More Education Can Help End Abuse

Residents of Carver Terrace held a candlelight for Erika Peters and two of her children, who were killed last week by her boyfriend. Video by Hamil Harris/The Washington Post
Wednesday, March 25, 2009

"WE WANT to know what more we could have done . . . because there has to be more we could have done to prevent this." That's how one neighbor of Erika Peters reacted to the murders of the D.C. woman and her two young sons, allegedly by an abusive boyfriend. It is the right question to ask for friends, family, school, law enforcement and government, but -- as Ms. Peters's case so tragically demonstrates -- the complexity of abusive relationships defies pat answers. That's why society at large must do more to stop this kind of victimization.

Ms. Peters, 37, and her two boys, 10 and 11, were stabbed to death Saturday. Her boyfriend, Joseph Randolph Mays, has been charged with the slayings. Another child identified as the only one of Ms. Peters's children fathered by Mr. Mays was unharmed. Family members suspected there were problems and tried to help but, as often in such cases, there was a chasm between what they felt they could do and what might have made a difference. "My sister was used to being in abusive relationships," Kimberly Trimble told us. "She didn't know how to get out of it. She was too afraid." So, instead, as The Post reported in heartbreaking detail, her young boys learned to talk in code to let relatives know when things were not right.

In the aftermath of tragedies like this, the inclination is to look to government, but there is a limit to how much it can do. A report of Mr. Mays shaking his daughter was received by the city; according to initial accounts, the agency acted appropriately in setting the family up with counseling and other services before closing the case. Ms. Trimble said the family was still being counseled. No problems were detected at school. Ms. Peters never sought a protective order. It doesn't appear that police were ever involved, and that makes us wonder whether there was ever a time when a neighbor heard something amiss or a passerby saw a troubling sign.

Advocates who work with women who are abused caution against judging Ms. Peters for not leaving. Sometimes leaving can be more dangerous than staying, and many conditions -- from a lack of self-esteem to a lack of income -- may make it difficult for victims to leave. Instead, we would like to second the suggestion made in Sunday's op-ed by Glenn F. Ivey (D), state's attorney for Prince George's County, for a new national public education campaign that shows that there should be no tolerance for violence against women.

The damage that was done to Ms. Peters started long before Saturday, so it's important, as Mr. Ivey wrote, for girls to learn at an early age that violence is not a sign of a loving relationship. And it's important for boys to learn that overpowering a woman is never -- contrary to its frequent depiction in modern entertainment -- manly.

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