megan montgomery domestic violence
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This story contains descriptions of physical and emotional abuse. If you or a loved one is a victim of abuse, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800-799-7233, or log on to thehotline.org for help, or call 911 if physical abuse is happening or imminent. For more about the warning signs of domestic abuse, visit the National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV) website at womenslaw.org.

The first time I meet Susann Montgomery-Clark to talk about her daughter Megan’s murder, a kitchen timer interrupts us and Susann rushes away from our Zoom call to pull a casserole out of the oven. She comes back into the frame and apologizes; she’s making the meal for her daughter Meredith. “It’s great to have both girls in town,” she says, then catches herself. Before Megan died on December 1, 2019, at the hands of her husband, she lived a quick drive from her mother. Nearly three years later, Susann is still adjusting to the fact that she can’t invite her younger daughter over for dinner.

Susann says Megan began dying on July 23, 2017 — the day she went on her first date with police officer Jason McIntosh, the beginning of a relationship that would end 861 days later — after a string of escalating altercations and 911 calls — with McIntosh fatally shooting her in a parking lot 20 miles from the home they had shared. Over the years, Megan had done what abused women are told to do: She’d reported him to his own police department; she’d filed for protection from abuse and for divorce; she’d moved out; she’d pursued domestic violence charges. Still, the system failed her, through a cascading series of events, each triggering the next.

But Megan’s story is not unique: More than a quarter of homicides in the U.S. are related to domestic violence. When an abusive partner has access to a firearm, as McIntosh did, a domestic violence victim is five times as likely to be killed.

Susann is the first to point out a few of the obvious reasons Megan’s case garnered national attention (it’s been covered by People and NBC News): She was white with long blonde hair, hazel eyes and a master’s degree. “A lot of people said, ‘If it can happen to her, it can happen to anybody,’ which is the wrong thing to think because it does happen to anybody, across socioeconomic classes,” Susann says.

Regardless of background, abusers pull from a similar script: love bombing, isolation, gaslighting, escalating aggression. The identities of the victims and the perpetrators vary, but law enforcement officers are up to 15 times as likely as the general population to abuse their significant others, according to Police Wife: The Secret Epidemic of Police Domestic Violence. The question is no longer How did this happen? It’s Why does this keep happening — and how can we stop it?

Susann, who retired from her paying job the week after she lost Megan, has grappled with these questions ever since. Experts say homicides such as Megan’s are preventable, so for the past year Susann and her husband, Rod Clark, have worked with schools to raise awareness about domestic violence.

Susann also works to help people whose loved ones are already in unhealthy relationships, and unbeknownst to her, over the course of my reporting this story she did exactly that for me.

A Charmed Child

By all accounts, Megan grew up happy in Birmingham, AL. Her father, Johnny Montgomery, was a real estate agent who traveled the world competing in Ironman races in places like Hawaii, Switzerland and Holland, sometimes with his daughters in tow. He and Susann divorced, and Susann remarried when Megan was 6. Megan’s stepfather, Rod, practiced basketball with her in the driveway every afternoon. (He still jokes about her criticizing him for “guarding her like a girl.”) Megan later joined the cheerleading squad at the local Catholic high school she and her older sister, Meredith, attended.

megan montgomery and her mother susann
Megan Montgomery, right, with her mother, Susann Montgomery-Clark.
courtesy of Susann Montgomery-Clark

One of Megan’s best friends, Ameshia Cross, describes Megan as a “lifelong cheerleader.” They joined the Alpha Sigma Tau sorority together at Belmont University (a Christian college in Nashville), and Megan choreographed their initiation-night dance to Huey’s “Pop, Lock and Drop It.” “Megan was quite the performer,” Ameshia says. “She was the life of the party.” The two became especially close when Ameshia’s mother was diagnosed with cancer and later died. Megan sat on Ameshia’s dorm room floor and held her as she cried; they flew together to the funeral in Chicago a week later. The two stayed in touch even after Megan returned home to Alabama, where she finished her bachelor’s degree, earned a master’s degree and began a career at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Outside work, Megan was a founding member of the Young Professionals Board at the Greater Birmingham Humane Society, where she organized events, fostered animals and drove rescue transports.

Megan’s “Mirror”

When Megan met Jason Bragg McIntosh, 13 years her senior, on a dating app, she thought he was perfect. He presented himself as an upstanding member of the community, sensitive and caring — “a mirror of Megan,” Susann says.

This image, she believes now, was carefully manufactured: Mirroring is a tactic abusers often use to gain their victims’ trust. “They don’t come across as violent. They seem like Prince Charming,” Susann says. McIntosh seemed infatuated with Megan. He showered her with gifts and compliments; he was constantly around, and within a few months he started talking about marriage. In retrospect, Ameshia believes this was her first indication that something was off: “It basically went from getting to know someone on an app to ‘Now this guy wants to get married,’ ” she told me. “I was very cautious of that: Walking into something that serious that swiftly is scary.” Susann now recognizes McIntosh’s actions as love bombing, a tactic narcissists and abusers often use to influence, control or gaslight a partner. According to the National Domestic Violence Hotline, it typically manifests as “soulmate status” (things get serious unusually fast), exaggerated compliments (“My life would be nothing without you”), the giving of gifts (especially expensive ones) and constant communication.

On average, every minute, nearly 20 people are physically abused by an intimate partner.

Source: National Coalition Against Domestic Violence

McIntosh worked as a police officer for more than 20 years and had been with the Hoover Police Department since 1999, which suggested to Susann and Rod some level of trustworthiness. Megan’s dad, Johnny, and stepmom, Liz Montgomery, ran into the couple at a college football game a month after McIntosh and Megan started dating. Johnny is a recovering alcoholic (he stopped drinking after he and Susann divorced), and he recalls that he had an uneasy feeling about McIntosh, who, he and Liz believe, was heavily intoxicated when they met. Then, according to her family, in November 2017 Megan said that she and McIntosh had gotten into an argument at his condo. When Megan tried to leave, McIntosh locked the security gate around his unit and refused to open it until she started to yell for help. Megan took an Uber home that night, and the next morning she told her parents what had happened. She asked Johnny and Rod to confront McIntosh directly rather than go through the police department, because she was scared that he’d be fired. McIntosh apologized to Johnny and Rod, who say they made him swear that he wouldn’t contact Megan again. But within weeks, the two were back together.

Susann believes that “because [McIntosh] was drinking whenever anything bad happened, he used that as an excuse,” she says. “Megan would forgive somebody and believe they would do better next time. As Christians, we raised our children around forgiveness. But domestic violence is different.”

broken home
Valentina Shilkina//Getty Images

Ups and Downs

Ameshia remembers Megan telling her that early on, McIntosh started showing up wherever Megan was. Sometimes he would park his truck outside Megan’s gym to meet her after her workout. “He was sending gifts, always around, 24/7, wouldn’t let her out of his sight — he was popping up everywhere and was wary of any male friends [of hers],” Ameshia says. (When we reached him for comment, McIntosh denied having any problem with her male friends.)

But at the time, Megan thought she’d met her soulmate: They were secretly married at the courthouse in February 2018, less than seven months after their first date. Slowly, Ameshia recalls, Megan began talking about how McIntosh had started to isolate her. He became “aggressive, in terms of diminishing her: talking about her appearance, telling her that nobody else would want her, telling her that her family and friends didn’t want her,” Ameshia says. (McIntosh denies making any disparaging comments.) Her self-esteem and confidence began to falter. Her sister, Meredith, remembers cracks starting to show in their relationship, but “lots of couples get in fights. I think they broke up a couple of times; then they’d get back together. Some couples do that,” she says. Then, on their one-year dating anniversary, July 23, 2018, Megan and McIntosh got (publicly) engaged.

Around that same time, Ameshia says Megan started withdrawing from her friends. Eventually, she stopped reaching out altogether: “Megan basically went dark.” Then, in February 2019, Megan posted wedding photos on Instagram, taking her friends by surprise. She and McIntosh had flown to New York for the ceremony. “That’s not Megan,” Ameshia says. “She includes us in everything she does.” Even Megan’s family didn’t learn about the ceremony until the two returned to Alabama.

Two or three weeks later, Megan confided in Ameshia that McIntosh had pushed her into a wall and hit her the night before their wedding. “She thought maybe she’d said something wrong and triggered that,” Ameshia says. “But she was promised that it wasn’t going to happen again. He bought her a ton of flowers and gifts.” (McIntosh told us he had no recollection of this incident, and denies physically abusing Megan.)

megan montgomery domestic violence

A month before Good Housekeeping reached out to me to write Megan’s story, my friend Renee* confided in me about her own increasingly volatile marriage. John* had always been jealous and controlling, and after Renee quit her job to take care of their second child, she struggled to get money from John for expenses like gas and groceries. He didn’t like her leaving their apartment, even to go to her parents’ house nearby, and would get angry if she wasn’t home to greet him after work. When she finally realized he wasn’t going to change, she felt as if it was too late.

Last year Renee made the decision to “reclaim her independence.” John warned her that if they got divorced, he would make her look like an unfit mother. One night she called me after she’d locked herself in a bathroom to get away from him and told me that he’d stood outside the door, screaming at her and accusing her of killing him with the stress she was causing by withholding sex.

Neither of us had labeled John’s behavior as “abuse” because it wasn’t physically violent, but in January 2022, I met Susann via Zoom for the first time and recognized similarities between what she was telling me about different types of abuse — financial, sexual, emotional and psychological — and what I was hearing from Renee. A week or two later, as I sat in Susann and Rod’s living room, Susann told me about the Power and Control Wheel, an illustration developed by the Domestic Abuse Intervention Programs in Duluth, MN, listing the tactics someone might use to maintain both in a relationship. After I left, sitting in the car, I searched online for it: putting someone down, making someone feel guilty about their children or about not having sex, threatening to take someone’s children away, limiting someone’s involvement with the outside world — everything Renee had been experiencing with John. I sent it to her.

*Names marked with an asterisk have been changed

megan montgomery domestic violence

Escalating Violence

On February 23, 2019, a few weeks after their wedding ceremony in New York, McIntosh and Megan were involved in an altercation at their home, which resulted in Megan’s being shot in the arm. According to NBC News, which received an exclusive copy of the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency (ALEA) investigation about the incident, when officers from McIntosh’s own police department responded to the call, he told them that he had been wrestling with Megan when his gun had gone off. Megan, who was eight inches shorter and 90 pounds lighter than McIntosh, said she grabbed the pistol with her right hand for protection. Somehow, during the struggle, she was shot in the upper right arm.

Because it was an officer-involved shooting, the ALEA stepped in to investigate. Accounts of the night diverged significantly. According to the ALEA investigation, Megan had told investigators that the gun went off by accident. But she told a different story to medical staff that night: She said McIntosh had shot her, according to the ALEA report. McIntosh, meanwhile, told responding officers that he had thought they were struggling over his cell phone and hadn’t realized that the two were struggling over a gun until it went off, according to the ALEA report. McIntosh’s weapon was confiscated as evidence, and he was placed on administrative leave pending an internal investigation; McIntosh resigned from the Hoover Police Department less than a month after the incident. The district attorney investigated but declined to bring any charges connected to the shooting. ALEA also closed its investigation without bringing any charges.

A week after she was shot, Megan filed a protection from abuse order against McIntosh, which specifically requested the removal of his weapon, according to NBC News. A judge issued a mutual restraining order that made no mention of McIntosh’s gun.

Later, Megan texted a friend about how impossible her situation felt: It’s complicated because most women call the POLICE when they need help. But what happens if your abuser *IS* the police and his best buddies are too?

Eleven days after she was shot, Megan posted on Instagram You cannot heal in the same environment where you got sick. She started writing in a gratitude journal. Struggling to navigate a cast that stretched to her knuckles and occasionally switching to writing with her left hand, she scribbled I hope I find a man in the future who won’t make me do things I don’t want to do. Susann says it hurts her to look through Megan’s journals. “She was trying so hard,” her mother says. “She smiled on Facebook, but in reality every day, she was not smiling. She wasn’t laughing. I remember going with Megan to physical therapy one day, a long time after she was shot, and we said something in the car, and she actually laughed. I said, ‘Oh my God, that’s the first time you’ve laughed in a long time.’ ”

A Turning Point

On May 5, less than three months after Megan was shot, police were again called to Megan and McIntosh’s townhouse. Responding officers noted scrapes and red marks where McIntosh had reportedly tackled Megan in the garage, as well as a swollen area near her ribs where she said he had hit her, according to NBC News. (McIntosh denies he hit Megan.) This time he was taken into custody and charged with third-degree domestic violence. He was released on bail the next day. On May 16, Megan filed for divorce, maintaining that she had been subjected to domestic abuse and that in one of those incidents she had been shot and suffered permanent injury as a result.

megan montgomery domestic violence
A shell arrangement Megan created at the beach in 2019.
courtesy of Susann Montgomery-Clark

After Megan filed for divorce — three months after the shooting — she headed to the beach. On Instagram she posted a picture of seashells arranged in a semicircle, writing: 12 shells…12 weeks today that I am ALIVE. I walked the beach today and selected each onefrom dark to light…because sometimes you have to walk through the darkness to get to the light. I’m somewhere in between right now. Megan, who was in counseling and also attending a support group at the YWCA, started posting reminders to herself around her room: I am strong. “She was trying to get herself back,” Susann says.

July should have been a new beginning in Megan’s life. In addition to having surgery to help regain the use of her arm and hand, she was supposed to go to court to testify against McIntosh in his domestic violence case. Instead, the criminal case resulting from the May 5 domestic violence charge was delayed. The prosecutor handling Megan’s domestic violence case notified her that the judge assigned to her criminal case had a policy that criminal cases would not be heard until any related civil cases involving similar facts were resolved first.

For Megan, that meant that her domestic violence case wouldn’t be heard by the court until her civil case — her divorce proceeding — had been dealt with. But legal experts such as Allison Dearing, executive director of One Place Family Justice Center in Birmingham, say that more protections are generally available when a criminal case is resolved before a civil case. Dearing suggests that if Megan’s criminal charges had been addressed, “it could have resulted in jail time or the removal of a weapon.” Moreover, Dearing says, in general, federal law prohibits any individual who is convicted of a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence as it’s defined by federal law, or a felony, or who has an active protection order entered against them that meets federal requirements from possessing a firearm.

According to Ameshia, Megan grew afraid to speak candidly because she suspected that McIntosh might be recording or reading her conversations. Susann recalled an incident in July when she took her daughter apartment hunting; Megan left her phone in her car in a restaurant parking lot because she was worried that McIntosh might be tracking her. In the half hour they were away from Megan’s phone, McIntosh sent her dozens of texts, asking why she wasn’t responding.

“You deserve so much better than this,” Susann recalls telling her.

Megan responded, “I know. That’s why I’m leaving.”

megan montgomery domestic violence

I repeated those words to my friend Renee just days after my meeting with Susann. Tonight we argued for five hours, she messaged me. After John washed down a handful of sleeping pills with whiskey, she left with the kids, which upset him even more. That night, texting him from her parents’ house, she asked him for a temporary separation; he said he wanted a divorce. Concerned for his and their family’s safety, she told his parents about the pills. A few days later, he had flowers delivered and asked her to reconsider the separation; when she said no, he told her to throw the bouquet in the trash. I remembered Susann saying the most dangerous time in an abusive relationship was when the victim left. My husband suggested that I tell Renee’s parents that I was worried John’s aggression would escalate — “If something happens to her, you’ll never forgive yourself” — but I didn’t want to betray her confidence. I told Renee that she deserved better and that I was worried about them. I asked whether she felt safe. She assured me that she did.

megan montgomery domestic violence

A Brief Reprieve

By October, Megan started to seem like her old self again, according to her family. She had undergone two surgeries and was finally regaining the use of her right arm. Despite not being fully healed, she went to a trampoline park to practice her backflips. (Makes me miss those cheerleading days! she captioned the video online.) She also posted screenshots from a text conversation with McIntosh. He’d apparently shown up while she was out one night and tried to make her leave with him. She accused him of being a stalker, to which he replied, I really am. I will never let you go.

You have ruined my life, she wrote back later. Leave me alone. (When asked, McIntosh denied ever stalking Megan.)

Stalking is a predictor of lethality: Three out of every four women murdered by an intimate partner were stalked first, according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. “We didn’t know any of this until after she died,” Susann told me. “There was no reason for us to know.”

megan montgomery with her father and sister
Megan with her father, Johnny, and sister, Meredith.
courtesy of Susann Montgomery-Clark

Professionals responding to DV incidents sometimes use the Danger Assessment — a simple questionnaire created in the 1980s by Johns Hopkins University School of Nursing professor Jacquelyn C. Campbell — to quantify the danger a victim may be in by tallying their answers to some 20 questions: Has he avoided being arrested for domestic violence? Has the physical violence increased in severity or frequency over the past year? Have you left him after living together during the past year? Does he own a gun?

Susann believes that if Megan had been evaluated using the questionnaire, they would have better understood the danger she was in.

More than a quarter of homicides in the U.S. are related to domestic violence.

Source: Educational Fund to Stop Gun Violence

On October 20, Megan adopted a kitten from the Greater Birmingham Humane Society who had been born around the time she’d been shot. She was overlooked, shy, and shaking, Megan wrote on Instagram. Maybe it’s God’s way of showing me that the worst day of my life had a silver lining because Maya was brought into this world that day for me.

For months, according to NBC News, McIntosh had been texting with the ALEA agent who had handled the shooting incident earlier that year, asking that his gun be returned to him. ALEA returned McIntosh’s gun on November 15 — finding that “[t]he gun was Mr. McIntosh’s personal property, the investigation was closed, and ALEA had no legal justification for keeping his private property. Additionally, the [mutual] restraining order did not restrict Mr. McIntosh’s access to firearms.”

The Darkest Night

On November 30, 2019, Megan — a University of Alabama football fan — went to an Iron Bowl party to watch the game. Afterward, she and a few acquaintances decided to grab a drink at a bar before heading home. McIntosh had a habit of showing up wherever Megan was, and that’s what he did on this Saturday night, sometime around 10:30 p.m.
According to someone who was sitting at the table with Megan, McIntosh placed one hand on Megan’s shoulder and the other on her neck and told her to walk outside. He told the group, in answer to their questions, “That’s my wife. She’s going with me.” These were new friends, none of whom knew the context of the last few months so as to realize they should object.

Two days later, that witness posted on Facebook that he thought maybe Megan had been caught doing something behind her husband’s back, not that she was scared for her life. “The look in her eyes is one I will never forget,” he wrote.

The two got into McIntosh’s Toyota Tacoma, and McIntosh drove Megan to the parking lot of a local high school athletic complex, where he shot and killed her. An officer on patrol found her body, initially identified as Jane Doe, at around 4:30 a.m. on Sunday, December 1.

Megan checked in with her mother every day before 1 p.m. When she didn’t that day, Susann started texting family members, looking for her. Rod and Johnny drove to Megan’s apartment and to the house Megan and McIntosh had shared. Liz joined them back at the apartment and they went to file a missing person report. Rod, Johnny and Liz ended up being at the police station for six hours, answering questions: What does his truck look like? What was she wearing?

shattered vase with flowers on the floor
Getty Images

Susann had been away on a work trip, but she decided to cut it short. On her way home, she stopped by the bar where Megan had last been seen — her car and her keys were still there. Later that night, Megan’s sister, Meredith, opened Facebook and saw reports that the body of a young woman had been found in the Mountain Brook High School Athletic Complex parking lot. That’s not her, Meredith thought. “But it was in the back of my mind,” she says.

At around 2 a.m. on Monday, Rod, Johnny and Liz were put in a small room at the police station. About eight to 10 people walked in and started asking Rod more questions about Megan. Johnny listened, growing more anxious. He finally interrupted: “My daughter’s dead, isn’t she?” Yes. “Did she suffer?” No. Johnny and Liz drove to Megan’s sister’s house. Rod went home to tell her mother. “It was the end of the world as I knew it,” Susann says.

The next day, a letter addressed to Megan arrived in the mail with regard to McIntosh’s domestic violence charge: Megan was to testify against him in court on December 4. Instead, on December 4, McIntosh was charged with capital murder.

Aftershocks

On March 31, 2021, moments before McIntosh pleaded guilty to the reduced charge of murder (he was sentenced to 30 years in prison), Susann spoke to the courtroom: “Like a frog in a pot of water — you gradually turn up the heat to boiling and the frog doesn’t know they’re dying. That’s what happened to Megan. That’s what domestic violence does.” (McIntosh denied accusations of physical abuse prior to the night he shot and killed Megan. “What I did in the end is far off the worst thing you could ever do,” he said and apologized, adding, “there’s nothing to bring Megan back.”)

Every 10 hours, a woman is shot and killed by an intimate partner.

Calculated from Everytown Research & Policy’s Guns and Violence Against Women Report

In Johnny’s impact statement, he shared that he mourned Megan’s death every day — the little things, like not being able to call her or meet her for lunch — but that, through his faith, he would eventually forgive McIntosh. “I will not let Megan’s death be in vain,” Johnny continued. “Megan may not be here, but through her death, she is saving a lot of lives.”

Following McIntosh’s sentencing, Susann and Rod, with Meredith present, announced the Megan Montgomery Domestic Violence Prevention Fund, a charitable fund they had created with the Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham. The organization gives schools grants to hire experts to teach young people the signifiers of an unhealthy relationship and how to hold one another accountable.

“[Megan wanted] other women to know the warning signs and to get out before it’s too late,” Susann said — before they’re hurt by an intimate partner, before they’ve suffered that trauma, before the system can fail them as it failed her.

megan montgomery domestic violence

The morning before what would have been Megan’s 34th birthday, I answered a call from Renee’s dad: John had shot and killed himself at their home. Her dad gave voice to what we’d all been so afraid of: It could’ve been Renee. Or the kids. Months later, I asked Renee if she’d considered that: “Not really. But being in that state of mind…” she trailed off. “I don’t know that he wouldn’t have done that to me.”

When I finally told Susann about how she’d inadvertently helped me navigate and process what had happened, she took it as a sign: “We’re doing what we’re supposed to be doing; we’re doing Megan’s work,” she said. “This is why we have to talk about domestic violence; we can’t shove it under the rug.” We talked about how important it is to know where a relationship is on a spectrum — from healthy to unhealthy to abusive. Whether someone is in Megan’s situation or Renee’s or somewhere in between, it’s important that they’re able to recognize red flags and know what their options are if they see them.

And if you happen to spot them first? “The most important thing we can do is offer support: ‘I’m concerned about you. You should not be treated that way. Help is available for you, and I want to be a part of that. You’re not alone,’” Dearing said. “That’s the most powerful thing we can say to someone we care about: ‘You are not alone.’”

megan montgomery domestic violence

For more information and to donate, go to the Megan Montgomery Domestic Violence Prevention Fund.

How the System Failed Megan Montgomery

The lack of protections for domestic violence survivors in Alabama and elsewhere continues to put women at risk. After Jason McIntosh’s sentencing for the murder of Megan Montgomery, One Place Family Justice Center’s Allison Dearing spoke to the press: “It is high time for us to stop expecting victims to keep themselves safe," she said. "It is not their responsibility. It is on the systems that exist: law enforcement, the courts, prosecution, health care — all of us together.”

It is Dearing’s hope to protect not only domestic violence victims and survivors but also their families and neighbors. “It’s staggering to me that we continue to think of domestic violence as a private thing — a family thing that happens behind closed doors — when we have the data to show that it is community violence,” Dearing says. In 2021, 57% of known homicide offenders in Jefferson County (where Megan lived) had a history of domestic violence.

Intimate partner homicides are committed using firearms more often than every other means combined,” says Deborah Vagins, president and CEO of the National Network to End Domestic Violence. Recently, to help address this at a federal level, Congress partially closed the dating partner loophole, a.k.a. the “boyfriend loophole”: The Bipartisan Safer Communities Act extended some firearms restrictions that had only applied to abusive spouses, cohabitants and parents who shared a child with the victim to also include dating partners. But Vagins says the work isn’t done: The act restricted only those convicted of misdemeanor crimes of DV, not those subjected to final protective orders. “We need to fully close that loophole,” Vagins says.

In Alabama, if you have a valid protection order against you or if you’ve been convicted of certain DV crimes, you’re not allowed access to a firearm; however, “Jefferson County has typically operated on the honor system in regard to compliance,” Dearing says. Offenders are expected to relinquish their weapons on their own and sometimes are not even told to do so. In fact, only 17 states that prohibit DV misdemeanants from possessing guns require the surrender of said guns after conviction.

“Once we know there's an abusive person in that relationship and there’s a victim in that relationship, we need to do all that we can to remove that weapon,” says Ruth Glenn, president and CEO of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. Still, federal laws don’t require people prohibited from having guns to relinquish ones they already have — even though states that require proof of relinquishment have 12% fewer intimate partner gun homicides.

How the system could improve:

• Institute more and better training.

Jefferson County, Alabama, still mandates that those filing a petition for a protection order fill out physical paperwork and hand-deliver it to the courthouse. “If we can ever get to a place where protection orders move into the 21st century, where we can file [them] electronically, we may see a reduction in violence,” says Ruth M. Glenn, president and CEO of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

Once a victim files, courts should have more training on how to respond: Courts must understand the potentially lethal consequences of failing to issue a restraining order with the terms the survivor needs, and courts must be able to distinguish between the victim and the perpetrator. When someone petitions the court for protection from abuse and the court responds with a mutual restraining order against both the victim and the offender, it minimizes the offender’s conduct and weakens the order’s intended protections, Dearing explains. She also recommends more training to help judges understand why it’s important to prioritize DV cases.

• Fund prevention and services.

Vagins’ organization, NNEDV, in addition to pushing for federal policy changes, works with 56 U.S. state and territorial coalitions and provides training to thousands of professionals every year to help improve system-wide responses to survivors. One of NNEDV’s legislative priorities is the renewal and improvement of the Family Violence Prevention and Services Act (FVPSA), which is the federal government’s public health response to address and prevent domestic and dating violence. “It’s the only federal funding solely dedicated to domestic and dating violence,” Vagins explains. Over 1,500 local DV organizations and programs that provide services like emergency shelter, counseling, legal assistance, crisis intervention, prevention education and training are dependent on funds from FVPSA, which has expired and is pending reauthorization in Congress right now. “FVPSA must be reauthorized with key enhancements in order to meet the growing needs of survivors,” Vagins says. Such enhancements include increased investment in prevention and additional supports for survivors from marginalized communities.

• Raise public awareness.

A 2018 report suggests only about a dozen states mention “healthy relationships” in their public school health education programs. “Because of resource deficit, organizations focus a lot on intervention,” says NCADV’s Glenn. Dr. LaRhonda Magras, CEO of YWCA Central Alabama, recommends implementing age-appropriate education as early as possible: “Oh, they just like you. That's why they pulled your hair [or] pushed you down,” she says. “That’s at 4 and 5 years old, and that sets it up.” She adds that as people begin talking more about DV and prevention, it’s important to use inclusive language: Though people who identify as women are the most common victims of intimate partner violence, victims and survivors can be of any gender identity, race, socioeconomic status and sexual orientation.


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