Gov. John Baldacci and other state officials on Tuesday announced a public health advisory on domestic violence and sexual assault, calling on health care providers to institute routine screening as part of regular medical visits.
Homicides in Maine related to domestic violence have risen dramatically, from eight in 2007 to 17 so far this year as of Monday.
“Domestic violence and sexual assault are serious issues impacting the health and welfare of Mainers,” Baldacci said at an afternoon press conference in his Cabinet room at the State House in Augusta. “We must all work together to prevent and mitigate these important public health problems.”
According to data provided at the news conference, a domestic assault is reported, on average, once every hour and a half in Maine. Many more incidents are believed to go unreported.
Nearly one in five adults in Maine reports having been the victim of rape or attempted rape, and each year more than 7,000 women are physically or sexually assaulted by a domestic partner, according to state records.
Additionally, recent national studies confirm that children who witness violence in their homes are at increased risk of mental and emotional problems, and exposure to violence in childhood has been linked to increased rates of substance abuse, unintended pregnancy, depression, chronic illness and other disorders in adults.
“Our main message to the professional health community today is that we are asking them to routinely screen for domestic violence and sexual assault,” said Dr. Dora Anne Mills, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention. “Many are already doing this, and we hope this health advisory expands their existing work and helps to standardize screening.”
Through screening, patients can receive information on intervention services or other help in preventing further incidents. Perpetrators can also be referred to help services.
The state and violence-prevention groups say the screening itself can be a powerful intervention, even if no immediate disclosure results, because it lets the patient know that violence is unsafe and does not have to be tolerated.
Officials said they did not see a direct link between the souring economy, which adds stress in many families, to the dramatic rise in domestic violence deaths.
“The economy doesn’t cause violence,” said Mills, although she acknowledged that added financial pressures could exacerbate it. Officials see a more direct link between substance abuse and sexual assaults and domestic violence.
Attorney General Steven Rowe called on Mainers to change the culture that supports men’s violence against women by providing young men with models of healthy relationships and teaching them to respect women.
Baldacci encouraged all Mainers to speak out against domestic violence and sexual assault and specifically charged employers with developing safe workplace policies that support and protect victims.
Also present at the event were representatives of the medical community, including the Maine Medical Association, the Maine Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Maine chapter of Physicians for Social Responsibility.
The Maine CDC issues public health advisories by e-mail to alert the medical community and other groups to outbreaks of infectious diseases. According to Mills, this is the first time an advisory has targeted a social issue rather than a disease.
Health advisories, including resources for countering Maine’s domestic violence and sexual assault rates, may be viewed online at www.mainepublichealth.gov.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
24-hour hot lines:
Maine Coalition to End Domestic Violence: 866-834-4357
Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault: 800-871-7741