After 30 years, women who compile ‘femicide’ report still working to stop domestic violence

Published 10:38 pm Thursday, November 7, 2019

By Briana Bierschbach, Minnesota Public Radio News


For the last three decades, a group of women have shared a grim task: collecting the names of every victim of domestic homicide in Minnesota.

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Known for years as the annual Femicide Report, it started in 1989 as a way to fill in a gap in reporting gender-bias violence against women and girls. There was no other state or national group collecting this kind of data at the time, and to this day no state agency collects comparable data.

“Every month or so a woman, and or her children, and or her partner or mother or neighbor got killed, and it was like a flash in the pan,” said Julie Tilley, who first decided to start collecting the names as a staffer at the Minnesota Coalition for Battered Women.

“One of our goals was not only to honor the victims of this horrendous violence but to make this violence visible. It was so clear to us at that time that people weren’t seeing what was happening all around us.”

The report has evolved over the last 30 years, even as the list of names grew to a total of 685 women, children and men who have been killed by an intimate partner or while intervening in a case of domestic violence.

The youngest victim was just 22 weeks old, the oldest 88. It’s inspired others to start tracking similar data: A nurse in Texas is collecting names of domestic homicide victims across the country dating back to the 1950s, and a woman from Argentina recently consulted with Tilley before starting her own list.

“You see this emergence of women across the world that are actually making the state accountable for accurate reporting,” said Jodie Roure, a professor at John Jay college in New York studying violence against women. “To acknowledge this global epidemic of violence against women and girls.”


30 years of names

The numbers have gone up and down in Minnesota over the years: 17 victims of domestic homicide in 1989, the first year of the data, to a record 29 in 2000. But a recent national study out of Northeastern University found homicides by intimate partners jumped nearly 20 percent between 2014 and 2017.

Every case is different, but there are familiar patterns. Most often the victim is a woman who is being abused or controlled by her partner. When she tries to leave, the partner turns violent.

Before Google, Tilley spent her days digging through newspaper clippings and contacting shelters across the state to get a comprehensive list of women who were killed by domestic violence. After a few years, the job took its toll. Tilley was depressed, quit and sought treatment for depression.

“He beat her, he choked her, he shoved her in a suitcase, he dropped her in a junkyard,” she said. “After years of reading those words over and over again and setting up a file for each woman I got really depressed. You can’t read about this level of violence and not have it impact you.”

Carla Ferrucci continued the work years later, incorporating police reports and putting the data into spreadsheets. It’s been 10 years since she worked on the report, but she still scans the newspaper every morning for stories about domestic homicides.

“It’s this thing that, after doing it for so long, that you just do,” she said.

By the time Safia Khan started working for the coalition in 2010, social media entered the picture. Even with information pouring in from all over the place, Khan says they still found cases that were missed by everyone else.

In 2016, news reports said a woman was found dead on the side of the road and a man was charged with vehicular homicide. But neither the stories nor police reports mentioned they had a three month old baby together and there was a documented history of abuse.

“It was really, for us, taking these cases and putting them into context,” said Khan. “This is not just randomly happening that women are showing up dead on the side of the road.”

Khan said it’s impossible not to let the work get personal. A victim of domestic violence and sexual assault as a child growing up in Pakistan, she had been in the United States for three years when she started working on the report. She had a perception of the country as a safe place for women and was “stunned” when she read old reports.

She remembers trying to help a mother navigate getting her daughter’s property back after she was killed in a murder-suicide by her partner. Khan was standing with the mother in a parking lot of a police station when she suddenly burst into tears. The only emotion she had expressed for months was anger.

“She said to me, ‘there are videos on that laptop, and I just want to see her move,’” Khan said. “I still think about that, that this whole time she was just trying to watch a video of her daughter and to just see her move because she never will be able to again.”


A new name, same mission

The report expanded over the years to include men and children who were killed, either by an intimate partner or while intervening in an assault. In its 30th year, the report is also getting a new name, the Intimate Partner Homicide Report, and the coalition changed its name to Violence Free Minnesota.

Liz Richards, executive director of Violence Free Minnesota, said in 2007 they started incorporating recommendations into the report each year. They’ve made hundreds of recommendations, including lifting a ban on the Minnesota Department of Health from researching gun violence. Guns are present in nearly half of cases of intimate partner violence in Minnesota.

They’ve also called for more resources and action from lawmakers in reducing domestic violence.

Nationally, the Violence Against Women Act, which passed in 1994, barred people from owning guns if they had convictions of abuse, assault or stalking a domestic partner. But it expired recently and while the House recently reauthorized it, the Senate has not.

Violence Free Minnesota is not a research organization, but Richards said it’s sitting on decades of data that could be useful for lawmakers, law enforcement and attorneys in their work.

“You are going to hear us pulling out these recommendations in different arenas, with different audiences, the recommendations specific to their work, and say, ‘You need to take it up, it’s not enough to say we feel terrible,’” she said.

A majority of the cases happened in the metro area, but 45 percent took place in Greater Minnesota. Some victims were wealthy. Others were low-income or middle class.

Becky Smith, who currently works on the report at Violence Free Minnesota, said one important aspect of the list is to remember those who lost their lives. The report includes details beyond their death about each victim such as, “she was a ray of sunshine,” and “he was so excited to be a big brother.”

“It’s also about making sure their stories and their names and their life beyond their homicide remains in the public sphere,” Smith said.

If you or someone you know is facing domestic violence, call the Day One Emergency Center and crisis hotline at 866-223-1111.