Rhode Island Home to 129,000 Women Who Have Survived Domestic Violence


Retired Providence firefighter Keith Gonsalves shared the image to the right on Facebook a few days before my interview with the executive director of the Rhode Island Coalition Against Domestic Violence. Ignore the politics and the individuals involved, and you’ll notice that this online election commentary nicely sums up society’s continued practice of blaming women for the offensive behavior committed against them by men.

It’s no wonder domestic violence remains a serious problem in this country. Annually, on average, about 10,000 Rhode Islanders, mostly women, but also men, experience physical, sexual, emotional, verbal, psychological and/or financial abuse. Last year in Rhode Island, for example, 8,934 individual victims of domestic violence received help, according to Rhode Island Coalition Against Domestic Violence (RICADV). That number doesn’t include those afraid to seek help.

“We’re starting to take domestic violence more seriously,” said Deborah DeBare, RICADV’s executive director for the past 21 years. “But it’s also really frustrating that we’re not taking it more seriously. One in four women will be a victim of domestic violence. If this was a medical issue that affected one in four women, there would be a vaccination for it.”

The 129,000 women living in Rhode Island who have survived domestic violence would most likely agree.

DeBare said domestic violence, as a social-change movement, is fairly young. She noted that the term “domestic violence” is only about 40 years old. She said it took a lawsuit filed in the mid-1980s by a badly battered woman against a Connecticut town to finally push this type of injustice into society’s view. Unfortunately, violence and manipulation against domestic partners remains very much in the background.

“Tracey Thurman was brutally beaten by her husband after she called the police,” DeBare said. “The police came and waited outside until the incident deescalated. While they waited Tracey was severely beaten. Her lawsuit nearly crippled the town financially.”

It took a big hit to a municipal bank account, not another kick to a woman’s head, for society to finally acknowledge a dangerous problem. If Thurman hadn’t filed a lawsuit and no TV movie was ever made, the issue of domestic violence today would likely be even further behind the times.

Despite a court order prohibiting him from coming anywhere near his estranged wife — Charles Thurman had been convicted in late 1982 of breach of the peace for smashing the windshield of Tracey’s car while she was sitting in it; he was given a suspended sentence of six months — in June 1983 he appeared at the home where Tracey was staying, according to court documents.

Tracey called the Torrington Police Department. A single police officer arrived about 25 minutes later, after Tracey had been stabbed in the chest, neck and throat. When the officer arrived, her abuser dropped the knife and, in the officer’s presence, kicked Tracey in the head. He then ran into the house, returning holding their son and dropping the child on his wounded mother. Charles then kicked Tracey in the head again. Three more officers eventually arrived, but continued to let Charles threaten Tracey. He was finally arrested when he approached her as she was lying on a stretcher.

The Torrington Police Department’s handling of this domestic assault was the approach taken by most law-enforcement agencies nationwide at the time, according to DeBare.

“Police would show up and tell the man to take a walk outside, walk around the block,” the North Kingstown resident said. “Usually they’d come back even angrier and the woman would get beat up worse.”

If a domestic abuser did get arrested, far from a certainty, he was likely charged with just simple assault. The abused woman was often blamed for getting beat up.

Back before Thurman’s lawsuit provided a nationwide wake-up call about the cost of ignoring domestic violence, incidents such as these were the norm: a New York City court official makes an abused woman wait in the same room with her abuser, minutes later her husband shoots her; an abused wife calls police when her husband beats her, police refuse to arrest him and one of the officers says the woman deserved the beating; during the 18 months before her estranged husband murdered her at her place of work, an abused woman had filed 22 police complaints.

“It’s an abuse of power, and about control over someone,” DeBare said. “It’s about ‘I’m more powerful than you’ based simply on gender.”

The New York native said blaming substance abuse and mental illness for domestic violence is a cop-out. “It’s largely about not seeing women as equals,” DeBare said.

It’s a view of the opposite sex that’s been endorsed repeatedly during the 2016 presidential campaign. It might be time to file another lawsuit.

Frank Carini is the editor of ecoRI News.