Battered Woman's Advocate Murdered by Companion
October 15, 2002
By Marie Tessier, Women's Enews
BANGOR, MaineBarbara Bassett was as well prepared as any woman to stay safe from a batterer. She had worked as a court advocate for battered women before starting her most recent job working in home care for the elderly. She had helped women develop safety plans of their own, had taken women through the process of obtaining a protection from abuse order from a judge and had guided women through a maze of civil and criminal court proceedings.
All this experience, however, did not keep Bassett safe. She was shot and killed Aug. 1 at her home in Sweden, Maine, a small town in the foothills west of Portland. She was 52. Police have arrested a man she had recently dated, James Nadeau, and charged him with murder.
"As advocates, we've always said it could be any of us at any time," says Carol Perkins, a family advocate for the Abused Women's Advocacy Project whose office is in the neighboring town of Norway, Maine. "This just goes to show how really true that is."
Intimate Partner Killings Fall for Black Women, Remain Stable for Whites
Around the country, advocates for battered women remain stymied about how to achieve lower rates of homicides for women at the hands of abusers.
About 1,200 to 1,300 women each year are killed by husbands, ex-husbands, boyfriends or ex-boyfriends, down modestly from 1,600 women murdered in 1976, according to the U.S. Department of Justice's Bureau of Justice Statistics.
While the number of women killed by "intimate partners" has declined with the overall rate of homicide in recent years, the number of men killed by intimate partners has dropped sharply during the same time period. The number of male victims of intimate partner homicides men has dropped two-thirds, from 1,357 in 1976 to just 424 such killings in 1999, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
The numbers among white women are especially stubborn, varying from 800 to 1,000 intimate homicide deaths a year since 1976. In contrast, deaths among black women killed by intimates dropped by half to about 400 each year. Deaths among black men dropped by 78 percent and among white men by 55 percent.
Researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and advocates for battered women have speculated that the decline in men's intimate homicide deaths is probably an indication that victims of domestic violence have many more alternatives than they did in 1976.
"What the numbers tell me is that the legal responses are in place so that fewer women feel forced to respond by killing in self defense," says Rita Smith, executive director of the Denver-based National Coalition Against Domestic Violence.
Friend Had 'No Idea This Guy Was This Dangerous'
Yet Smith says news of deaths like Barbara Bassett's reveal women's continued vulnerability to death by abuse.
"I'm perplexed about what we're missing, and it's something we need to answer," Smith says. "Until we can get that number down, we have our work cut out for us."
For about the past 15 years, advocates for battered women have looked to several key landmarks in a batterer's behavior to try to assess his "lethality," or potential to kill, according to the National Resource Center on Domestic Violence.
Bassett's friends say they now know that some of those markers were present for James Nadeau. He was harassing his former girlfriend after their breakup, he owned guns, and he was depressed--three predictors that together form a potent mix of violent potential. After his arrest, he was hospitalized following talk of suicide. The abuser expressing a wish to end his life is a key risk factor for victims of domestic violence because a killer feels he has nothing left to lose, according to literature in the field. Nadeau was also heavily intoxicated at the time of the killing, according to a police spokesman, a factor that often occurs immediately before a murder, especially a single killing, according to a paper by Northern Arizona University professor Neil Websdale.
But other risk factors were missing. For example, Bassett had not sought a protection from abuse order and police had never been involved in an incident. Though most domestic homicides are actually a culmination of a long, violent history, no such history has been revealed in this case. A state police spokesman said the suspect had no previous history of criminal assault, though he does have a conviction on a drunken driving charge.
Bassett's friend Richard "Dick" McGoldrick, a bail commissioner who has ru n a batterer's intervention program, said he wishes he had known that his friend had considered seeking a protection from abuse order.
"The thing I wish everyone knew is that if a woman is even thinking of getting a protection from abuse order and the fellow has guns, that every possible alarm should be going off," McGoldrick says. "I had no idea this guy was this dangerous, but the signs were there for people who knew the situation."
Though so-called lethality assessments cannot predict whether a batterer will kill, they do help individual women understand the seriousness of risk factors such as suicidal talk or homicidal threats, advocates and scholars say. Assessment tools such as a checklist also help educate police officers about the risks of family violence once dismissed as a private matter.
Other factors for lethality are detailed plans or fantasies about homicide or suicide; access to weapons, especially guns; a recent breakup or move by a woman to end a relationship; a feeling of "owning" a partner; heavy dependence on a partner; previous calls to police; and signs that a batterer is willing to face more consequences for his actions.
Marie Tessier is a freelance writer who covers national and international affairs. Women's Enews is a news service based in New York City.
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