By Deborah DeBare
The Providence Journal, May 20th 2012
He "started yelling at me, and he held me up against the refrigerator, choking me. I didn't know what to do. I was fading. I didn't know what was going on. All I knew was that I fell to the ground," testified Carmen Cruz, a domestic-violence survivor, to the Judiciary Committee of the Rhode Island House. "This happens all the time with abuse," she added.
Though Cruz survived, she endured many more years of abuse, including an attempt on her life when her abuser shot her in front of her children and grandchildren.
Cruz's story is familiar to domestic-violence survivors. Strangulation is a very common and dangerous form of domestic assault. Domestic violence is about power and control, and strangulation is one way that power can be violently asserted. When your abuser strangles you, he is telling you that he holds your life in his hands and he has the power to end it.
Even if a victim is lucky enough to survive a strangulation assault, she can suffer debilitating injuries, including brain damage, miscarriage, impaired breathing, vision damage and hearing damage. Additionally, a strangulation assault is a powerful indication that the violence in the relationship is escalating toward murder. A November 2003 study in the National Institute of Justice Journal found that a domestic-violence victim who has been strangled is 9.9 times more likely to be murdered by the abuser later in the relationship.
There is no question that strangulation is just as dangerous and damaging as other forms of felony assault. Yet here in Rhode Island, we still treat these crimes as misdemeanor simple assaults, punishable by less than a year in prison. In fact, fewer than 1 percent of those charged with misdemeanor domestic-violence assault in 2011 served any jail time. Meanwhile, a report by Justice Assistance shows that almost 60 percent of misdemeanor domestic-violence charges in Rhode Island between December 2011 and February 2012 were dismissed.
In the last six years alone, 30 other states have passed felony assault laws specific to domestic-violence strangulation, including our neighbors in Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont. Police and prosecutors in New York found the law so useful that they were able to apply it to more than 2,000 cases in the first 15 weeks. Law-enforcement officers everywhere have found these statutes to be an invaluable tool for holding the most dangerous batterers accountable for their crimes.
In Rhode Island, we've seen tragic results when law enforcement has not had access to the tools they need to keep victims safe. A 2009 Johnston Police report describes the red marks visible on the neck of Stacie Dorego, a young mother who stated that she was attacked and strangled by her boyfriend, Donald Greenslit. The misdemeanor charges filed against the abuser were eventually dismissed. In January, Dorego was found murdered and dismembered in Johnston, and Green-slit was arrested and charged with first-degree domestic-violence homicide. If law enforcement had been able to charge Greenslit with a felony in 2009, it is possible that Dorego would still be alive today, and her children would still have their mother.
We urge the leadership of the General Assembly to ensure that the anti-strangulation bill (S-2147, H-7242) becomes law this year. In 2011, the bill received overwhelming support from both chambers of the Assembly, and this year it has also received endorsements from the Rhode Island Police Chiefs Association, the state attorney general, the state chapter of the International Brotherhood of Police Officers and the state chapter of the National Organization for Women.
The anti-strangulation bill cannot wait. Law-enforcement officials urgently need this powerful tool to protect Rhode Islanders and prevent domestic-violence homicides. Pass the bill before we lose another life.
Deborah DeBare is executive director of the Rhode Island Coalition Against Domestic Violence.