Stats Ignore Many Family Violence Fatalities

The violent death of a woman, her child, her friend and her friend's child sparked a discovery that fatalities connected to domestic violence are not recorded in a consistent manner. Berks Women in Crisis wants that changed.

READING, Pa. (WOMENSENEWS)-The road to death for two mothers and their two children began in April 1999 in the parking lot of a fast-food restaurant near Sinking Spring, Pa.

Their route, frantic and terrified, is similar to the one taken by too many women and children, here in Berks County, in this state and even across the country, for that matter.

Yet this particular fatality was so extraordinary in its brutality that Berks Women in Crisis has devised a new strategy-launched in time for this Domestic Violence Awareness Month-that they hope will compel legislators, police, judges and others to create new paths to end murderous violence between intimates.

Candace Wertz, her toddler son, a woman friend and her friend's young daughter had finished lunch when Wertz began to argue with her former companion, Carlos Angel Diaz Santiago.

Wertz's protection-from-abuse had recently expired.

Then Wertz got into her car and drove off with her three passengers. The enraged Santiago pursued them on country roads. Wertz was forced to stop at a railroad-crossing gate to wait for an oncoming freight train to pass, and she began to call 911 on her cell phone with panicked pleas for help.

Santiago, seeing the oncoming train, rammed his car into Wertz's, pushing the car into its path. The two women and the two children perished.

Santiago was found guilty of four counts of criminal homicide and was sentenced to four consecutive sentences of 40 to 80 years each.

Remarkably, when the area officials undertook a fatality review-that is, an examination by law enforcement, the judiciary, social service agencies and advocates to determine how the system failed to prevent Wertz's death-Berks Women in Crisis discovered that while Wertz's death was recorded as a domestic violence death, her friend's and the children's murders were not.

Research Produced Glaring Inconsistencies

In fact, this was just one example.

“During the course of our research to better understand the toll of domestic violence in Berks County,” said Rachelle Kucera Mehra, executive director of the Berks Women in Crisis center, “we discovered glaring and shocking inconsistencies between Pennsylvania's major tools to track domestic violence.”

For example the death of Carmen Garcia, brutally stabbed in public in March 1999, was not sufficiently investigated to identify her relationship with her assailant, so that her death was not included in domestic violence data published that year in the official Pennsylvania Uniform Crime Report.

And Edna Bell, murdered April 16, 2000, by her male companion, was not included in the 2000 Domestic Violence Homicide Report issued by the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence or the Pennsylvania Uniform Crime Report.

In addition, Berks Women in Crisis ascertained that in 1999 across Pennsylvania, 26 perpetrators of domestic violence homicide committed suicide and one perpetrator was killed in a standoff with the police. In 2000, 27 perpetrators of domestic violence homicide committed suicide and one perpetrator was killed in a standoff with the police. None of these 55 deaths are ever recorded to fully acknowledge violent deaths related to domestic violence.

“These suicides, the women murdered, and the children who die as a result of abuse, neglect, or from being fatally caught in the crossfire of domestic violence, and others who die as a direct or indirect cause of domestic violence, are not being reported as such,” said Mehra.

“And because these deaths go uncounted, the true impact of domestic violence is underestimated,” added Mehra. “If we can begin to count these deaths, we can work to make legislative changes that will close the gaps in the system that will help prevent such needless tragedies.”

Until a uniform tool is developed to better record the lives of those harmed and slain, Berks Women in Crisis will attempt to record and remember every life extinguished by domestic violence on a Web site:

The organization hopes the Web site will provide a consistent and in-depth illustration of the pervasiveness of domestic violence. In turn, this information can lay the foundation for change and improved strategies to diminish domestic violence.

Susan Fromm, spokesperson for Berks Women in Crisis, said a staff person will scour daily newspapers and news Web sites and post those stories as they occur. The Web site will report tallies from other states and national data as well.

“We do not mean to oversimplify domestic violence issues with our count,” Mehra said, “but rather we hope to bring attention of the need to identify the tools, experts and solutions that will prevent this violence all across our country.”

Priscilla Y. Huff is a free-lance writer and author who lives in Bucks County, Penn.

For more information:

Berks Women in Crisis:

National Resource Center on Domestic Violence, operated by the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence: 800-537-2238