SWAMPSCOTT — Some may perceive Swampscott as an upscale, low-crime town. But domestic violence is all too prevalent in the community, according to the town’s police department.
As of early this month, Swampscott police have responded to 89 domestic violence incidents and made 15 arrests. Last year, there were 112 domestic incidents and 19 arrests, and in 2016, there were 100 domestic incidents and 17 arrests, according to stats provided by Police Capt. John Alex.
“I do think that people in a community like Swampscott think domestic violence does not evolve or transpire in someone’s household and that’s a total misconception,” said Swampscott Police Det. Ted Delano, who explained people may think of white picket fences or elite social status when they think of the town.
“Everyone feels the positives and negatives of relationships and the issues that come with them.”
Delano said domestic violence doesn’t drill down to specific economic status or relationship status. He’s seen violence in relationships involving unmarried and married couples and male/female or same-sex couples.
Domestic violence is a crime that touches many facets of the community, as it usually involves two people living in town who may have children in the school district, he said.
The town is also not immune to domestic homicide. In 2006, John Barclay shot and killed his wife, Michelle, at their Hampden Street home before killing himself. In 1995, Joseph LeClair strangled his girlfriend, Janice May, inside their home.
Strangulation is more prevalent in domestic violence incidents now, Delano said, presenting itself as bruising around the neck or leaving a victim with a raspy voice or difficulty breathing. The victim may lose consciousness, he said.
Delano said the abuser may commit strangulation to have more power or control over the victim. The incident may be more personal in nature.
In cases of domestic violence reported to police, Delano said he follows through with the case at Lynn District Court, pursues a restraining order and refers cases to Healing Abuse Working for Change (HAWC). This work is aimed at helping victims so they can move forward being safe.
But still, victims, who may be suffering from low self-esteem before or following the incidents, sometimes withdraw from the criminal process.
“It’s often very embarrassing to admit that the person you trust the most, that you should be able to trust the most, is being violent or abusive toward you, so we try to dispel that stigma that people don’t want to admit that’s going on in their relationship,” said Sara Stanley, executive director of HAWC, a Salem-based organization that provides services to victims of domestic violence residing on the North Shore.
“There’s also emotional damage. (Abusers) chip away at your self-esteem and isolate you so you begin to believe what they’re saying — no one else likes you or loves you. They (victims) begin to believe they deserve the abuse and don’t deserve any better.”
Most of the time, she said, the people being abused are the more compassionate ones in the relationship and feel badly if there are any consequences for the offender. But even when survivors of domestic violence do look to the criminal justice system for accountability, there are a lot of times where they’re not believed in court.
“There’s a lot of misogyny and sexism,” Stanley said. “Women are not believed when they disclose domestic abuse. I think it’s a cultural issue we’re all grappling with. Victims frequently face a double-edged sword. They’re not believed when they report, but when compelled to speak, (they’re) asked ‘Why didn’t you come forward sooner?’”
Victims come into contact with the organization in several different ways. Some people contact HAWC through its 24-hour emergency hotline, are referred by police, or a victim may contact the organization to learn more about its services.
Often, Stanley said HAWC advocates meet victims in court or they’re stationed at North Shore Medical Center where victims may be treated for an injury related to domestic violence. People come to HAWC seeking help finding a shelter, counseling, support with restraining orders and legal advice.
She said most people experience one to three legal cases when they try to leave an abusive partner, which could include criminal and civil cases. Often, Stanley said the organization sees lots of abusive partners who are savvy about the court system — they know how to access probate and family court to see if their partner tries to leave them.
Using the system against the victim is very difficult for the victim, as not only are they worrying about their safety, but they’re worried about multiple court processes as well, she said.
Stanley echoed Delano in saying there may be a sense of disbelief with domestic violence happening in a community like Swampscott. Sometimes, it may be more difficult for victims to leave their partners because the thought of losing an income or experiencing a drastic life change is scary.
“It’s very difficult for everyone to comprehend someone who might be professionally successful and an upstanding member of the community,” she said. “It’s hard for that spouse to come forward and say ‘My partner, who might seem great from the outside, is actually violent in the privacy of our own home.’ In the community, there’s a gradual disbelief — how could a critical member of our community be doing that?”
Despite positive change such as having more public policy in place to support survivors, there’s still a lot of work that needs to be done on a community or individual level. Stanley said there needs to be a #MeToo movement for domestic violence survivors, referring to the movement against sexual assault and harassment.
The most important effort, though, is the need to believe survivors. As a community, Stanley said “we need to appreciate and believe when our family members, co-workers and friends disclose abuse.”