Our opinion: Domestic violence deserves our contempt

Posted

This being an election year, we hear about all sorts of worrisome trends in Vermont — its aging and shrinking population, its lack of affordable housing, and the way those factors are dragging down economic growth.

But here's a startling trend that ought to upset everyone: Half of the state's homicides over the past two years are connected to domestic violence.

The murder last week of Courtney Gaboriault in Barre was the fifth domestic violence-related death of the year out of 11 homicides. In 2017, 10 of the state's 16 homicides involved domestic violence.

That is unacceptable.

Gaboriault, an employee of the Department of Public Safety for the last five years, was shot to death by her ex-boyfriend, Luke Lacroix, according to Barre police. They said Lacroix, wielding a handgun, forced his way into the apartment and fought a third man, who escaped and alerted police. But by the time police arrived, it was too late: Lacroix had shot Gaboriault, who died at the scene, and then fatally shot himself.

Lacroix had no criminal record and had not been subject to restraining orders, according to police. But domestic violence doesn't always fit the pattern of multiple arrests and restraining orders. It's not unlike the opiate epidemic in many ways: Domestic violence can hide in plain sight; not everyone comes forward to get help, for a variety of reasons that do not deserve our judgment or scorn; and it can happen to anyone. If it were easy to walk away from an abusive relationship, we would not be having this conversation.

"The nature of domestic violence is such that we may not know it until it reaches its most dangerous point," Auburn Watersong, policy director at the Vermont Network Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, told VTDigger.org.

At its core, domestic violence is about power, and the control by one person over another, with the threat of violence or actual violence as the means of control. Add a firearm to that toxic brew, as was the case last week in Barre, and the results can be tragic.

"Whenever the perpetrator's world becomes threatened or smaller, that's always the most dangerous time," Watersong told VTDigger. "When the perpetrator feels no longer in control, that's when things tend to escalate."

When it reconvenes in January, the Legislature ought to have a serious look at the state of domestic violence prevention in Vermont, and consider whether the laws need to change in key ways to protect lives and send the message that violence against a loved one will not be tolerated.

Our hunch is that in a rural state where police cannot be around the corner 24 hours a day, the laws need sharper teeth.

For example: At present, violating a restraining order can be prosecuted as criminal contempt, with a maximum sentence of six months in jail and a $1,000 fine. Perhaps that maximum jail term ought to be longer. Certainly the fine ought to be much higher than $1,000.

Here's another curiosity: Currently, the law allows violating a restraining order to be expunged from your criminal record if two years have passed and you've stayed out of trouble. Why is that?

We've decided as a state that being convicted of drunken driving cannot be expunged from your record. We've effectively said through our laws that DUI is not an indiscretion that can be wiped clean, but a serious error in judgement that convicted offenders must own.

If getting behind the wheel impaired (when your ability to make a rational decision is compromised) remains on your permanent record, then why do we extend the courtesy of a clean slate to those who have knowingly menaced former partners when the judge specifically told them to stay away?

Perhaps it's time our legal system viewed violating a restraining order with the same contempt as getting behind the wheel after a few drinks.


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