Wednesday, October 23, 1996
Abuse deaths may hold clues to saving lives

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Ann MacDonald carries a picture in her daily planner that she cherishes with all her heart.

It's a snapshot of her grinning 4-year-old daughter, Alexa.

This proud mom sees that happy face whenever she thinks of the future. She hopes her blond little girl grows up healthy. And safe.

''I want her to live in a community where all of us know domestic violence is wrong. Where abusers know it's a crime. Where we don't blame the victim. Where we know why it happens. And, most of all, where she never becomes a statistic.''

Ann MacDonald is working to turn her hopes into reality. The executive director of Women Helping Women has formed a committee of 20 high-profile volunteers. Right now, they're crafting guidelines for going about the business of saving lives.

Because she does not mince words, she named the group after what it will do, the Domestic Violence Death Review Panel. When a battered woman dies in Hamilton County, the panel will examine the events leading up to and surrounding her death. The reviews will look for trends and behavior patterns that could help save women before it's too late.

Ms. MacDonald has made sure the committee's members come from the many places that see domestic violence and its aftermath - courtrooms, police stations, hospitals, counseling centers and the coroner's office.

Preventive medicine

The panel is modeled after programs in Quincy, Mass., and Santa Clara, Calif. They share the same purpose - learn from tragedy to save lives.

''You can't make a dead person alive again,'' Ms. MacDonald said.

''But we can learn from these deaths. We can ask: 'How many times did the woman call the police? Was she in the court system? Where did she go for help? How was she treated?'

''By answering those questions, we can compile statistics and spot trends. Then we can provide the proper response to other victims of domestic violence.''

To respond to the plight of battered women, the panel has its work cut out. Before data can be gathered, the issue of disclosing confidential information must be dealt with. Laws and ethics usually prohibit an agency from handing over a patient's records. Ms. MacDonald's solution is to solicit anonymous facts.

''We will only share the information within the group,'' Ms. MacDonald said. ''No cases will be written down. Only aggregate statistics will be recorded.''

To succeed, the panel must also calm any fears of finger pointing. This is not, she insists, an inquisition.

''We're not going to be asking why didn't a case worker do this? Why did the police do that?''

Instead, the panel is seeking answers to larger questions: What were the circumstances leading to a death? And what can be learned to help prevent another woman from suffering the same fate?

Another face

Deaths from domestic violence are down in Hamilton County. In 1989, there were 24. This year, there have been five.

People tell Ann MacDonald: ''Be happy, we're under 10.''

She hears that and sees another face.

On a Sunday in 1994, as she sat in church, a friend slid into the pew behind her. The friend, a social worker, leaned forward and said these chilling words: ''One of the women I worked with was killed.''

The woman was Delores Orr. A victim of years of domestic abuse, she was beaten to death by her husband. This happened despite repeated police visits, court appearances and counseling sessions.

This is the kind of case Ann MacDonald is working to prevent.

''She was a real woman who had a family who cared about her,'' Ms. MacDonald said. ''She was not a statistic. She must not be remembered as a number. She must be remembered as a person.''

That's why Ms. MacDonald sees Delores Orr's face every time the panel meets.

''I have high hopes,'' she said, ''that in two years, the panel will be up and running. And it will have gathered enough facts to be making meaningful recommendations to reduce the number of deaths from domestic violence.''

Ms. MacDonald will be pleased. But she won't be happy until the deaths are reduced to her favorite number: zero.

Cliff Radel's column appears in The Enquirer Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Available to speak to groups. Tips and comments most welcome. Call 768-8379 or fax 768-8340.