Warning: the following story contains graphic descriptions of domestic violence
On Nov. 10, 2014, Madeleine Garcelon lost her daughter, Nicolette Elias of Portland, Oregon, to gun violence. Elias’ abusive ex-husband shot her seven times while her 7- and 8-year-old daughters were at home. He then took the children to his home, and died by suicide when law enforcement arrived.
Instantly, Garcelon lost her daughter. Her two grandchildren became orphans. And her other daughter, Sonia, lost her only sibling.
Elias represents one of more than 600 women shot to death each year by their abusers. In Elias’ case, a stalking and restraining order weren’t enough to keep her abuser from accessing a firearm and shooting her to death.
“One of the horrors of this whole thing is that there’s no do-overs,” Garcelon said. “Once it’s done, it’s done. No matter how much you cry, pray or wish, there’s nothing — absolutely nothing — that can change it.”
Garcelon shared her and her daughter’s story on Thursday, July 1, at the Gateway Center for Domestic Violence alongside elected officials including U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury, Multnomah County Commissioner Susheela Jayapal, and Oregon State Rep. Rachel Prusak. Together with Moms Demand Action, they urged Congress to pass the Lori Jackson – Nicolette Elias Domestic Violence Survivor Protection Act, a bill introduced by Sen. Wyden and Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut.
The bill would close a loophole that allows domestic abusers to obtain firearms. It also includes grant funding for state and local jurisdictions to prevent abusers from obtaining a firearm while a temporary or emergency restraining order is in place. The bill is named after Elias and Lori Jackson, an Oxford, Connecticut woman who also lost her life due to gun violence perpetrated by her abuser.
“On behalf of Nicolette, and so many women shot and killed by domestic abusers, I so wish that today simply wasn’t necessary,” Sen. Wyden said. “I have always believed in the right for law-abiding citizens to own guns. Domestic abusers are not law-abiding citizens.”
Jennifer Langston, a volunteer with Moms Demand Action, was shot by her abuser in April 2014 when she tried to escape after being held hostage for several days. She didn’t have a restraining order against her abuser because she felt they didn’t offer her enough protection. Her abuser said that it was his word against hers, and if she called the police he would simply say she was lying.
If the bill passes, Langston said lives will be saved by keeping guns out of the hands of abusers with a restraining order against them. Women are five times more likely to be killed in a domestic violence situation involving a gun.
“Nicolette’s law will help save the lives of those trying to escape the domestic violence cycle,” she said.
Over the past year, COVID-19 has decreased the visibility of domestic violence and kept survivors in closer proximity to their abusers. Locally, during the last six months of 2020, domestic violence calls to 911 almost quadrupled over the same period in 2019.
The pandemic has also raised the stakes and difficulty of responding to domestic violence, Chair Kafoury said.
In response, Multnomah County has increased the number of staff at its Domestic Violence Response Unit and extended hours to 24 hours a day, four days a week, Chair Kafoury shared. The County is using American Rescue Plan funds to hire more culturally-specific case management services. The County is also working to ensure sufficient staffing to address a backlog of domestic violence cases in the District Attorney’s office.
“All levels of government must make strides to ensure survivors are protected throughout their journeys of finding safety, which is often dangerous in itself, especially when they are most vulnerable to fatal harm,” Chair Kafoury said. “Closing the loophole that allows abusers to purchase firearms while the wheels of the court turn, as well as the other policies outlined in the bill, are as critical as they are acts of common sense.”
The Gateway Center, operated by the County, serves hundreds of survivors of domestic violence every year. Throughout the pandemic, the center has offered survivors one-on-one support with experienced advocates, helping develop safety plans and connect survivors with other services.
Commissioner Jayapal, who co-chairs the Gateway Center Advisory Council and the County’s Domestic Violence Fatality Review Team, said people are looking for solutions to address the urgency and the lethality of domestic violence. That includes responses without law enforcement, when turning to the police or the courts doesn’t feel safe or effective for survivors.
“This is the work we are engaging in at the Gateway Center and throughout Multnomah County’s continuum of care: the work of elevating survivor voice; and collaborating across systems to better align our efforts around violence prevention and intervention, centering the values of equity, accountability, collaboration and evidence-based practice,” Commissioner Jayapal said.
Despite the heroic efforts of survivors and advocates during the pandemic, more action is needed to help people experiencing domestic violence. Closing the loophole could have prevented Nicolette Elias and Lori Jackson from losing their lives. For surviving family members like Garcelon, there is hope that lives can be saved with more federal action.
“This is an opportunity,” Garcelon said. “This is a chance to do better. This is our chance to do right by people in a domestic violence situation. Unfortunately, my story is not unique.”