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Headwaters Intervention Center director Becci Leonard urges the community to give abuse victims support to make difficult choices. (Sarah Smith / Enterprise)

After murder-suicide, Park Rapids law enforcement talks about domestic abuse

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news Detroit Lakes, 56501
Detroit Lakes Minnesota 511 Washington Avenue 56501

Nearly two months after a domestic violence incident claimed the lives of a Park Rapids couple, a small group of community members gathered Monday night to germinate the seeds of healing through education.

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And although Dawn and Gregory Anderson weren't present, their presence was strongly felt. Dawn Anderson died after her husband fired two shotgun rounds into her back at the couple's home, then turned the gun on himself.

An Order For Protection was in place at the time. Greg Anderson was prohibited from possessing a firearm at the time.

Monday night's Community Forum on Domestic Violence was a response to a growing number of calls for help or information since that incident, although law enforcement authorities said their workload hasn't necessarily increased since that March shooting and despite a soured economy.

No fingers of blame were pointed, no recriminations or suggestions of failure surfaced.

"Our job is to support them, to believe them," said Headwaters Intervention Center director Becci Leonard, who urged the audience to help break down the barriers to reporting domestic abuse.

Although men can be victims, they are usually the perpetrators of abuse against their spouses or girlfriends. Women can become trapped in those relationships, economically, emotionally, or for their children, Leonard said.

They report an incident of abuse, only to return to their abuser.

Tight financial circumstances in a family may make a woman more hesitant to report abuse, Hubbard County Sheriff Cory Aukes said. And if the couple really loves one another "we've got our work cut out for us," he said.

It's frustrating for law officers to go repeatedly to the same residence and leave a woman there "knowing she's in a world of hurt," Aukes said. But officers cannot force a woman to leave, he said.

Abusive behavior can encompass economic and emotional control, minimizing behavior, denials, blame directed at victims, isolating victims, intimidation.

One abuse victim said it began so gradually she thought her husband's behavior was out of love for her. Then it slowly evolved into a controlling situation in which her self-esteem was robbed and she began to feel the abuse was what she deserved.

Police chief Terry Eilers said so many incidents go unreported in which text messages are exchanged and victims invite abusers back into the home. And if there are children in the home, Eilers said they can be used as pawns in a battle for control.

The earlier a woman can file for a protection order, the better, he said, "but you must follow through" to report any violations of that order.

And much of the discussion turned to how useful protection orders were.

"Each person respects that piece of paper differently," Aukes said, "It's like speeding a little or speeding a lot," he said of the degrees of compliance.

"It really is a good tool," he said. The court orders are personally served on abusers, who are then advised that "any violation, even a phone call, is a mandatory arrest. Is it a cure-all to problems? No. I look at it as a tool."

Hubbard County Attorney Don Dearstyne admitted domestic abuse cases, especially cases of emotional abuse, can be difficult to prosecute.

"It's not infrequent to get a call the next day from the victim recanting," he said of filing orders for protection or filing charges against an abuser.

And he said getting convictions in cases of "emotional assault" can be an uphill battle.

"Jurors believe there should be marks of an assault" such as bruises, cuts or broken bones.

But he said successful prosecutions incorporate anger management and counseling classes for abusers to get to the root of their choice to inflict harm.

Leonard said she hopes education will allow the public to dispel many of the myths about domestic violence, that it's a crime of anger brought on by substance abuse.

"It's about power and control," she said. "Many abusers are totally in control of their anger."

And although Dearstyne said "alcohol can frequently be a trigger" for domestic abuse, it's not the root cause of it.

HIC has begun a women's empowerment group to restore the self-esteem of many abuse victims.

"As a community we need to create an atmosphere of support," said HIC board chair Florence Hedeen. Dearstyne called it a community "listening board."

Both Aukes and Eilers said it can be frustrating for officers to know there's abuse but no one dares report it.

"They don't want to be the nosy neighbor," he said. But you have to respect an abuse victim's choice and not push them into seeking help, Eilers said, but keep the door open for support.

"All it takes is being let down one time," Aukes said. "You may not feel at the time your advice is welcome" but speak up nevertheless.

Help victims formulate a safety plan, let them know you'll listen any time, forum sponsors suggested.

"Let's keep the momentum going," Eilers said. "We should have been talking about this a long time ago. It's too bad we had to have this tragedy to bring us all together."

Some community groups have embarked on building a memorial garden to Dawn Anderson's memory.

Leonard suggested educating the public to be cognizant of the signs of ownership, entitlement, superiority and manipulation that abusers often manifest could be a lasting legacy.

As if to underscore the necessity of action, officers were called during the forum to defuse a domestic incident near the same neighborhood where the Andersons died.

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