AUGUSTA — It was in the 1990s and authorities statewide would keep going to the same homes for similar domestic violence calls.

“Back then, we didn’t put any thought into bail conditions,” said Sgt. Jason Richards of the Maine State Police. “We didn’t go back to the house to make sure the victim was OK. We might go to a house and arrest somebody (but then) there’s no follow-up.”

That’s different now.

Look back one year ago — during seven deadly weeks that highlighted growing concerns about domestic violence in Maine — for fresh evidence.

After six children lost parents and two children died in three separate shootings in Winslow, Dexter and New Gloucester, Republican Gov. Paul LePage led a bipartisan effort against domestic violence.

Even before the high-profile cases, policy changes were in the works, said Julia Colpitts, executive director of the Maine Coalition to End Domestic Violence.

Legislators passed L.D. 1867 in April, which strengthens protections for victims and holds batterers more accountable. Proponents say those changes could have saved lives if in place a year ago, including requiring judges to deny bail to defendants who could likely re-commit domestic violence; mandating victims of domestic violence, stalking and sexual assaults be notified when their alleged abuser is being released on bail; and shifting responsibility for setting bail on those accused of domestic violence-related crimes from bail commissioners to judges.

“When I step back and look at the progress made over the past year toward making communities safer, it’s really quite amazing,” Colpitts said. “The system will respond in a more cohesive way and they will be safer.”

But don’t tell R. Christopher Almy, district attorney for Piscataquis and Penobscot counties, that it’s been a watershed year for domestic violence policy in Maine.

“They’re adjustments; they’re not big changes,” Almy said. “You can make all the adjustments you want. You’re not going to stop every abuser from killing no matter what you do.”

Rather, Almy said, the public’s awareness of the problem has been heightened in the past year, in part because of the governor’s effort.

That’s something few disagree with.

More changes proposed

LePage, citing a history of beatings from his father that drove him to leave home at the age of 11 after a hospital stay, has been the state’s most visible spokesman on the issue over the past year.

Aside from the other bills, he signed an executive order that assembled a task force to look at using technology to track domestic violence defendants after being released on bail and offer electronic assistance to victims, such as bracelets that could trigger emergency personnel to a scene.

His office has said for months that next session, LePage will push to have legislation passed mandating those convicted of domestic violence-related offenses complete batterers’ intervention programs, community groups that make victim safety their top priority and urge accountability for batterers.

“All too often, batterers in Maine are sent to anger management or to therapy and that’s totally inappropriate,” Colpitts said. “They don’t address the problems.”

The governor has told the story repeatedly: when he was 11, his father broke his nose in a beating and told him to lie about it to doctors. He was put in the hospital and when he recovered, he fled home.

“I am sad to say that my childhood memories are ravaged with domestic violence,” LePage said in his State of the State address in January. “Those memories are not pleasant, but I will share my past to help end domestic abuse.”

“Half the battle is opening up a dialogue and he can do this as governor,” said Adrienne Bennett, LePage’s press secretary. “It shouldn’t be women dealing with this issue alone. Men need to speak out.”

Almy said state law allowing protection from offenders has been strong for years.

Now, he said the governor’s advocacy on the issue is helping push the public to think harder about it.

“That shift in policy was 20 years ago,” he said. “Now we’re talking about a situation when something happens and someone says, ‘We need to do something about it.'”

‘Sometimes it’s not enough’

On June 6, 2011, Richards of the state police walked up to the Winslow home of Sarah and Nathaniel Gordon. He was the first detective on scene.

Sarah Gordon, a 30-year-old mother of two, lay dead in a yard across from their Marie Street home. Nathaniel, 32, her husband and father of their two children, had chased her down the street and shot her several times with a handgun and the children watched from the house. He fled in a car, leading police on a chase down Interstate 95 before fatally shooting himself.

On June 13, 2011, Det. Jennifer Fiske of the Maine State Police got word that Steven Lake, 37, shot his estranged wife, Amy, 38, and their two kids, Coty, 12 and Monica, 13, at their Dexter home. Then he shot himself.

“It’s hard to believe a whole family was wiped out,” Fiske said.

Then, on July 26, Renee Sandora, 27, and her friend, Trevor Mills, 28, were shot in New Gloucester, allegedly by 29-year-old Joel Hayden, the father of Sandora’s four children, as their 7-year-old son watched. They died at Central Maine Medical Center in Lewiston later that week and Hayden was arrested at gunpoint after crashing his car on I-95.

In 2011, 11 of Maine’s 23 slayings were domestic violence-related. That’s a statistic Richards, in the state police’s Major Crimes Unit, thinks about in each case.

“You can point fingers and Monday morning quarterback, but you try to do everything you can and sometimes it’s not enough,” he said. “When you don’t meet that goal for whatever reason, you absolutely take that to heart.”

Richards, who led the investigation in the Gordon case, first had to interview the Gordons’ children for details about their home life. He said at first the kids thought their mother was playing dead to ward off more attacks from their father.

“They were able to provide very specific details about mom and dad’s relationship that I’m sure the parents had no clue that the kids were aware of,” Richards said

Richards conducted about 35 interviews with those who knew the family had problems, but never thought it would end in their deaths.

Fiske, the detective on the Lake case, said her interviews and fact-finding — along with records on Lake’s criminal history, including a time in 2010 Lake held his family at gunpoint in a bedroom — showed there were countless warning signs.

“He was very highly suspicious of her — very paranoid,” she said. “He would have found a way one way or another. He was very determined.”

Over his 18 years in law enforcement, Richards said the environment for the abused has changed drastically, and police have been a part of that change.

“There’s been a lot of research that’s gone into, ‘How do we stop that from happening again?'” he said. “Things like arresting the predominant offender, making sure that we get the proper bail conditions, that there’s no contact (and) that if this couple does get back together, there’s a series of checks and balances put into place.”

A tricky question

Since the 1970s, public consciousness of the issue has shifted drastically, said Mazie Hough, associate director of the women’s studies program at the University of Maine.

“Women would go to the hospital battered and bruised and no one would think to ask if their husbands were abusing them,” she said. “Change has happened in the past 40 years. It still needs repeating as much as possible.”

There has been a shift in dialogue about domestic violence in Maine, Hough and the others say. What started in the 1970s as a grassroots feminist movement to establish domestic violence projects and affect lawmakers to change policy, has significantly mainstreamed.

“They’re no longer just a bunch of flaming feminists,” Almy said. “They’re people who live in our community and in many cases have had firsthand experience with domestic violence.”

Colpitts said in recent years she’s heard more outrage than ever related to domestic violence in interactions with the public.

“I think that there’s more public awareness,” she said. “The cost of domestic violence within our medical system, the cost of it in our legal system, the cost in our workplaces, that’s quite shocking to people.”

But those working to fight the issue say despite more awareness, prevention will always be needed.

“What the governor is doing, and I think it’s a good thing, is trying to protect the women,” Hough said. “But what we’ve really got to do is stop the battering. How do you do that? It’s a very tricky question.”

Michael Shepherd — 621-5632

[email protected]

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