Sanctuary for the Abused
Thursday, February 09, 2006
We must be more watchful for signs of domestic violence
SUZANNE DAWSON -- GUEST COLUMNIST
A year ago today my daughters, Kelsey and Hayley Byrne, were killed by their father at his home in Edmonds before he killed himself. Though I still struggle to find meaning in such a loss, I do know their deaths illustrate the need to look at the relationship between mental illness and domestic violence. I am one of many people who has lived, or is still living, with the fear of violence toward themselves or their children. We need to develop tools to detect potential violence and get help for the people involved.
I knew my ex-husband was troubled. I tried to get help but got no response because he was so good at keeping up appearances. Few people were able to see the fear, the anger and the depression. We saw many therapists and though some warned me of his potential for violence, only one stated this openly during the divorce. Though mention was made of a possible personality disorder, it was not openly discussed. He was able to hide his illness and divert attention from possible warning signs. I could not prove my concerns to his family, to friends, to the court or to child services.
Most of us are able to accept our failures, faults and fragility openly. My ex-husband got stuck. His illness affected his ability to manage the pressures of a job, a marriage and parenting. When things did not work out, he became angry and blamed me, then denied a problem. He lived in an alternate reality and any conflict with that reality was attacked. The divorce brought out examples of this conflict, issues he identified in his suicide note. He cited his frustration and anger with the divorce, the court and the custody arrangement.
We cannot stereotype who will be an abuser, much less identify who will take it to such a drastic level. Many abusers are outwardly pleasant people who appear to be martyred by bad luck or circumstance. Though my ex-husband was hostile to me, he appeared to be a loving father. I worried about his future, his increasing anger and his unchanged circumstances. However, there was no evidence of an immediate threat.
I strongly believe we need to establish new systems to help people on both sides of domestic violence. We need to define warning signs, pay attention to them and have a system in place to help those people affected. We need an environment where people -- therapists, the court, the lawyers, child services, guardians ad litem, teachers and school officials -- can talk to one another during hostile situations. In my case at least, it seemed like no one but me saw the big picture. No one seemed to be in a position to seek input from others that would provide enough information to fully understand the situation.
I have no easy answers. It will take money, time and talent to get it going, but it should make communities safer, especially for our children. I know it will be a lot of work.
But working to make the world better for our children is what life is all about. I have already learned of many families, our neighbors, who live with the fear of facing a similar tragedy. This violence is preventable. If my ex-husband had been able to accept help, perhaps it would have stopped his death and the deaths of my daughters.