NORRISTOWN — In the wake of the fatal stabbing last month of an 18-year-old Abington woman, allegedly by her ex-boyfriend, Montgomery County’s top law enforcement officer is raising awareness about “relationship violence.”
“That is not domestic violence but it’s a close cousin — it’s called relationship violence,” county District Attorney Kevin R. Steele said on Wednesday. “I don’t know all the details about what led up to this tragic murder, but what I do know is that our children, our college students, our high schoolers and our middle schoolers, need to know what constitutes a healthy dating relationship and what signifies an unhealthy dating relationship.
“And they need to know how to spot these warning signs or these red flags in a dating relationship early on. We offer free presentations in schools in Montgomery County on relationship violence, on healthy dating relationships,” Steele said.
Specially-trained prosecutors from the Family Protection Unit can even present the information to high school and college audiences with the use of video technology in keeping with social distancing recommendations during the pandemic, said Steele, emphasizing the availability of the educational program offered by his office.
“And it’s free to schools or colleges in Montgomery County and it provides important information that our daughters and our sons need to know,” Steele said.
Steele said school administrators, principals, or counselors can call the district attorney’s office at 610-278-3090 to get more information about the presentation.
Steele delivered his comments during a weekly news briefing held by the county commissioners to update the public about the coronavirus pandemic. Steele expressed concerns about a spate of alleged domestic violence related homicides that have occurred since the pandemic began in March.
During the most recent incident, on July 27, Gilbert Newton III, 18, of Philadelphia, was charged with first- and third-degree murder and possessing an instrument of crime in connection with the alleged 8:15 a.m. fatal stabbing of 18-year-old Morgan Darlyn McCaffery, of Abington, as the pair reportedly met on the parking lot of the Meadowbrook Train Station in Abington to discuss their relationship after a break-up.
On April 8, Michael Darrell Hatfield, 69, of the 300 block of North Hanover Street, Pottstown, was charged with first- and third-degree murder and possessing an instrument of crime in connection with the death of his wife, Mary, 71, after an alleged argument inside the apartment they shared. Hatfield allegedly used an electrical cord to strangle and kill his wife as she sat in a recliner in the living room.
On April 16, Caitlin Celina Mauras, 22, was arrested on homicide-related charges in connection with the fatal stabbing of her boyfriend, Jaylin Thomas, during an argument inside the apartment they shared in the 300 block of North Charlotte Street in Pottstown.
On July 25, Frederick Lee Clea, 57, of the 7700 block of Green Valley Road, Cheltenham, was charged with murder- and weapons-related charges in connection with the alleged fatal shootings of his wife, Latiya, 41, and his mother-in-law, Mekenda Sanders, 75, inside their home in the Wyncote section of the township.
“These are not random acts of violence or murders that are being fueled by drug trafficking or some other crime. These are murders that are relationship violence or domestic violence in nature. The fact that all of our homicides since this pandemic has begun have been domestic violence or relationship violence is a disturbing trend,” Steele said.
Steele said living in this unprecedented pandemic is a stressful time, with adults and children staying at home together, confined to close quarters while at the same time being upended from routines, friends, jobs and other constants in their lives.
“During this coronavirus crisis, staying at home or following current recommendations to continue to limit trips and stay inside your pandemic bubble is designed to keep us all safe from the virus, but in three of these homicides, and in other cases where domestic violence is present, staying at home can be a dangerous situation,” Steele said.
“Add to that, fears of getting coronavirus, job losses and layoffs and stress and you have a situation that can lead to tensions in even the best of relationships but especially where there is a family member who is physically or emotionally abusive,” Steele added.
Steele pointed out that his office conducted an analysis of 911 calls and police reports earlier this year and uncovered an increase in domestic violence incidents.
The statistics compiled by county detectives showed an 8- to 9-percent increase in domestic violence reports between March 11 when the World Health Organization announced the COVID-19 outbreak was a pandemic and April 12. Gov. Tom Wolf also began implementing measures to mitigate the spread of the virus on March 15, which eventually led to shutdowns of non-life-sustaining businesses and stay-at-home orders.
During that period, county police departments reported 1,322 incidents of domestic violence for a median average of 40 per day, according to the statistics.
County detectives completed a detailed analysis and comparison of thousands of 911 calls and police reports during the Jan. 1 to April 12 periods in both 2019 and 2020.
“What they found was that calls for help to police were up about 9-percent and we suspect that that trend has continued and may be even higher since those agencies in Montgomery County that help domestic violence victims are reporting increased contacts for assistance, especially through police referrals,” Steele said during Wednesday’s briefing.
“The increase in 911 calls and police incident reports related to domestic violence means the victims need help and that victims are calling when they are able to,” said Steele, stressing that help is available.
The Women’s Center of Montgomery County, a non-profit, volunteer organization focused on eliminating domestic violence, provides support to victims and provides a 24-hour domestic violence hotline at 1-800-773-2424.
Laurel House, a nonprofit organization that provides crisis intervention, a safe haven, supportive programs and resources for victims of domestic abuse, provides a confidential, 24-hour hotline at 1-800-642-3150.
The help lines are answered by trained volunteers who offer advice on services available, provide safety planning and obtain immediate safe shelter for victims and children. Both agencies provide assistance with writing and obtaining protection from abuse petitions through the courts, offer safety advice to victims, and assistance in obtaining safe housing.