Montana is ahead of most other states in efforts to curb fatal domestic violence, but more still needs to be done, particularly for Native Americans and child survivors, a recent report concluded.

Lawmakers on the state's Law and Justice Interim Committee will discuss the findings on intimate partner homicide at their meeting Monday in Helena.

The report, required each biennium since 2003, shows rates of intimate partner homicide are climbing, from 17 deaths in the 2013-2014 biennium to 43 in 2015-2016.

But Matthew Dale, the report’s author, says the numbers don’t necessarily mean domestic violence is worse now than it was when the state began tracking the killings.

For one thing, there are outlier years, and the upswing in the most recent biennium has since reversed, with a dip back down to 11 deaths in 2017. The average is 10 a year.

For another thing, the state is getting better at identifying and tracking domestic violence killings. With that comes a rise in numbers.

Dale, who heads victim services at the Montana Department of Justice, said many of the killings are “meticulously choreographed.”

“The killers are not dumb people,” he said, “and they’re motivated at the time to cover their tracks.”

What once might have passed for an accident no longer does, Dale said.

Two multi-disciplinary review teams in Montana — one for any case involving a Native American and one for other cases — take an “inch-wide, mile-deep” approach to studying the state's domestic violence killings.

Zeroing in on two cases per year, the teams visit the towns where the killings took place, conduct interviews and scour police, court and medical records to better understand what precipitated the killings.

Montana has caught national attention for its efforts on intimate partner homicide. In 2014, it created the first review team focused specifically on cases involving Native Americans, and it has offered guidance through the DOJ to several other states working to establish their own teams.

Nationally, Montana ranks average for domestic violence killings, according to research by the Violence Policy Center.

Indian Country findings

The report calls for a better understanding of domestic violence killings in Indian Country, noting disproportionately high rates of victimization for Montana’s Native Americans.

One key finding was that in Native cases, women are far more likely to be the killer. Statewide, the killer was male three-quarters of the time. But in cases involving Native Americans, the killer was female 57 percent of the time.

Dale, the report’s author, said this trend reversal owes to domestic violence. Typically when women kill their partners or family members, it’s after severe abuse. Sometimes it’s an attempt to prevent further abuse of children.

“It’s desperation. It’s isolation,” Dale said. “So they believe they have no option to escape the abuse except to kill the perpetrator, or at least wound the perpetrator.”

Sometimes the woman seeks to hurt her abuser to scare him and send a message but inadvertently kills him, Dale said.

Wendy Bremner, victim witness specialist for the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Browning and member of the Native American review team, said she’s seen familial violence cycle through the generations.

“You know, when I’m dealing with a victim of sexual assault, a child victim, it’s very common for me to hear from the mother and the grandmother that they went through the same thing,” Bremner said. 

Untreated trauma, compounded by concentrated poverty in Indian Country, are key players in the higher fatal domestic violence numbers for Natives, Bremner said.

In order to interrupt that cycle, she said, the state needs to invest in better mental health services and more options for familial or foster home placements, among other resources.

Dale, of the DOJ, also called for better channels of communication between state and tribal courts, so that state attorneys are best prepared to prosecute Native American killings that take place off-reservation. 

Little contact with 'the system'

Most victims of domestic violence killings had little contact with “the system,” the report notes, whether that meant staying in a women’s shelter, making contact with a victim advocate or obtaining an order of protection.

“These are crimes that thrive in secrecy,” he said. “And if the mom is getting help and if the child — someone’s paying attention at the child’s school, and dad’s probation officer is aware of what’s going on, yes: The thinking is that the more people are familiar with what’s going on with the family, the less likely it will end in a homicide.”

The review teams have a few ideas for reducing the killings.

A program to help abuse victims keep their whereabouts confidential, by routing mail through the DOJ’s office, has been around for more than a decade, but could be better utilized, the team said. 

Another effort to protect victims by creating a driver’s license-like card that serves as proof of a protection order and can be easily referenced across jurisdictions should also see more use. 

A new practice in Helena to prevent deaths should be replicated around the state, the team said. A group of prosecutors, victim specialists and law enforcement meets monthly to discuss high-risk domestic violence cases they believe could escalate to homicide, and coordinate intervention.

And Montana should duplicate a program in Arizona to support the children who survive domestic violence killings, including with long-term case management.

Currently all that exists in Montana is a fund to pay for the kids’ mental health treatment.

“And that’s about it,” Dale said.

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