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Domestic violence reaches far beyond individual homes

SALT LAKE CITY — Families want to help loved ones who experience domestic violence and many do offer that help in the early stages. But over time, their patience can be strained by victims who cannot, for very complex reasons, leave their perpetrators.

More often the perpetrators of domestic violence isolate their victims from their families, which can allow the abuse to fester unchecked, said Jennifer Campbell, associate director of South Valley Sanctuary, which shelters victims of domestic violence and operates a community resource center in West Jordan.

Then there was Katie Stay, who traveled to Utah from Texas last fall to help her sister Melanie Lyons Haskell escape a violent relationship with her former husband Ronald Lee Haskell of Logan.

"It’s very hard to continually help that way. I think it speaks very highly of them (the Stays) that they were still so involved in trying to help. Burnout is very common for social workers who work in this field. To have nonprofessional family members expected to carry the load, it’s a very hard thing to do," Campbell said.

Ronald Lee Haskell, 33, is accused of killing Stay, her husband Stephen and four of the couple's children in their Houston-area home on Wednesday. After family members refused to tell Haskell where he could find his ex-wife, police say he tied up the Stays, placed them face-down on the floor and shot them each in the back of the head. The couple's 15-year-old daughter is expected to survive her injuries.

Utah advocates for victims of domestic violence said the mass slaying of the Stay family illustrates the widespread impacts of family violence.

"As a coalition, we're really trying to help communities understand that abusive partners can become lethal offenders. It does increase the risk to extended family members, friends, community members as well as innocent bystanders. We are seeing some increases in cases where there are mass murders occurring in the context of intimate partner homicides," said Kendra Wyckoff, executive director of Utah Domestic Violence Coalition.

Troubling numbers

Jenn Oxborrow, domestic violence program administrator the Utah Department of Human Services, said one in three women in Utah will experience the impacts of intimate partner violence at some point in their lives.

"We know the risk of intimate-partner homicide goes up significantly when the abusive partner is experiencing suicidal thoughts, or suicidal risk and has access to a firearm," she said.

The Stay case is particularly tragic because "she worked very hard to keep herself safe and she had done a number of things to protect herself and her family members. I think the real question here is why would someone be able to do such devastating harm given all the things the victims had done to try to safeguard her situation and her family's situation," Oxborrow said.

Ali Barker, Melanie Lyons Haskell's attorney who represented her in her divorce and helped her obtain protective orders against Ron Haskell, said her client was "legitimately fearful for her safety."

In a conversation earlier this week, Melanie Haskell's mother told Barker that "she (Melanie) felt like she had to pay the ultimate price for her freedom, losing her family, just to get away from the guy."

Yet, Barker said she hopes this incident will not discourage other people from leaving abusive partners and reaching out for help.

"I think Melanie did all the right things in this case. She tried to get away from the abuser. She tried to make a better life for herself by getting away. Unfortunately it resulted in this. But the much more common scenario that happens in these sorts of issues, the victim ends up dying a slow emotional death through manipulation, control and fear (by staying)," she said.

The sooner a victim can get out of a situation, the sooner they can make their own life better, Barker said. "This was just a horrific incident. Nobody could have expected this."

Getting help

Local advocates say Utahns who experience domestic violence can obtain help from the Domestic Violence LINKLine: 1-800-897-LINK (5465) or the Child Abuse and Neglect Hotline: 1-855-323-DCFS (3237).

The hotlines are free and staffed round-the-clock, 365 days a year.

Campbell said people who work in advocacy or in direct service to victims of domestic violence tend to take personal inventory when tragedies of this scale occur.

But she has become convinced that it takes the efforts of an entire community to help victims of domestic violence and comprehensive prevention efforts, which include teaching young people about healthy behaviors and relationships.

"Bad things happen and they're hard to process. But we can't just say 'This is too much.' Instead, we need to be engaging and say "What can I do? How can I help?' and figure out whatever that is," Campbell said.