A banner proclaiming “Remember My Name” is splayed across a desk in The Safety Zone with the names of 40 women, men and children in bold purple lettering — all victims of domestic violence who lost their lives.
The banner will be the centerpiece of The Safety Zone’s march and candlelight vigil starting at the Cruz Bay tennis courts at 6 p.m. on Thursday evening, October 19, to honor people in the territory who were killed by domestic violence.
“We can’t forget that these are people who were killed,” said Iris Kern, They Safety Zone’s executive director. “These people couldn’t have died in vain. These aren’t just names — these are people who are dead because of domestic violence.”
Although The Safety Zone, St. John’s only victim’s advocacy group, works year-round to combat violence in the community, the agency is gearing up for a month-long observance of Domestic Violence Awareness Month (DVMA).
Day of Unity
Recognized across the United States, DVAM grew out of the first Day of Unity, which was celebrated in October, 1981 by the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence.
“The intent was to connect battered women’s advocates across the nation who were working to end violence against women and their children,” according to the group’s Web site.
In October 1987, the first DVAM was observed, followed in 1989 with the first Commemorative Legislation, which officially designated the month. Now, DVAM is observed across the United States and the territories as a way to raise awareness about the horrors of domestic violence.
Locally, The Safety Zone is hosting a Purple Ribbon Campaign Cocktail Party and a writing contest for students, as well as the march and candlelight vigil.
Getting Kids Involved
The writing contest, open to students from third grade to seniors in high school, is aimed at getting youngsters in the community to think about the issue of domestic violence, Kern explained.
“We want to get the kids involved with thinking about the subject and what they can do, what each of us can do, to stop domestic violence,” she said.
October 15 is the deadline for entries, and the winning submissions will win a prize and read their essays at the march and vigil.
The purple ribbon cocktail party, scheduled for Sunday evening, October 15, will be at the Tennis Villa starting at 5:30 p.m. Tickets are $25 and available through The Safety Zone or any of its board members.
Participants are asked to wear purple ribbons, signifying the bruises many women wear daily due to domestic violence.
“I don’t think people realize how bad this issue is here,” said Kern. “We see over 300 people a year, just on this small island.”
Men Are Victims Too
Women are not the only victims of domestic violence. The Safety Zone, which was launched 12 and one-half-years ago, initially served 95 percent women, but now that number is down to 85 percent with 15 percent of their cases involving men as the victims, Kern explained.
“Domestic violence is an issue of power and control,” she said. “Usually the dynamic is against women, but sometimes it goes the other way. More and more men are coming forward.”
The vast majority of women who murder their partners have a history of domestic violence as well, Kern added.
The cases that get reported are not indicative of the overall instances of domestic violence, Kern said.
Tip of Iceberg
“What we see is just the tip of the iceberg,” she said. “It’s such a small community here and people don’t want you to know they are victims and they don’t want you to know they’re getting service. This issue has got to come out of the closet.”
The cycle of violence can not be overlooked, as girls who grow up with domestic violence usually end up being victims and boys who grow up with the behavior tend to be perpetrators, Kern explained.
“There is a cycle of this violence,” she said. “It’s extraordinary. There is evidence now that children who are exposed to domestic violence have differences in brain development which affects their ability to respond to and control this behavior.”
“They don’t have to be victims themselves, but just be exposed to it,” Kern continued.
Coordinated Effort Needed
Although the problem is nothing new, the territory is way behind in terms of solving the domestic violence issue, Kern said.
“A coordinated community effort is the most important thing when combating domestic violence,” she said. “To solve the problem we must act as a team where advocates have a role, police have a role, prosecutors have a role and judges have a role. We’re all team members.”
“It’s enormously frustrating that we don’t have this coordinated community response yet,” Kern added.
As it is very difficult to reform perpetrators, the threat of jail time is a very important part of curbing domestic violence, according to The Safety Zone’s executive director.
“The length of time isn’t the most important thing, but the threat of jail must always be over their heads,” Kern said. “There must be consequences for these perpetrators. The problem is really enforcement.”
Kern recently returned from a national Firearms Conference in California, an issue which is intricately linked to domestic violence.
“The last six domestic violence deaths in the territory have been firearms deaths,” she said. “These issues with handgun use exist all over the country, we aren’t the only ones. The difference is here the number of unregistered and unlicensed guns far exceeds the number of registered and licensed firearms.”
Once a domestic violence restraining order is issued, federal law mandates the perpetrator lose access to firearms. Records of registered firearms, however, don’t exist in the territory, Kern explained.
“We need to get on board with our coordinated response,” she said. “We have a tremendous amount of work to do and we must start. I want to have more people at our candlelight vigil than ever before.”
There is hope for the future, Kern added.
“I’m looking forward to the election,” she said. “We need leadership that is aware of this problem and dedicated to creating a coordinated community response.”