As she worked to tally all the lives lost to domestic violence in Ohio over the past fiscal year, Jo Simonsen couldn’t help but reflect on the divisions sown amid high-profile reports of relationship violence and sexual assault and a surging #MeToo movement.
"I was thinking about what the theme for the year might have been," Simonsen said during a news conference Wednesday at the Statehouse. "Is it belief, or is it disbelief?"
Simonsen, a manager and advocacy director at the Ohio Domestic Violence Network, counted 91 deaths in 69 cases from July 1, 2017, to June 30. That’s a decrease from the previous fiscal year, when statistics compiled from media reports over the same time span showed 116 deaths across the state.
Franklin County, however, trended in the opposite direction: The county topped the state with 16 domestic violence-related deaths, up from 11 the prior year. The figure includes two Westerville police officers killed responding to a domestic-violence call.
The fatality report also provides details about the circumstances of the crimes, such as how many of the 69 cases that were reviewed included multiple deaths (21), how many children were killed (three) and how many attackers were killed by an intervening third party (nine).
In at least 46 percent of the fatal incidents, "the victims did leave or were in the process of leaving," Simonsen said.
The report noted one 18-year-old woman in Guernsey County who had just penned a "Pros and Cons" list about her relationship with the perpetrator in which she wrote, "liar, disrespectful, bad temper, big ego and back stabber." Investigators say she appeared to have compiled it near the time of her death.
Simonsen and others who spoke during the gathering didn’t call out the Ohio State University football program or discuss new U.S. Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh by name. But the cases loomed large as advocates talked about the need to take reports seriously instead of taking sides.
"Today, I want to present the case for believing survivors," Simonsen said, standing beside a map of the state studded with push pins to signify the location of the deaths. "These can be prevented."
Ohio State University football coach Urban Meyer was suspended for three games earlier this season after an investigation of his actions surrounding former wide receivers coach Zach Smith, whose ex-wife, Courtney Smith, said she was a domestic-violence victim who had suffered years of physical and emotional abuse.
Kavanaugh was narrowly confirmed to the court 50-48 by Republicans after a California professor, Christine Blasey Ford, testified that he sexually assaulted her when they were teenagers at private schools in Washington, D.C.
Both cases cleaved public opinion and created battle lines in Ohio and throughout the nation.
Nancy Neylon, the long-time executive director of the Ohio Domestic Violence Network, said the fights damaged efforts to increase awareness and improve responses to reports of domestic violence and sexual assault — before there are injuries or fatalities.
"It’s divisiveness in the discourse," Neylon said. "I think it is a setback."
She said those who work in the field or who advocate on behalf of victims have big jobs to do.
"You must all be social-change agents," Neylon said. "It’s not enough to simply provide services."
Ohio can’t afford to remain one of the few states that doesn’t set aside money in the budget for domestic-violence programs, she said. "Even now, shelters still have budgets on a shoestring."
At the event, the Ohio Domestic Violence Network also honored two people with the 2018 Croucher Family Award for Outstanding Leadership. Forensic nurse Ruth Downing of Delaware County was recognized for her work to train more health-care providers about domestic violence, sexual assault and human trafficking cases. Robin Bozian of Southeastern Ohio Legal Services was honored for her efforts providing legal help, emergency shelter, housing and other services to survivors of domestic violence.