PITTSFIELD — During the coronavirus pandemic, statewide leaders issued an advisory aimed at pressing one seemingly simple message — you are safer from COVID-19 at home.
But, for those who share a home with an abuser, staying inside can prove perilous.
“If you’re one of these individuals that has an abuser, or has a situation at home that is unsafe, that is extremely challenging — above or beyond the challenges of dealing with a pandemic,” Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito said.
Polito joined Berkshire District Attorney Andrea Harrington, Mayors Linda Tyer, of Pittsfield, and Thomas Bernard, of North Adams, state Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, state Sen. Adam Hinds and others at a news conference Thursday at Common Park on First Street to announce the creation of a Domestic Violence High Risk Team for Berkshire County.
Statewide, there are 29 other such teams working to prevent the escalation of intimate-partner violence, Polito said. Until now, Berkshire County was the only Massachusetts county that did not have one.
“We are the last county in the commonwealth to have a high-risk team,” Harrington said. “It’s incredibly satisfying for me, because this was a campaign promise that I made. And it is a demonstration that elections do matter.”
The team brings together more than two dozen agencies and organizations, including the Berkshire County Sheriff’s Office, probation department, state and local police departments and the Elizabeth Freeman Center, Harrington said.
The team meets monthly to share information about offenders deemed to have a high risk of lethality — based on factors like access to weapons, a history of strangulation, animal abuse, stalking, or violating a restraining order — and develops intervention with the goal of keeping victims safe.
“This team is breaking down the silos that exist between our organizations, and we are closing gaps in the system,” Harrington said. “The team monitors and discusses risk indicators, offender history, the nature of an offense, and developments such as releases from incarceration, parole probation, with an eye towards empowering victims.”
When COVID-19 first throttled the region in the spring, shuttering schools and businesses, the Elizabeth Freeman Center never closed its doors, said Executive Director Janis Broderick. The need for the organization’s services is great: Broderick said protective orders are requested in Berkshire County at a higher rate — 57 percent higher than the statewide average adjusted for population size — and in any given year several Berkshires communities are in the top 10 of Massachusetts cities and towns that report the most rapes per capita.
By sharing crucial information across agencies, Harrington said, members of the high-risk team aim to prevent domestic violence homicides, which, Broderick said, have claimed the lives of 11 people in Berkshire County in five years.
One mother directly touched by such a tragedy was Cathy Felix. Her daughter, Julie, who was murdered by her husband, Eugene Shade II. Shade pleaded guilty in 2011 to second-degree murder by strangling Julie, who had died of cardiac arrest because of the attack in North Adams on July 22, 2008.
Shade was sentenced to prison, but will be up for parole in about three years, Felix said. She believes that the man who murdered her daughter will be released, something already placing Julie’s two daughters, now teenagers, in fear.
“My two girls, Julie’s two girls, are already worried about that day,” Felix said.
The couple recently had separated, which, Felix said, is a precarious time for survivors who can be highly vulnerable to violence at the hands of their abuser.
“That is the hardest time; that’s the scariest time,” she said, “and for us, it was devastating.”
Shade was controlling of Julie, Felix said, calling constantly to check up on her. He controlled the couple’s finances and, because Julie did not drive, also managed where she went. That Shade eventually would kill — that’s a potential the new high-risk team aims to identify early in other abusers — was not apparent to Felix.
“He did not show any signs; most people who abuse people do not do it in front of anybody else,” Felix said. “When he was with us, he was the doting husband. He was the very doting father.
“My wish,” she added, “is that if anybody is going through any kinds of control, any kind of domestic violence, that they reach out. That they get help. Julie didn’t do that; we didn’t know, and I wish we did,” she said.
If you need help, call the Elizabeth Freeman Center’s 24-hour toll-free hotline at 866-401-2425.