commissioned by the Avon Foundation for Women.” from Long Island Newsday 9-30-13
What poeple often fail to see is the subtle condescension and veiled intimidation among intimate partners that occurs right under our noses. What can the average person do? The research on bullying – often considered a developmental precursor to domestic violence suggests that someone needs to “speak out against the bully” and take a stand. Does this mean we all must be our neighbor’s keeper when it comes to marital harmony and family cohesion? Some might say yes – as uncomfortable as this makes us feel. It is a myth among those in law enforcement that “what happens behind closed doors is not our business”. And it is a myth when neighbors believe “they will work it out”.
There seems to be a disconnect when it comes to people we know and those with whom we have regular contact. In truth, it is those connections that may respond best to someone saying threats and intimidation have no place in a relationship. The best marriages share control, decision making and negotiate the rules.
New Braintree, MA September 24, 2013 Bullying has been recognized as a significant factor in social development in terms of the negative impact that has been shown on victims of this repetitive intimidation and harassment. The underlying dynamic results from an imbalance of power among peers that has been linked to risk of adolescent suicide. Arguably, school districts across America have developed programs to combat bullies and reign them back into the social main stream but modern day bullying goes far beyond the playground. Some school districts offer mediation for bullies and victims with mixed results. When I served as a school psychologist in 2010, members of faculty were surveyed regularly by the principal about students they feared were being bullied and those who were doing the bullying but little was done to intervene.
Bullying has been an issue for children throughout time. Now, with some much dependence on social media and text messaging the problem of bullying has grown and is more powerful than ever. Students were once free from intimidation and the impact of bullying once they returned home. They could relax and allow the day’s torment to wash away. But with intimidating text messages and social media posts being sent and received almost 24 hours a day the true impact of bullying and the stress of being bullied can be a round the clock threat and humiliation.
15-year old Phoebe Prince killed herself after weeks of intense, humiliating rumors and threats that psychologically wore her down. “The investigation revealed relentless activity directed toward Phoebe designed to humiliate her and to make it impossible for her to remain at school,” District Attorney Elizabeth Scheibel said according to New York Daily News in 2010. Phoebe and her family moved to South Hadley, MA from Ireland. Almost as soon as she arrived in South Hadley she was preyed upon by the older boys and relentlessly humiliated by the girls in the form of text messages, physical taunts, and covert threats that arrived on her cell phone around the clock. Several months into this relentless torment Phoebe hanged herself at home. The social media humiliation became too much. This 15-year old Irish teen could not tolerate the vicious rumors, threats, and hostility simply because she was different. She was new.
By outward appearance the school did what they could but the system failed miserably – as it has with too many other children. Phoebe could not get away from the lies and rumors being cast by other students her age. Phoebe’s parents never knew the truth of the impact of social media on their child’s suicide. Most of us don’t know what impact a subtle post and running thread can have on an uncertain mind. Fear and intimidation may slowly rob the sense of self we each need to be productive and to thrive. In the moments as she planned for and prepared her final delivery, Phoebe was entirely alone with her anguish. No person should die this way.