It was described as a gruesome and “horrific” crime scene. District Attorney Ashley Rich remarked that in her 20-year career as a prosecutor she had never seen a homicide scene like it. On an early Saturday morning in late August in north Mobile County, Derrick Dearman is alleged to have viciously murdered five people with an ax, one of them a pregnant female.

Then, to ensure they were dead, he shot each of them. Next he kidnapped his girlfriend and a 3-month-old baby who were living at the residence and fled to Mississippi, where he later turned himself in to authorities.

Much is made of the fact that this murderer’s rage was fueled by the potent and purest form of methamphetamine, called “ice.” It can cause wild and particularly violent mood swings. The ice was most definitely an important factor. But just as important a factor was Dearman’s history of physical abuse of his girlfriend, Laneta Lester.

It’s the reason she was staying at the home in the first place: she was trying to escape the abuse she was suffering at Dearman’s hands. The drugs merely amplified — albeit dramatically — the nature and actions of a man who routinely manifested hostility, anger and abuse toward someone who he supposedly cared about. Such is the nature of domestic violence.

As October dawns, a month-long focus begins on something that, like race, is a problem we know is present, but about which many don’t like speaking openly and candidly: domestic violence. Yes, it has received greater visibility in recent times due to some high-profile domestic violence incidents, yet it is still one of those subjects that far too often causes an awkward and uncomfortable silence when brought up in polite society. Even when it is suspected that a neighbor, friend or loved one is being victimized by it, a much too common response is ignoring what is perceived, or treating it as something best avoided.

Sitting down and talking with Joan Cusick-Duncan, it is visibly obvious that after 15 years of advocacy this is an issue that still deeply moves and motivates her. Cusick-Duncan serves as the community educator and volunteer coordinator for Penelope House, Mobile’s leading organization for assisting those victimized by domestic violence. The organization is in its 37th year of service.

As Cusick-Duncan and I talked about the horrendous murder that took place in Citronelle, she noted that society often derides those who refuse to leave an abusive situation. But in many instances the victim knows full well that when the perpetrator of violence in their life says “I will kill you or anyone you’re with if you leave,” the threat is to be taken seriously; it’s not just an idle one. She observes that the most dangerous time for a victim of domestic violence is when they’re trying to flee the situation. This period is when they’re at the greatest risk of being murdered.

Penelope House offers many services to those in our community who are ensnared in domestic violence, but two of the most critical, according to Cusick-Duncan, are the 24-hour crisis line and the emergency shelter for victims of domestic violence and their children. Like the 24-hour crisis line, victims can gain access to the emergency shelter any time of the day or night, 365 days of the year.

During that critical window of time when a victim of domestic violence is trying to flee, they can make a confidential and secure call to someone who can help them obtain access to an undisclosed and secure place of refuge.

Though these are seen as the two most vital services Penelope House offers, it does so much more. The organization also has a court advocacy program through which victims are given information about their rights and options in the legal system, accompanied to court hearings and assisted in getting protection from abuse orders. Penelope House also coordinates victim support groups, with weekly meetings held in varied places throughout Mobile and Escambia counties.

There are also outreach services for victims who don’t need shelter but nevertheless need assistance in other ways such as personal and vocational counseling, legal referral, housing referral and other assistance. Additionally, Penelope House offers a program for children in shelters and those in the outreach program.

Cusick-Duncan is very passionate about two programs in particular that the organization offers: community education and prevention education. The former provides training on domestic violence for those in fields such as law enforcement or social services, and speaks with civic groups and churches. The latter strongly tries to break the cycle of domestic violence by educating the children in our community.

Regarding the prevention education program, Cusick-Duncan emphatically stated, “Domestic violence is a learned behavior, and children who grow up witnessing it are more predisposed to becoming either victims or perpetrators of domestic violence.” Going into classrooms, educating children on what is and is not characteristic of a healthy relationship, and what to do when the unhealthy characteristics are present is a mission she never tires of.

During this month of awareness, she notes it’s important we understand that domestic violence occurs in the homes of the affluent as well as the homes of the poor. No race is more prone to it than another. More importantly, it is preventable.