Jill C. Engle | Bring scourge of domestic violence into the light

On March 28, Traci Raymond Miscavish was shot by her husband in a murder-suicide, during her shift as the floral department manager at the County Market grocery store outside Philipsburg.

Traci was my client at the Family Law Clinic I direct at Penn State’s Dickinson School of Law. One of my law students, a graduate fellow, and I represented Traci in divorce proceedings.

When Traci’s husband killed her, it sent shock waves through our clinic and reinforced my role as a teacher and an advocate.

Women die in circumstances similar to Traci’s with astonishing frequency across the United States — about three to four deaths every day, according to Justice Department statistics.

Pennsylvania’s domestic violence hotlines received more than 135,000 calls in a recent year. In the month Traci died, the Justice Department noted that the week that Violence Against Women Act was reauthorized, at least 15 women and four men were killed by intimate partners.

The data, such as a landmark National Institute of Justice study from 2000 showing that a large percentage of domestic violence occurs after separation, is undisputed but often remains in the shadows.

Understanding the high conflict in family law cases — abusive or not — is a critical component of what I teach. My clinic students are future lawyers, and I give them various tools and coping mechanisms — manuals and protocols, role plays and case rounds. I teach about safety planning, client-centeredness and empowering victims.

We often work with police and prosecutors to maximize safety and victim advocacy for our clients. But my students learned something more from this traumatic firsthand experience.

My clinical fellow spoke of her admiration for Traci having faced her worst fears in taking her life back, through the divorce.

My third-year student focused on encouragement she received from the victim’s sister. “It reminded me that working with domestic violence victims is about giving these women a chance to finally stand up for themselves and make their own choices,” she said.

The incident reinforced the students’ desire to advocate on behalf of victims of domestic abuse.

Experiences such as the murder of Traci Miscavish have the power to transform us from observers or participants in a process to true activists, urging everyone to learn more about domestic violence, the power and control that drives it, separation violence and how abusers operate.

This happened in our own backyard.

The same week Traci died, a 2-year-old died when his father shot him during a custody exchange in Huntingdon County. The man also shot the mother, who survived, before killing himself.

These victims are our neighbors, our children, our sisters and brothers.

As a community, we need to do more to bring domestic violence into the light. Separation violence is real. Abusers use it as a threat every day. Both of these local incidents, and a substantial number of domestic violence homicides nationwide, are examples of separation violence.

The question is not, and never should be, “why didn’t she leave?”

Here are the questions we should be asking every time we hear about domestic violence:

• Do I know my local domestic hotline number, and do I have it handy in case I see someone who needs it?

• Have I placed domestic violence information in my gym, workplace, place of worship and doctor’s office?

• Have I discussed relationship violence with my son so that he will never hit, slap, shove, rape or verbally abuse a partner?

At the candlelight vigil in Traci’s memory, I talked about holding victims in the light. I think that means sharing with all the people in our lives how complicated yet common domestic violence is.

Each of us sharing basic information about domestic violence with even one person can illuminate the darkness.

Law school clinics in Baltimore, Albany, N.Y., and Cincinnati have recently pioneered city council resolutions declaring that freedom from domestic violence is a fundamental human right. And my clinic will join these colleagues.

As parents, we can commit to raising our children to be adults who would never violate a partner. Everyone can be an advocate in daily life.

All of us can commit to calling police if we see or hear of abuse. Everyone can circulate information about domestic violence resources.

Everyone can say to a friend, co-worker, relative or acquaintance, “Do you feel safe at home?”

When we learned of Traci’s murder, I phoned a trusted colleague for support. On speakerphone, she stressed to me and my student through her own tears: “This is why we do this work.”

She is right. But we need all hands on deck.

Ask those questions.


Jill C. Engle is the director of the Family Law Clinic and an associate professor of clinical law at the Penn State Dickinson School of Law.