AUGUSTA — Gov. Paul LePage got unusually personal in his State of the State address Tuesday when he referred to childhood memories “ravaged with domestic violence.”
For advocates of victims, it was one more hopeful sign of the momentum that’s driving efforts to stop domestic assaults and murders in Maine.
“It gives an entirely larger audience to listen to the message,” said Arthur Jetti, who heads the Maine Chapter of Parents of Murdered Children. “I think he’s genuine in his desire to do what we can humanly do to end the scourge of abuse.”
Jetti and other advocates say LePage and his administration have been working for the past year to reduce domestic violence, which accounted for 11 of Maine’s 23 murders last year.
Meanwhile, a rash of domestic assaults and murders last summer — including the murder of a mother and two children in Dexter in June — has also fueled efforts within Maine’s Legislature to better protect families.
A handful of bills lined up for legislative action in the next few months would tighten laws around bail and restraining orders in order to keep potential abusers and murderers from their families. The sponsors include both Republicans and Democrats.
The LePage administration plans to present its own proposal next month. In a sign of the bipartisan support, LePage said Tuesday that House Democratic Leader Emily Cain, D-Orono, may sponsor his proposal.
“From the very beginning of this administration it’s been a priority,” said Julia Colpitts, executive director of the Maine Coalition to End Domestic Violence. “The governor is not the first governor to address this, but he is looking at it in a really comprehensive way.”
LePage also is helping simply by using his personal experience, and the gubernatorial stage, to raise awareness, Colpitts and others said.
“I am sad to say that my childhood memories are ravaged with domestic violence. Those memories are not pleasant, but I will share my past to help end domestic abuse,” LePage said Tuesday, prompting perhaps the longest standing ovation of his speech.
LePage does not speak publicly in detail about the violence in his family.
He has talked the most about one incident when he was 11 and his father — a heavy drinker with a violent temper — hit him so hard he was taken to a hospital. After his father gave him a 50-cent piece and told him to lie to the doctors, LePage ran away from home and never went back.
A brother has talked about how their father would sometimes light a fire in the house while the family slept and then leave.
On Tuesday, LePage said most domestic violence is committed by men and “it is time men stand up, speak up and stamp out domestic violence… It is time we shift domestic violence from being a women’s issue to a men’s issue.”
LePage did not provide details about his proposal in the speech, and he declined a request to be interviewed Wednesday.
“We must close loopholes in our current bail system,” he said in Tuesday’s speech. “It is important that the laws ensure the most dangerous offenders are put in front of a judge before they receive bail.”
Several of the legislative proposals would tighten up bail processing to keep the most dangerous offenders in custody.
“Even high risk offenders can get bailed out in the middle of the night with the bail commissioner not having information about past criminal convictions or high risk factors,” said Colpitts.
Other proposals would add strangulation as a type of assault in the Maine Criminal Code, improve stalking response and improve the state process of notifying victims when assault suspects are free, Colpitts said.
Cain, the House Democratic leader, has proposed a bill aimed at assessing risk before bail is posted.
“The real way to stop (domestic violence) is engaging with families early and educating people,” Cain said. “But when you get to the point where someone is being violent with family members, we have to make sure we have a system to stop the violence at every point along the way.”
Arthur Jetti said the momentum for changes in the law is encouraging. He became an advocate for victims and survivors after his 20-month-old grandson, Treven Cunningham, was shot and killed during a domestic assault in Dexter in 1999. LePage recognized Jetti during his speech Tuesday.
“I think the governor having a personal experience and being willing to express that fact and the horrific summer of murders that we had” have elevated the issue, Jetti said. “People talk about the partisan divide, but if anything should be a unifying issue, the scourge of domestic violence should be a unifying issue. Let’s hope it stays that way until we can close the lid on it.”
John Richardson — 791-6324