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Same-sex domestic violence spotlighted

The family of Rosalind “Roz” Ross, a former Oklahoma University basketball star who was gunned down by her female partner, tearfully recounted their loss at a press briefing in Milwaukee on Sept. 28.

Ross’ parents and siblings described a scenario of domestic abuse that’s all-too-familiar to experts: The abuser gains control over the partner by isolating her from family and friends, then turns violent when the partner tries to exit their unhealthy relationship.

Ross was planning to move to Oklahoma for a new job when her partner Malika Willoughby shot her in a restaurant parking lot on Milwaukee’s north side on Sept. 15, 2010. Willoughby pleaded guilty to the killing and is scheduled for sentencing on Nov. 18.

“My daughter did not get a chance to walk away,” said Ross’ mother Pam Collins. “Some people don’t know what love is, because love does not hurt.”

“You could see the signs (of abuse),” said Ross’ brother Spencer Collins. “A lot of people don’t know about homosexual relationships. (Willoughby) thought she owned my sister. We would try to talk to (Roz). But there’s nothing you can do about it. It’s all up to them. You can just be there for them.”

The press briefing was held in conjunction with the release of the Wisconsin Coalition Against Domestic Violence’s annual report. Marianne Gorski, who heads the Milwaukee LGBT Community Center’s anti-violence program, also addressed the event, outlining the unique challenges faced by people in abusive same-sex relationships.

It was likely the first time that the issue of same-sex domestic violence has ever been highlighted in this way by the coalition, said its policy development coordinator Tony Gibart.

 “Gay people are really afraid to call police,” Gorski said. She said gays and lesbians fear that law-enforcement personnel won’t take their relationships seriously or, worse, might victimize them for their sexual orientation. For the same reason, lesbian and gay victims of domestic abuse are reluctant to share their relationship problems with friends and co-workers, she said.

Gays are also afraid to have abusive partners served with restraining orders. If the order is served at work, Gorski explained, the abusive partner might lose his or her job as a result of being outed.

If the abusive partner is the legal parent of children the couple is raising together, the victim might fear being permanently separated from the kids if she leaves the relationship, Gorski said. Another challenge for victims of same-sex domestic violence, she said, is the lack of targeted services, including temporary housing shelters, for them.

In addition to drawing new attention to same-sex domestic violence, the coalition’s report showed overall progress against the problem. In 2010, 58 people were killed statewide as a result of domestic violence – a decrease from the 10-year high of 67 killings in 2009. Both numbers include perpetrators as well as victims. (Seven killings in 2010 were suicides committed by abusers.)

Even with the decrease, however, domestic violence accounted for nearly 30 percent of all homicides in the state last year, according to the report. Deaths occurred in 17 counties, with victims ranging in age from younger than 1 year to as old as 87, according to the report.

Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett said boys who witness domestic violence are more likely to become abusers, and girls who witness it are more likely to become victims. One of every four women in the nation experiences domestic violence, he said.

As a congressman, Barrett was one of the original co-sponsors of the national Violence Against Women’s Act. He was seriously beaten in 2009 when he intervened to stop an act of domestic violence on the state fair grounds.

Milwaukee County Chief Deputy District Attorney Kent Lovern also noted the toll of domestic violence on what he called its “silent victims” – the parents, siblings and children who witness it. “Children who witness violence are more likely to drop out of school, pick up a gun and join a gang,” he said.

Lovern characterized the problem of domestic violence as “the most urgent public safety concern in Milwaukee today.”

Last year, police began working with Sojourner Family Peace Center to address domestic violence, and prosecutors were stationed at six of the city’s seven precincts specifically to deal with such problems before they turn deadly. As a result of the effort, police received 1,700 referrals of potential domestic abuse in 2010.

That number is expected to quadruple this year, according to statistics compiled so far, Lovern said.

“Rather than waiting for them to come to us, we are going to them,” Lovern said. “There is reason to be hopeful in this community. This collaboration is only growing stronger.”

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