Shortly before sundown Monday, about 50 people gathered in downtown Bel Air to remember and honor victims of domestic violence with a candlelight vigil that also touched on the striking change in how domestic violence is recognized by the community and local law enforcement.
The vigil, held in Frederick Ward Park next to the Bel Air Reckord Armory, was organized by SARC, a nonprofit agency in Harford County that works to end domestic and sexual violence and aid victims of such crimes. SARC stands for Safety Awareness Resources Change.
The annual vigil marks the start of Domestic Violence Awareness Month.
"Sadly tonight we add 31 names to the list of people who have died in the state of Maryland this year as a result of intimate partner violence," Luisa Caiazzo-Nutter, executive director of SARC, said in opening the vigil.
In honor of these victims who died between July 2009 and July 2010, 31 chairs were placed to the side of the podium, adorned only by names.
"Thank you for standing up and speaking out against domestic violence," Caiazzo-Nutter said.
Lining the path to the vigil were pink, yellow, green and white painted T-shirts designed by clients of SARC. The yellow represented victims of domestic violence, the pink victims of rape, the green victims of incest or child molestation and white those who have died.
"We have come a long way, but how far have we really come?" Sheriff L. Jesse Bane asked the gathering.
Bane spoke about when he joined the ranks of deputies with Harford County Sheriff's Office in 1972 and the differences in the way domestic violence calls were handled then and now.
The calls were treated as domestic, but not criminal matters, he said, and the people involved were referred to the court commissioner with the option of filing charges left up to them. The incidents were not investigated by the police.
"Then we walked away, no matter how violent the incident," Bane said.
Today, domestic violence incidents are investigated by law enforcement officers trained to understand that kind of violence.
Even so, Bane said, domestic violence is far from eliminated. The first violent deaths of this year in Harford County – when police say John Roger Keith Preston shot and killed his wife, Frances Preston, then took his own life – were the result of domestic violence, he said.
"We can tell ourselves that we have come a long way, but we do have a long way to go," Bane said.
County Council President Billy Boniface said the somber and sometimes in-your-face message of Monday night's vigil reflects on the importance of resources like SARC.
"Tonight's about what happens if we fail in supporting the efforts of SARC," Boniface said.
Caiazzo-Nutter said the confidential, 28-bed SARC safe house has been full since the beginning of the fiscal year.
"The great thing about Harford County is we're all a team," Harford County State's Attorney Joseph Cassilly said.
Cassilly said someone sat in on a meeting among Harford County officials when discussions of the Family Justice Center first began. Cassilly said the visitor asked to bring others in to see how well Harford County works together.
He said the comment was something he was proud of. He said the outcome of those discussions, the Family Justice Center, essentially makes the process of getting help easier for the victim by putting all the resources in one place, including specially trained police officers, SARC representatives and prosecutors from Cassilly's Domestic Violence Unit.
"We really have been pioneers in developing ways to deal with this horrendous problem," Cassilly said.
He said Harford County was also the first to use a lethality assessment form for every reported domestic violence incident.
"We do this because this is the most important case for that victim," Cassilly said.
Once the comments concluded, volunteers passed out candles, lit them, then solemnly read the names of those who died this year in domestic violence incidents.
In closing, SARC's Caiazzo-Nutter encouraged everyone there to speak out – to ask a friend in need if she needs help or stop an argument on the street.
"It only takes one person," Caiazzo-Nutter said. "You can save a life."