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Vigil of Remembrance and Hope honors those lost to domestic violence

It was a solemn ceremony.

Candle after candle, each in memory of a person who died at the hands of someone they thought they could trust, lit the stage. And with each lit candle, these people were given life once more as names, memories and the details of their deaths were shared by loved ones.

The Vigil of Remembrance and Hope, hosted annually by the YWCA Northcentral PA during Domestic Violence Awareness month, brought together members of area law enforcement, the judicial system and community leaders in support of family members and friends of the victims as well as survivors of domestic violence in attendance.

Amber Morningstar, director of Wise Options at the YWCA, said the program’s purpose was to “recognize and remember those who have lost their lives” as well as to “provide a sense of hope and support for those who may be suffering in silence.”

“At the YWCA, Wise Options has been in existence for 44 years providing advocacy to victims in our community,” Morningstar said, noting that over the last year Wise Options has supported more than 1,300 victims of violence in the county and has screened 550 protection from abuse (PFA) orders.

“Since January of 2020, Lycoming County has endured one domestic violence murder-suicide, one domestic violence homicide and the death of a child which appears to be linked to domestic violence,” she said.

“The COVID-19 pandemic forced individuals to spend most of their time at home,” Morningstar added. “While home is defined as the place where one lives permanently, especially as a member of a family, the words comfort, peace and love might come to mind when you think of your home. Unfortunately, the women and men remembered here tonight did not have that luxury.”

Cases of domestic are distinctly different from other cases that law enforcement encounters, said District Attorney Ryan Gardner.

“In the majority of cases where law enforcement is called to respond to a domestic violence situation, the victim has sustained some form of physical injury or emotional distress at the hands of her or his domestic partner,” Gardner said.

He added that many times the abuser is still on scene and continues to exhibit violent behavior and could be armed with a gun, knife or other instrument of crime.

“This type of situation plays out far more often than the general public can even begin to appreciate, as many of these scenarios go unreported,” Gardner said.

Victims of domestic violence choose to not report the incidents for a number of reasons, many of which can be attributed to their abuser’s conduct.

“Abuse committed upon victims by an intimate partner or family member is done primarily to gain emotional, psychological or physical control over the victim,” Gardner said. “Abusers often exert influence and gain control over their victims by repeated passive-aggressive conversation and innuendo, physical and sexual aggression and the plenary control of all household finances.”

“Abusers may utilize these tactics over a protracted period of time to slowly gain control over the psychological and physical well being of the victim ultimately causing the victim to self-isolate from family, friends and law enforcement,” he added.

He explained that not all abusers spend time “grooming” their victims, but can erupt violently without warning, causing injury and making it difficult to predict acts of aggression.

“Abuse transcends all demographics and socio-economic levels and is ignorant to race, gender and age. In short, not one person sitting in this room is immune to some form of control, manipulation or unprovoked violent attack by an intimate partner or family member,” he said.

Gardner detailed a law which was enacted in 2013 that makes it possible to victims of abuse to be made aware of their abuser’s parole status and to have some input, either in-person or by video, at their abuser’s parole hearing.

“Very recently, during a parole board hearing, the district attorney’s office was able to provide the victim of a graphic attempted homicide case from the 1980s the ability to sit in our office with a victim advocate and testify before the parole board and voice her reasons why her abuser, the defendant, should not be granted parole,” Gardner said.

“The ability to testify remotely empowered the victim and allowed her to have the opportunity to have a voice during an incredibly difficult hearing,” he said.

He added that without the ability to testify remotely, the victim probably would not have taken the opportunity to speak because no victim of an assault wants to be in the same room as their abuser or to revisit the traumatic events.

Other “tools” in the law’s arsenal when dealing with domestic violence are the issuance of protection from abuse orders, the recognition of strangulation as a felony offense when committed against a family member or intimate partner and the seizure of weapons from people who have a PFA against them and the rape shield law, which protects victims from being questioned by their abusers about past sexual behaviors.

Locally, Gardner said that two victim witness coordinators have been hired in his office to work with victims to make sure that their voices are heard by walking victims through the court process. They also educate victims about available community programs, such as Wise Options.

The district attorney’s office has also been renovated to include two independent rooms dedicated to increasing the comfortability for victims and witnesses who are scheduled to testify in court against their abusers.

“Without a doubt, significant strides have been made regarding the recognition of victims’ rights and the number of resources made available to victims of domestic violence,” he said.

“This being said, I want to share some incredibly sobering statistics with you all,” Gardner continued. “On a nationwide level, one in four women and one in seven men experience severe physical violence at the hands of an intimate partner. Over 100 victims died from domestic violence incidents last year, with 56% of those victims killed by a current or former intimate partner. The average age range of those fatally wounded is 18 to 64.”

“Even more disconcerting is the following: In 2010, 251 temporary PFA orders were requested in Lycoming County; in 2019, 392 temporary PFA orders were requested in this county,” he added. “Statistics available for 2020 and thus far in 2021 indicate an increase to 455 and 418 temporary PFA orders requested, respectively. Since 2010, in all but two years, Lycoming County has realized an increase in the filings of temporary PFAs.”

Wise Options has a 24/7 crisis hotline for anyone who is experiencing abuse or knows someone who is in an abusive situation at 1-800-326-8483.

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