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"Educating our communities and elected officials about the needs of survivors in our local cities and towns requires year round focus. JDI is our pathway to informing and influencing the state and national agenda to end sexual and domestic violence." ~ Karen Cavanaugh, JDI board member and Executive Director of Womanshelter/Companeras, pictured here with a JDI delegation meeting with Congressman Niki Tsongas

The Legacy of Jennifer Martel

So many women died before her, murdered by men who claimed to love them. For decades, we’ve been trying to end this.

We’ve made some progress. And yet Jared Remy was allowed to go free, and now Jennifer Martel is dead.

It would be easy to get lost in despair over Martel’s slaying, to lament the loss of this young mother just coming into her own as yet another in a long line of deaths that have come to seem inevitable. But there is a major effort underway on Beacon Hill in the wake of Martel’s death to spark change. It is driven in part by House Speaker Robert DeLeo, who was shocked into action by her killing, and now has an evangelist’s zeal on matters of domestic violence.

“I looked at this beautiful young lady with a [4]-year-old child who witnessed this and said, ‘How could this be?’ ” DeLeo said Wednesday.

Early next week, he will file a bill that would in a matter of months bring changes for which advocates have been fighting for years. It would make it easier to spot serial abusers, stiffen the penalties they face, and smooth the way for victims to confront batterers in court and to escape their revenge.

Written with the help of Attorney General Martha Coakley, the bill follows months of meetings the speaker held with victims, their advocates, police, and district attorneys following Martel’s death. Through them, DeLeo came to understand something that for years has infuriated abuse survivors and those who try to help them: Even in a state that is a national leader on domestic violence prevention, the system remains deeply flawed when it comes to keeping victims safe.

In November, DeLeo sat in a crowded playroom at a Cambridge emergency shelter run by Transition House. He listened patiently to a stream of victims who told their stories haltingly, and through tears. These are the women trapped for years in abusive relationships, about whom people will ask, “Why didn’t she leave him sooner?” What they should be asking is, “How on earth did she finally get away?”

He heard from a woman whose husband beat her, threatened to get her deported, and to take their daughter. He heard from a 59-year-old woman who was battered for the last decade of her 25-year marriage. Her husband was a National Guardsman who threatened to shoot her and her daughter. Still, she felt ashamed to report his abuse to police in her small town, finally fleeing on a bus with just a change of clothes and $15 in cash.

“Is that common?” DeLeo asked, and two dozen heads nodded.

“I’ve never done a police report,” said a young woman, whose hometown was far away. “My abuser is a gang member. That would be snitching.” She had to leave a series of jobs after he kept showing up to confront her at work. He wanted to own her, she said.

Another woman talked about how hard it was to get anybody to take her seriously before she fled her partner. “I’ve had situations where police officers come to the house and say, ‘Just get along,’ and they don’t even write a report,” she said, bouncing an infant on her lap.

DeLeo seemed distressed and amazed at what he heard, and eager to find ways to save other women from similar experiences. The bill he will present next week will not do everything domestic abuse advocates might have hoped for. But it will do plenty, nonetheless.

“The murder of Jennifer Martel seems to be the straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back, motivating the speaker and the Legislature to act in a way that begins to address the systemic issues, and not simply apply a Band-Aid,” said Toni Troop, spokeswoman for Jane Doe Inc., the statewide domestic violence prevention coalition.

There is much to love in DeLeo’s bill, the details of which are still being finalized. It attacks the flaws not just inside courtrooms, but outside them, too.

First, inside: The bill is expected to give teeth to a law passed a few years ago that would increase penalties for repeat domestic violence offenders, providing for state prison time and moving some second and subsequent cases from district to superior court, where abusers are likely to face harsher scrutiny.

It will also fix a quirk of Massachusetts law, which currently allows abusers to scuttle criminal cases by making payments to their victims — essentially, it amounts to perpetrators buying their way out of cases, especially likely when a victim doesn’t have her own money. That would no longer be allowed in domestic violence cases.

Experts have known for years that attempted strangulation is a huge red flag, an indicator that a victim is in mortal danger. The new law would make such an attack its own crime, with harsh penalties. That would make the act harder for judges to overlook, and force abusers to confront serious consequences that might make them think twice before trying it again.

These measures were contained in a comprehensive domestic violence bill the Senate passed last year, combining a bunch of initiatives introduced by Cynthia Creem of Newton, who has been fighting these battles for years, and others.

It would be lovely if the House bill incorporated the rest of the Senate proposal, including a provision requiring larger employers to give victims of domestic violence 15 days of paid or unpaid leave for legal proceedings, to find housing, to get counseling. Some victims will never feel safe enough to appear in courtrooms to testify against their abusers, the cycle of violence feeding itself. But for other victims, the issue isn’t one of safety, but of job security. Creem is optimistic they will now get it.

“There is a time for everything,” Creem said. “I’ve been trying to get the leave legislation passed for four years. We are kind of on a roll here.”

It does seem that way.

Coakley says the House bill would also provide better education for judges, some of whom, as evidenced by Jared Remy’s unbelievable run of lenient treatment, have no clue how serious domestic abuse is. Coakley puts it more politely, calling the bill an attempt to “increase awareness for judges who might not have had experience with the signals of dangerous domestic violence.”

The bill would also better protect women before the abuse gets that far, putting in place more of the high-risk teams that have been so effective in some jurisdictions at spotting women in serious danger. DeLeo said he also wants to provide more beds in the severely overburdened emergency shelter system. That is something advocates have been seeking for years.

Also on their wish lists: resident domestic violence experts in all health centers and hospitals, and better education in schools starting, depressingly enough, at the elementary level. They’re hoping the legislation includes those things, too.

There’s no way of knowing whether these measures would have saved Martel’s life. But they will absolutely save others.

“I don’t think this is rocket science,” DeLeo said. “There are no excuses . . . [for failing] this session. We just can’t let that happen. We owe it to the victims.”

He’s right. We know what works. On domestic violence, it’s time to go big. That will be Jennifer Martel’s legacy.

Yvonne Abraham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at abraham@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeAbraham


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