Domestic violence rates surging in Seattle as other assaults fall

SEATTLE -- Between 2009 and 2012, serious assaults fell by 2 percent in Seattle, part of a decade-long downward trend. But, that trend hasn't carried over to domestic-violence assaults, which are up 60 percent over the same four-year period. And while police don't know why, many believe the economy could be playing a part.

"When I hear that number, I think, 'Wow. There's a lot of people experiencing this,'" said Kelly Starr of the Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

Seattle's surging domestic-violence numbers resulted in 148 cases of broken bones, 60 cases of lost teeth, 313 possible internal injuries and more in 2012. According to the Seattle Human Services Department, one in four women and one in seven men have been assaulted by an intimate partner.

The Seattle Police Department's Sean Whitcomb said the department isn't sure what is causing the city's spike in domestic-violence assaults. But, one theory is the recent economic recession.

Starr said the Coalition Against Domestic Violence saw a bump in calls to its domestic-violence hot lines in 2008 just as the economic downturn started.

She said economic stress doesn't turn someone into an abuser, but it can make abuse more frequent and more dangerous. An unemployed abuser has more time to monitor and control their partner, she said.

"When batterers are unemployed and are at home, we may also see an increase in violence," said David Takami of the Seattle Human Services Department.

In addition to an increase in domestic violence during economically stressful times, Takami said victims may be less likely to report it during a recession because they lack the financial resources to escape the situation.

Starr said victims need to have options to leave their abusers, and a recession combined with the lack of affordable housing in Seattle can make that difficult.

"Maybe you have kids and you don't have enough income to afford housing here," she said. "Do you flee and pull your kids out of school and become homeless?"

Starr said despite the 60-percent increase in domestic-violence recorded by the Seattle Police Department, there are still so many people who aren't reporting their abuse.

The recession also means victims are more likely to need services, such as shelter, support and advocacy, Takami said.

Starr said the Coalition Against Domestic Violence is seeing an increase in requests for help at the same time domestic-violence programs are receiving less funding and have fewer staff to respond to those calls. She wonders if a lack of resources mean fewer abusers are being held accountable for their actions.

Takami said the Human Services Department currently invests more than $4.5 million in domestic-violence prevention, intervention and other services to support victims and their families and hold offenders accountable. In 2013, he said the city increased its investments by $410,000 to enhance safety-net services for survivors and their families.

But, there is another possible explanation for Seattle's increase in domestic-violence assaults that is more encouraging.

"Does [the increase] mean the incident of it is going up or more people are reaching out for help," Starr said.

She said it's possible the community at large is becoming more aware of domestic violence and more bystanders are calling to report it.

Takami also said it's possible part of the 60-percent increase in domestic-violence assaults is due to an increase in awareness and knowledge of domestic-violence resources and a greater willingness to report incidents.

If that's the case, then Seattle's surge in domestic violence could have a silver lining. As Starr said, domestic violence is preventable if people accept it is not a private matter but a public-safety concern and play their part by reporting it.