Violence Free Minnesota Releases Report on Relationship-based Homicide

October 1, 2021 — In 2020, 30 Minnesotans died because of relationship abuse, according to the annual Violence Free Minnesota (VFMN) Homicide report. Relationship abuse involves using a pattern of behavior and tactics to maintain power and control over a former or current intimate partner. Children, bystanders, and other family members are impacted as well.

In a news conference, Anoka County Public Health representative Kassy Podvin noted that there is a need to increase access to resources, support early intervention, offer home-based service professionals in what are typically overwhelming and complex relationship dynamics.

Katie Kramer noted that housing is a crucial piece of solving intimate partner violence (IPV). Many women, including those with children, are limited in their ability to escape situations because of financial instability. She recommends supporting tenant protections laws to give more IPV survivors the ability to maintain safe and affordable housing regardless of past evictions and credit issues.

Tamara Stark, senior director of housing and youth development at Tubman, also noted that housing is the most common need. Women facing relationship abuse are impacted by loss of income; ruined credit; legal challenges; and stress about access to health, transportation, childcare, food, and education. “Children wake up not knowing where they will be,” she says. “Survivors face judgment from others, or are criminalized in their attempt to survive. Black and brown children are removed from families [because of challenges survivors] did not want and system failures.”

She added that most women leaving abusive situations are harmed by discriminatory practices, a shortage of affordable housing, and exploitation. To give them safer paths “requires all of us” in order to offer places to “nurture themselves” and “live, love, and survive.” Having a safe home is freedom, Stark says.

Amirthini Keefe of the Domestic Abuse Project points out that there is a skill in being able to ask for help. She notes that society struggles with the idea that offenders — those who use violence — can be transformed outside of incarceration. Some do not want to hurt but don’t know how to stop. “Hurt people hurt people,” she says. “These are learned responses to historical and childhood trauma. To acknowledge that means to humanize the harm-doer,” which many struggle to do, but “is necessary. If we only see the capacity for violence, we take away the healing that can come from restoration.”

As many of the people Minnesota Women’s Press has been talking to in recent weeks have pointed out, a big gap remains in funding violence prevention strategies. Keefe notes that there is an increasing request for culturally specific services so that members of different communities have someone to turn to. “If we don’t believe in people’s capacity for change,” she says, “we will continue to see communities shattered by grief.”

There has been progress over the past two years, she says, but work will continue to advocate for trauma-informed policy changes and investments, including education for people of color and cultural leaders to support and foster healing in their own communities.

Kramer says accountability, alongside services, is needed for changed behavior. Children who witness IPV can perpetuate cycles of trauma and violence if they have no one to talk to. For the first time in the state’s history, Minnesota legislation in 2021 significantly addressed transformational work, and that level of assistance needs to be expanded for programs with long wait lists and for other parts of the state with limited resources.

Survivors and children have been allocated $20 million in trauma-informed services — with needs enhanced because of the pandemic as well as existing gaps — for temporary emergency relief, addressing mental health issues, investing in community-based advocacy services, dealing with significant staff shortfalls. “Advocates tend to be survivors who are struggling to gain financial stability,” Kramer says. Funding can remove barriers for safety and basic needs in a crisis, such as paying to replace broken doors, relocation costs, health care and mental health services, and rental deposits.

Broad sustained investments in prevention are needed for housing, community education, health relationship training in youth, and restorative justice programs.

A Look Back at 30 Years

A coalition of 90 organizations works within the Violence Free Minnesota coalition to address domestic violence. For three decades, VFMN has documented every instance known of IPV homicides. Some of its findings:

  • At least 685 people have been killed in Minnesota since 1989 due to relationship abuse. The youngest victim was 22 weeks old; the oldest was 88. In some cases, children were witnesses to their parent’s homicide; in others, they were murdered alongside their parent.
  • At least 198 of the 523 adult women victims were attempting to leave or had recently left the relationship; in a majority of cases, not enough information was available to make this assessment.
  • A majority of Minnesota adult women victims of IPV are murdered with a gun — 251 of 523.
  • The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists reports that about 8 percent of pregnant women experience domestic violence each year during pregnancy. Findings from the National Violent Death Reporting System reveal that about half of all homicides of pregnant women are caused by a current or former intimate partner.
  • CDC-Kaiser Permanente’s Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study demonstrates that exposure to domestic violence can increase long-term risk for physical, mental health, and substance abuse conditions. In VFMN’s 30-year report, data shows that minor children witnessed the homicide of a parent in 22 percent of cases, and additionally 33 children were killed.
  • The Human Rights Campaign has tracked at least 145 deaths of transgender individuals due to fatal violence since 2013, most of whom were Black transgender women. Advocates say that about half the cases in 2017 and 2018 are likely due to intimate partner violence.
  • According to data collected by the Homeless Management Information System (HMIS), between 2005 and 2019, there were 46,961 individuals who had experienced both homelessness in Minnesota and domestic violence.
  • More than 60 percent of incarcerated women have histories of domestic and sexual violence victimization. “Due to a scarcity of resources, including effective and affordable treatment and services for mental health needs, many victims end up in the criminal justice system.”

The 30-year analysis indicates that “economic instability, criminalization of the victim, and immigration status were the three most noteworthy barriers. … Victims who engage in self-defense or use other survival strategies may appear as violent, be criminalized for their actions, and be penalized by the systems that are supposed to support them. Abusers may also use the immigration status of their victims as a control tactic, threatening to report the victim to ICE for deportation, isolate them from their ethnic community, or sabotage their immigration paperwork.”

The report indicates there are many instances of economic abuse, which can include: Prohibiting a victim from working or forcing a victim to work and taking their paycheck; using tactics that cause a victim to lose their job or public benefits; forcing victims to commit criminal acts to support themselves and their children; denying child support; ruining a victim’s credit or preventing them from having a credit history. “Research indicates that financial abuse is one of the most commonly given reasons domestic violence victims stay with or return to an abusive partner,” the report says.

A Few Cases

The 30-year-report, as well as the 2020 report, include stories of some of the victims.

Trigger warning: These can be terrible stories to read.

2011, Brooklyn Park: Cynthia Hickman was beaten and killed. When she sought an order for protection less than two weeks before she was murdered, she testified that her estranged husband Henry Hickman had abused her for years and had been increasingly emotionally volatile since she talked of divorce. She testified to waking up next to her photograph with a knife over it and said he slapped, punched, and pushed her. Ultimately, he beat her with a baseball bat. He threw a mattress over her body, lit it on fire, and ran out of the home, leaving their two sons, ages 8 and 5, in the basement. The children were rescued from the burning house.

2015, Maplewood: April Erickson was shot and killed in her home. Her 16-year-old daughter and 12-year-old son, as well as a 15-year-old family friend, were in the home. Her husband, Todd Tennin, had several previous charges of assault and illegal possession of firearms. Records show that police were called to the home at least eight times within two years, including three weeks before her murder.

2020, Bloomington: Angela Lynn Mesich, 47, was shot and killed by her husband, Jason Mesich, 48,
who shot her 12 times, then went outside and shot two of his neighbors in their front yard. Canisha Saulter, 29, was shot three times in the lower body. Makayla Saulter-Outlaw, 12, was shot in the head while she was holding Canisha’s 1-year-old daughter. When police arrived at the scene, Jason barricaded himself in his home, and fired over 40 rounds at police, and was later taken into custody unharmed.

2020, Cloquet: On March 7, Jackie Ann DeFoe, 27, and her 20-month-old son, Kevin Lee Shabaiash Jr., were killed in their Cloquet home by Jackie’s boyfriend Sheldon Thompson, 33. During a welfare check on the home, police officers found Jackie’s body covered with lacerations and blood in a bedroom closet. Kevin’s body was found in a separate bedroom with “observable bruising to his head.” An autopsy found Jackie died from multiple stab wounds, and was 13 weeks pregnant at the time of death.

Violence Free Minnesota Recommendations

Among the many suggestions in the 30-year report are:

  • Rescind the restrictions on the Minnesota Department of Health to gather and analyze firearms data. Focus research on perpetrators’ access to firearms, specifically how perpetrators who did not qualify for a firearms license due to a history of domestic violence were able to access firearms.
  • The Office of Justice Programs within the Department of Public Safety should lead the effort to identify and address gaps in violence prevention resources around the state. “Invest in domestic violence transformation programming. Minnesota has not made a financial investment in programming directed at changing the behavior of those who have perpetrated intimate partner violence. Until there is an investment in changing perpetrators’ behavior, there will always be another victim and domestic violence will continue.”
  • Support financial security and empowerment legislation and policies like the Women’s Economic Security Act, paid leave for victims of domestic violence, living wage legislation, and increases to Minnesota Family Investment Program (MFIP).