Susan Marks, director of the Bellingham-Whatcom County Commission on Sexual and Domestic Violence, spoke to Blaine City Council about addressing domestic violence and sexual assault in the community at council’s June 13 meeting.
The commission was created in 1998 and is made up of 17 government and 14 community members selected by the county executive and Bellingham mayor from stakeholders and agencies. The commission works to better address systematic problems and support survivors.
“We really want every agency, every professional, every person who interacts with a survivor of domestic violence to have the skills and tools they need to provide the best practice response,” Marks said during the meeting. “And we want comprehensive prevention in Whatcom County.”
Blaine Police Department chief Donnell Tanksley serves on the commission as the police chief representative for Whatcom County cities. His term expires January 2024.
The police department received the most domestic violence calls in the past decade in 2016 with 144 reports. In 2020, Blaine received the third highest number of domestic violence calls in the past decade with 135 reports, according to data the commission provided.
For sexual assaults within Blaine city limits, six were reported in 2020, three in 2019, one in 2018 and five in 2017, when the commission started collecting sexual assault reports. However, sexual assault and domestic violence are highly underreported crimes, Marks said, with only about one out of 10 survivors reporting.
Sexual assault reports are so low that it’s hard to determine a trend, Marks said. Blaine has lower sexual assault reporting numbers than other similar-sized areas in the county, she added.
“As for Blaine Police Department, I can say Tank is proactive,” she said. “He’s looking for trauma-informed responses training for his officers. A lot of that can change the way officers think about and talk to victims, understanding more about the trauma response.”
Whatcom County had the highest number of domestic violence calls in the past decade in 2014, with 3,316 reports, according to data collected from all of the county’s law enforcement agencies, including Blaine. In 2020, the county had the fourth highest number of domestic violence calls in the past decade. The lowest number of calls in the county was in 2012, with 2,839 domestic violence reports.
“An increase in 2020 and since seems to be a trend in Whatcom County law enforcement agencies’ domestic violence calls for service,” Marks said. “A lot of speculation is mirroring national data that during the lockdown people were at home with their abusive partners.”
She added increased public awareness of domestic violence, especially during the beginning of the pandemic, may have also created an increase in calls.
“Higher numbers aren’t necessarily bad. Sometimes that doesn’t mean an increase in incidents, but an increase in reporting and an increase in reaching out for help,” she said. “That can actually be a really good sign that there’s community trust in people reaching out for help from their community.”
This year, the commission is working on a restorative and transformative justice pilot project with community partners such as Whatcom Dispute Resolution Center, Lummi Behavioral Health, and Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Services (DVSAS) to better respond to domestic and sexual violence in communities. Organizers will work to gather survivor and community input, developing a program outline and seeking funding, according to Marks’ presentation.
The commission is also focusing on improving support for Whatcom County defendants who, as survivors of domestic violence, may also have committed a crime within the relationship such as defend themselves or retaliate with violence. Other eligible offences could include driving a getaway car, stealing goods if they don’t have access to their finances or being caught with their partner’s drugs on them.
Marks said the commission is working to ensure the full context of abuse is taken into account by service agencies and public defenders because arresting survivors can cause long-term harm, which includes having a criminal record, not being able to find housing or employment, and impact on child protection and custody cases.
The commission is working on changing misconceptions about how survivors look and behave, including crying or looking weak, because it can impact arrests and criminal cases.
The commission audited Whatcom County’s criminal legal response to sexual assault from 2017 to 2018. The ways agencies respond, or don’t respond, can be more harmful than the crime itself, Marks said. Societal misconceptions about sexual assault, including how it happens and who is a survivor, impacts how cases move through the legal system. The audit showed stronger need for multi-disciplinary training specific to sexual assault.
Marks said county law enforcement officers attended a training on trauma-informed sexual assault investigations three years ago and advocates said they could see a difference. Prevention work in schools is also helpful and Blaine students have been a leader in that regard, she said.
“Our work is thinking about how the systems – faith communities, schools, employers, basically all the places the victims are, which is really everywhere, that those places and those systems are prepared to support survivors,” she said.
If you or someone you know is affected by domestic or sexual violence, please call the DVSAS 24-hour hotline at 360/715-1563 or 877/715-1563. Lummi Victims of Crime has a 24-hour helpline at 360/312-2015. The National Domestic Violence Helpline operates a chat line at thehotline.org/help.
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