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Amid spike of murder suicides, Hall task force focuses on supporting victims who may have ‘fallen through the cracks’
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A group gathers Monday, Jan. 4, 2021, in downtown Gainesville for a vigil for Warner Brock and Jessie Brownlee, who were wounded in a shooting early Friday, Jan.1, at the New Holland Community Center. - photo by Scott Rogers

The Hall County Domestic Violence Task Force decided in 2019 to develop a pilot project to help the victims and surviving families after murder-suicides.

More than a year later, the task force would find themselves responding to an unprecedented number of deaths.

“I think that’s really caught us off guard,” said Jessica Butler, the executive director of the Gateway Domestic Violence Center. “We were planning to respond to the one or two incidents we see a year, then all of a sudden there’s an increased need in this response.”

There were three Hall County deaths in 2020 from domestic-violence related incidents, according to data released by the Georgia Commission on Family Violence

Butler said the task force has counted nine deaths related to domestic violence in 2021:

Those have included:

  • A Jan. 1 shooting where authorities say a man shot two people during a New Year’s Eve party on Spring Street in Gainesville before fatally shooting himself. One woman was blinded as a result of her injuries.

  • A Jan. 6 murder-suicide on Vine Street in Gainesville.

  • A Feb. 24 double-murder and suicide on Broome Road in Gainesville. The man was accused of fatally shooting one woman, with whom he had a child, and her mother before shooting himself. He died later on.

  • An April 26-27 double shooting that the Sheriff’s Office was investigating as an assisted suicide and suicide. A man and woman were found in a parked car outside of a business on Thompson Bridge Road. Butler said “the state still views this as a domestic violence murder-suicide.”

  • A Sept. 14 death where police said the woman was stabbed multiple times with a kitchen knife. The boyfriend has been charged with murder.

There was also an attempted murder-suicide Feb. 2 on Old Pleasant Hill Road in Oakwood, where a man was accused of shooting his daughter before shooting himself. The woman survived, but the man died Feb. 7.

Carolynn Brooks, the Fatality Review Project coordinator for the Georgia Commission on Family Violence, provided data to The Times on domestic-violence related deaths in 2020 and this year.

The fatalities to date in 2021 in Georgia have exceeded the number of deaths in 2020, jumping to 162 deaths from 146 fatalities in 2020. Included in the figures are murder-suicide fatalities. Those also increased from 48 deaths in 2020 to 63 fatalities so far this year.

Dealing with grief, loss

Hall County’s task force has representation from local law enforcement, prosecutors, counselors, attorneys and members of Gateway.

Janet Whittaker, Hall County’s task force chairwoman and the shelter manager at Gateway, said Hall County was the first in the state to put a focus on supporting the families affected by murder-suicide.

“The need was identified for the state of Georgia that with murder-suicide, there’s no one to prosecute,” said Janet Whittaker, Hall County’s task force chairwoman and the shelter manager at Gateway. “When there is a perpetrator that’s prosecuted, it goes to the (district attorney’s) office or the solicitor’s office, and then there are victim advocates in those offices who support these victims. … And when there’s a murder-suicide, there’s no one to prosecute, and so historically these folks have fallen through the cracks.”

Whittaker has compared it to “peeling the onion on what’s going on in their lives” and how they are dealing with the grief and loss.”

“It is astronomical to imagine what is happening to these families as they go through dealing with the loss of their family members, the burden of one of the family members killing another one, how all that trauma comes into play and then trying to resource them,” Whittaker said.

Whittaker and other members of the task force have met with survivors and assisted them with counseling and other social services, while also getting them necessary financial assistance through nonprofit organizations and the Georgia Crime Victims Compensation Program.

The Hall County Domestic Violence Task Force was honored as the “Task Force of the Year” at the Georgia Commission on Family Violence’s conference in early November.

“(The Hall task force) has shown survivors of murder-suicide that they are not alone and they are not forgotten,” said Kylee Elliot, the commission’s coordinator on support for survivors of murder suicide, in a news release. “Members of this task force identified a gap in their community and they filled it. Their community is better, stronger and safer because of their tireless commitment to survivors.”

‘Can’t unsee that’

In suspected murder-suicides, Gainesville Police Chief Jay Parrish said the department has sent its mental health clinician, Anjana Freeman, and chaplains as soon as they make contact with family.

“In our experience, we’ve actually brought them in while the scene was active to meet with the victims, with the family,” the police chief said. “Anjana has come in that early in the investigation.”

In a week’s time, Gainesville Police responded to an attempted murder-suicide and investigated another murder-suicide.

“We did have some officers that looked pretty shell shocked, because you just can’t unsee that,” Parrish said. “It’s one thing to see the crime scene and the victims, but it’s also painful for the officers to see the grieving family and know there is nothing they can do.”

With the task force’s protocols, Parrish said officers know now they have more tools in their toolbox. Once they investigate, the police chief said the department has another role to make sure “all the social services loops are closed.”

“It has to start with us, because we’re the first ones there,” Parrish said.

A compensation program

In multiple cases in Hall, parents and guardians were killed, Whittaker said.

“These minors are left with no parents, so who is going to pay the bills? Who is going to take over the mortgage? Who is going to make sure the kids are going to school?” Whittaker asked.

Whittaker didn’t have an estimate on how much has been disbursed to local victims, but the Crime Victims Compensation Program has a $25,000 maximum per victim, per victimization.

That money can go toward expenses such as the funeral, medical bills, counseling and lost wages among others. Each category has its own cap on expenses.

“It’s not as much as we would love to see it be, obviously, when you’re dealing with hundreds of thousands of dollars in medical bills,” Whittaker said.

One expense that often doesn’t come to mind: crime scene sanitization.

“In most of these cases, the incident is in a home or it’s a personal place for the family, so that family is still going to need to live there,” Whittaker said. “Finding the resource to have somebody come in and do the biohazard cleanup, there’s things like that.”

Family members of the victims or surviving victims can file with the compensation program within three years of the crime or the death of the victim.

“That’s because they know that people are not going to know what they need right away,” Whittaker said. “They’re just trying to wake up in the morning, breathe air and get through the day. They’re not unpacking everything that has to happen in that family.”

Whittaker called it an “all in” approach by the community as they continue growing and learning how to respond to these incidents. She lauded Northeast Georgia Health System for helping the task force navigate through insurance, combining bills and help with deferring payment.

Risk factors for domestic violence

If you are a victim of domestic violence, call the Gateway Domestic Violence Center crisis hotline at 770-536-5860.

  • Use of strangulation or choking

  • Presence of a firearm

  • Possessiveness over victim or severe/extreme jealousy

  • Change in relationship status

  • Harm to pets

  • Co-occurring depression

  • Co-occurring drug or alcohol abuse

  • Prior threats to kill, or threats which involve weapons

  • Threats to take, harm or kill the victim’s children

  • Previous suicide threats or attempts

  • Abuse during pregnancy

  • History of physical and/or non-physical domestic violence

  • Increasing severity or frequency of abusive incidents

  • Stalking

  • Looming accountability related to criminal charges or civil matters

  • Diagnosis of a serious or terminal illness

  • Anticipated loss of financial security or job loss