Silent Witness exhibit somber reminder of what's been lost to domestic violence

Posted at 5:08 PM, Oct 20, 2020
and last updated 2020-10-21 12:56:06-04

HELENA — In observance of Domestic Violence Awareness Month, the Montana Law Enforcement Academy (MLEA) is hosting the Montana Silent Witness exhibit until October 23. The exhibit was created to raise awareness about domestic violence and encourage action to create change.

The 95 red wooden silhouettes represents the Montana women who died during a domestic violence situation. A gold plaque is affixed to each silhouette with the name and story of the woman that was killed, with one standing as the silent witness to murders unsolved

“Domestic violence as an overall subject matter attacks the very social fabric of our community,” said MLEA Domestic Violence Program Manager Natale Adorni.

Domestic violence is a public health crisis in the nation, and Montana isn’t exempt.

Data from the Montana Department of Justice from 2019 shows that law enforcement responded to more than 4,000 cases of domestic violence across the state.

That means someone in Montana is beaten, abused or strangled by a partner or family member every 2.5 hours and reports the incident.

Adorni says the exhibit is a powerful tool that can help show students at MLEA the impacts of domestic violence.

“It’s a very impactful exhibit,” said Adorni. “I think what we see is that these once represented the vibrant lives of an individual that fell, regrettably, to a homicide at the hands of someone that should have protected them.”

The way domestic violence is handled by police has drastically changed over the decades. Before 1970 societal norms dictated that police treat domestic violence as a family matter, not as a problem for law enforcement. In modern days, officers play key roles in victim advocacy and safety.

Each student that goes through MLEA receives six education courses that deal with domestic violence.

“We teach them not only trauma informed care, but also victim centered approach,” explained Adorni.

A victim-centered approach puts the victim's wishes, safety and well being at the forefront in all matters and procedures for the responding law enforcement.

“We teach our officers to listen 80 percent of the time, and ask questions the remaining 20 percent,” added Adorni.

Adorni says domestic violence calls are highly emotional for parties involved. No two situations are alike, and no one knows what’s needed for the situation better than the victim.

“We know on average it becomes a 70 percent higher risk factor when they make a decision to leave because it completely eliminates the power from the offender,” said Adorni. “We try to teach our students to get as much information about possible in order to make informed decisions.”

On average it can take a victim seven to nine times to fully leave an abusive relationship.

MLEA recognizes domestic violence isn’t something that only law enforcement can deal with, and stresses the importance of working with the community to combat the issue.

“It takes a community and a multi disciplinary approach to address this crime,” said Adorni.

Education, community partnerships and advocacy all play vital roles in helping victims and reducing cases of domestic violence.

This year, MLEA partnered with Montana’s Veterans Administration Health Care System to increase public awareness by sharing ten of the silhouettes, which are displayed indoors at Fort Harrison Medical Center.

Montana, along with the rest of the United States, still has a long way to go to curb domestic violence. Until then, the silhouettes of the Montana Silent Witness exhibit will serve as a reminder of what has been lost.

The public is invited to MLEA, located at 2260 Sierra Road East in Helena, to see the exhibit between 8:00 am – 5:00 pm. Masks are required.

If you or someone you know are the victim or survivor of domestic violence, know that help is available.

The National Domestic Violence Hotline is available 24/7 at 1-800-799-7233. An advocate can provide assistance to victims, and anyone calling on their behalf.

The Friendship Center also provides a 24-hour hotline at 406-442-6800.