What is going on behind closed doors in our community is scary. But the shame is what is going on, for anyone who wants to hear or see it, in the Knox County courtroom in Rockland with domestic violence cases.

According to the Crime and Courts section of The Courier-Gazette (dates refer to when the incidents were published, not when the alleged crimes occurred; italics are mine): 

February 21: Milorad Stanivukovic threw a Cushing woman against the furniture like she was a rag doll, then tried to strangle her as she pleaded for her life and that of their unborn baby. 

Judge Susan Sparaco pointed out that the assaults occurred while the victim was pregnant with their child, and “allowed Stanivukovic to have contact with [a young child they had together].”

In St. George, a police officer responding to a 911 call heard a man screaming from inside an apartment, and when he knocked on the door, a woman cried out for help. The officer saw Michael E. Wiley punch this woman in the ribs and stomach. Assistant District Attorney Christopher Fernald noted she had marks on her neck and her voice was raspy. She reported that the night before he had strangled her in front of three small children. At the time of this assault, Wiley was free on bail and prohibited from being in contact with her. He had two prior felony assaults.

He was sentenced to seven years in prison with five and a half of these “suspended” or lifted after probation.

Christopher Fernald said the sentence agreement involving a mere a year and a half of prison time was a compromise because, as it was described in The Courier-Gazette, “the victim was cooperative at times, but other times was not cooperative” with the prosecution.

May 23: Brandton C. Woodward from Rockland, two domestic violence charges, 364 days in jail, all suspended; Robin Tribou of Bangor, domestic violence assault, 364 days in jail, all suspended, one year probation; James W. Pierce of Cushing, two domestic violence charges, dismissed, $500 fine for disorderly conduct. 

June 13: Hugh Craney of Friendship, two counts of domestic violence assault, dismissed; Dylan Tedford of Edgecomb, domestic violence assault, 364 days in jail, all suspended, two years probation; Nicholas Campbell of Warren, domestic violence terrorizing, dismissed; criminal mischief, unconditional discharge and $50 restitution; terrorizing, $250 fine. 

And July 4, from the front page of The Camden Herald, this initial court appearance report: A woman told police that her boyfriend, Christian Fisk, 21, tried to strangle her many times and warned her that if she left him he would kill her and her family. The officer saw large bruises on both sides of her face, and her arms, and scratch marks on her neck. His bail? $500.

An average of one domestic disturbance call a day comes in to the Knox County Sheriff’s Office. But this just hints at the true disturbance because 911 domestic abuse calls are generally placed only at the point when the victim thinks she will die. Half of the murders in Maine continue to be as a result of domestic abuse, a figure that has stubbornly remained level for more than a decade, according to the 2018 report of the Maine Domestic Abuse Homicide Review Panel. And a United Nations report last year revealed domestic violence as the most common killer of women in the world.

Can anyone doubt that this epidemic of women being terrorized and killed by boyfriends and husbands is tied to criminal sentencing that, not even rising to a slap on the wrist, is a kiss on the cheek? 

My photo/audio project, “Finding Our Voices: Breaking the Silence of Domestic Abuse,” is now touring the state. Twenty-one women, from 18-year-old Sydney from Camden to 79-year-old Mary Lou from Scarborough, and including my hairdresser, my best friend’s daughter, my photo framer, and my neighbor, are shaking off fear and shame to reveal that men who purported to love them broke their limbs, killed their pets, doled out dollar bills and demanded receipts for gas and groceries, and controlled even who and what they looked at.

With every one of these women when the violence did get to the attention of authorities, there were no meaningful legal consequences for him, and her abuse continued through the court process. (Men are victims of domestic abuse too, but by all measures the vast majority of victims are women.)

From my personal experience, and hearing the stories of dozens of women terrorized by their intimate partners, here is a partial list of what needs to happen in Maine courts for the statistics on the mayhem and murder in our homes to finally budge.

1) Link civil and criminal courts in domestic abuse cases so that abuse of an intimate partner has a direct bearing on the visitation and custody of the child or children the couple have together and also prompts increased court scrutiny and punishment for such abusive tactics as filing frivolous court motions and withholding alimony.

2) Have prosecutors in the District Attorney’s Office who actually prosecute and not just rubber stamp case after case that come across their desk with shameful plea deals.

3) No more “deferred dispositions” when there is violent domestic assault. In these especially pernicious plea deals, a defendant pleads guilty to a charge, then, after he meets specific conditions the charge is wiped off his record as if the crime never happened. Not only is this a slap in the face to the victim, but it is a laboratory for future victims because, with the record wiped clean, women on the dating scene have no way of knowing this person is a dangerous partner.

4) Provide victim advocates in the District Attorney’s Office who truly advocate for the victim, or at least stop calling them “victim advocates,” because they work for the district attorney, not the victim.

5) No leniency for “first offenders” in domestic abuse cases. It is the first time it has been reported, not the first time it has occurred.

6) Do not require cooperation from the victim to prosecute domestic violence cases. In murder cases there is no victim to testify because the victim is dead. Yet somehow cases are brought to trial, and there are convictions. Where there is a will, there is a way. 

7) Change the arrest policy in police departments because too many 911 calls result in the victim being arrested. Victims are conditioned to protect abusers, and abusers are hard-wired to throw victims under the bus. So the woman says he didn’t do it, and the abuser says she did it, and the woman is arrested. 

We have a new district attorney and a new governor. I have heard promising reports of Natasha Irving from the sheriffs specializing in domestic violence in both Waldo and Knox counties. Gov. Janet Mills is a longtime advocate for domestic violence victims and just signed into law a groundbreaking domestic abuse bill drafted by a survivor/participant of “Finding Our Voices,” Jeannine Lauber Oren, that addresses economic abuse.

In June, Flight Deck, Black Pug and Moderation breweries pulled out of a festival in Brunswick, citing the involvement of the concert promotor, Alex Gray, who had been charged with domestic violence. (Gray pleaded guilty to domestic violence assault, but in a deferred disposition agreement  —Poof!—the plea was withdrawn and the charge dropped.) 

So there is some hope that in Maine, domestic abusers will not continue to get away with everything short of murder. 

Autumn, a “Finding Our Voices” survivor/participant from Lewiston, wrote to me recently: “Yes, monsters are real. But they don’t hide under the bed. No, no, no,  they are fast asleep in the bed beside you.”

It is past time for our local, state and national courts to make our beds safe, by declaring zero tolerance on domestic abuse, and holding someone who decks the person they purport to love at least as accountable as someone who punches a stranger.