THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Rising economic stress cited in domestic violence increase

By Peter Schworm and John M. Guilfoil
Globe Staff / February 3, 2010

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The Westford man who shot his wife Monday, critically wounding her, before fatally shooting his daughter and himself is the second to allegedly kill a family member in this suburb in less than a month, and the fatal shootings are the latest in a rash of domestic killings in Massachusetts this year.

Since Jan. 9, at least five women have been killed in domestic violence. Two others were severely wounded in the total of six different incidents.

The violence has alarmed authorities and advocates for women, who point out that women’s groups are reporting dramatic increases in domestic abuse in Massachusetts and across the country.

“I haven’t seen this level of violence - and it’s not just the homicides, it’s the assaults and attempted murders - and I’ve been doing this for over 30 years.’’ said Joanne Tulonen, director of the YWCA/Battered Women’s Resources organization in Leominster, where a domestic dispute led to a knife attack on two women Sunday morning.

There seem to be few common threads in the deadly domestic violence that began Jan. 9 in Westford, where a man allegedly shot his 43-year-old wife before turning the gun on himself. In Spencer the following week, a man facing a foreclosure auction took his own life after shooting and killing his sick wife and their horse, setting fire to their home, and torching his pickup truck.

On Jan. 16, a Fall River man allegedly shot his wife at a Westport restaurant before killing himself. His wife survived. The next day, a 23-year-old Seekonk man and a 20-year-old woman died in an apparent murder-suicide at a motel in North Attleborough after police tried to arrest the man on an outstanding warrant.

A Fitchburg State College freshman, Allison Myrick, 19, of Groton, was stabbed to death Jan. 23, allegedly by her 19-year-old boyfriend, Robert Gulla of Shirley. Gulla stabbed and shot himself, but survived, police said. In Leominster on Sunday morning, a 23-year-old man allegedly slashed the throat of his girlfriend

Women’s advocates said they believe that despite the varying circumstances, at least one underlying cause is an unforgiving economy that has intensified family disputes, inflamed some men’s abusive tendencies, and left some women more reluctant to leave violent relationships.

“The story behind the story is the economy,’’ said Suzanne Dubus, executive director of the Jeanne Geiger Crisis Center, a domestic violence organization in Newburyport. “Bad economic times do not create batterers, but they do exacerbate problems. And women who are lying in the dark at night, thinking about leaving, they have no idea how they’ll support themselves and their kids on their own.’’

Advocates cite economic problems for a rise in requests for assistance from women who believe they are in danger. At the Women’s Center, a domestic violence agency in New Bedford, calls for assistance are up more than 25 percent over the past 18 months, and three emergency shelters are full. Last week alone, a Brockton group took five women and six children into safe homes.

In many of the cases, women reported that a host of financial pressures had made their husbands or boyfriends more prone to anger and violence.

“If there’s already a simmering situation, it escalates it,’’ said Pamela MacLeod-Lima, who directs The Women’s Center in New Bedford.

At the same time, advocates worry that vast numbers of women are remaining in abusive relationships out of fear they could not support themselves and their children in the current economic climate.

“They feel trapped,’’ Dubus said. “The economy may create further stress in abusive homes, but it also creates a lot of fear. I think a lot of people are sitting tight and waiting.’’

Brian Namey, a spokesman for the National Network to End Domestic Violence, said, “We’re hearing about more severe and extreme cases of domestic violence in every corner of the country.’’

In May, a survey of more than 600 domestic violence shelters from Mary Kay Inc. found that three-quarters reported an increase in the number of women seeking assistance since September 2008. About the same percentage attributed the rise to financial issues.

Murder-suicides are about 30 percent of all partner homicides, said Toni Troop, a spokeswoman for Jane Doe Inc. Nearly all are perpetrated by men.

In Arlington, where a woman was nearly beaten to death last month, allegedly by her boyfriend, police have teamed up with Belmont and Cambridge to create a domestic violence team that will try to identify potential victims of domestic violence before it occurs.

“We recognize that the criminal justice system alone cannot get over the barriers that any victim is faced with,’’ said Arlington Police Chief Fred Ryan. “Research has shown that within six months of an assault that rises to the level of police involvement, a person is very likely to be revictimized.’’