Berkshire DA launches 'transformative' effort to combat domestic violence
PITTSFIELD — Declaring that domestic and sexual violence have reached a "crisis point" in Berkshire County, the Berkshire District Attorney's Office on Tuesday announced an aggressive new strategy to combat crimes that occur with "alarming and heartbreaking frequency."
Flanked by members of law enforcement, advocates and other officials, District Attorney Andrea Harrington made the announcement at the headquarters of the Elizabeth Freeman Center, a nonprofit organization that serves victims of domestic and sexual abuse with multiple offices, a shelter, and a 24/7 hotline and services.
Harrington said her office plans to take on perpetrators, past and present, and work to identify victims of sex trafficking.
She also has convened a Berkshire County Domestic and Sexual Violence Task Force and an 18-member steering committee that includes local and state officials, including state Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield, Pittsfield Mayor Linda Tyer and North Adams Mayor Thomas Bernard.
Janis Broderick, executive director of the Freeman Center, said rates of abuse in the county have skyrocketed, and protection order filings were 36% higher than the state average last year.
The center receives about 800 referrals every year from the Pittsfield Police Department alone, she added.
Across the county, the center works with 2,000 survivors and their families every year.
"We're always very busy," Broderick told reporters.
The local statistics are alarming, say advocates and officials.
Broderick said that in 2017, Stockbridge ranked first in the county for the highest rate of reported rape in the state by population, according to FBI data. Adams ranked third, Pittsfield fifth and North Adams sixth.
With 50 reported rapes in 2017, Pittsfield had nearly four times the state average that year.
Broderick attributes this countywide problem, in part, to rural isolation, poverty and lack of transportation.
"Though it's hidden down in homes and down long country roads where it's silenced by shame, we in the Berkshires should know that violence happens here — that it happens a lot," she said.
Her voice breaking, she added that six county women were murdered by their husbands or former boyfriends in the past four years.
And Harrington said later that she also classifies last month's apparent murder-suicide in Sheffield as a "domestic violence homicide." Her office believes it is likely that Luke Karpinksi killed his wife and three children before killing himself.
The incident remains under investigation.
Apart from the murders and the hike in reported rapes, the 15% rise in restraining order filings since 2015 also has heightened alarm.
In 2018, 1,107 orders were filed in the county.
Harrington, who pledged during her campaign last year to take on domestic violence, termed the new initiative "transformative."
"My team at the District Attorney's Office is committed to prosecuting abusers and is working to create a culture where victims are believed," she said.
Among other new policies, sexual assault cases will now be tracked when a complaint is made, rather than only when charges are filed, she said.
She also will provide training for law enforcement and advocates to help them identify signs of sex trafficking and other sexual exploitation in victims. For prevention, she also wants to educate communities to recognize signs of domestic abuse so people can intervene before an escalation into violence.
Harrington also has created a team that will investigate unindicted sexual assault cases from the past, with the intention of prosecution.
She said the team would review 15 years of cases, starting from the initial complaint. When asked how many of these cases exist, she said, "There's a lot."
There are more than 200 cases that were dismissed or where prosecution was ceased, she said, noting that the statute of limitations is 15 years.
"That's just those, and we want to start with cases that have never even been brought to court," Harrington added.
She said the inspiration for this is conversations with communities, and the sense that cases were not prosecuted aggressively enough, "in particular where the victim was under the influence [of drugs or alcohol]."
Local and state officials, including Attorney General Maura Healey, applauded the initiative.
"These traumas can't be ignored," Tyer said in a prepared statement.
Broderick said this new initiative will fortify those on the front lines.
"For all of us who do this work, this is a very good morning," Broderick said.
Heather Bellow can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @BE_hbellow and 413-329-6871.
TALK TO US
If you'd like to leave a comment (or a tip or a question) about this story with the editors, please email us. We also welcome letters to the editor for publication; you can do that by filling out our letters form and submitting it to the newsroom.