Alicia Hoffman was found shot to death April 5 in her Kaukauna home by police doing a welfare check.
Hoffman, 24, had been in a relationship with 19-year-old Anthony Vance who was also found in the home, dead of a “self-inflicted gunshot wound,” police said. The bodies were found after family, unable to contact them, called police for help.
Two months and a day later, Shannon Swanson, 35, was found dead June 6 by Appleton police in a home she shared with 32-year-old Mitchell Kounelis, who shot Swanson and “died by suicide with the same firearm,” police said.
It’s these types of events that put advocates for survivors of domestic violence “instantly on high alert,” said Amber Schroeder, executive director of Harbor House in Appleton.
Most cases of murder-suicide have ties to domestic violence: 72% of all murder-suicides involve an intimate partner and 94% of the victims are women, according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence.
“We know that there is a pretty high likelihood that domestic violence is going to be the root cause,” Schroeder said.
There is one challenge specific to murder-suicide: with no perpetrator left to be held accountable, domestic violence often isn’t specifically named as the cause. By the time an investigation is done, the event has often faded from public view, Schroeder said.
“It’s important to name it so other victims know it’s a possibility and get help,” she said.
More people had been reaching out for help lately, even before these two recent outbursts of violence in Appleton and Kaukauna. The number of people seeking out services from Harbor House has increased by about 40% since the start of the pandemic.
There was a drop in the number of people seeking services early in the pandemic, but in 2021, out of roughly 1,500 people served by Harbor House, about 900 sought services in the last six months of the year.
The organization had about 300 walk-in clients in 2021 and more than a third arrived in the last three months of the year, Schroeder said. This year been busier still: as of May 31, Harbor House has already had 333 walk-in clients.
The levels of violence — and the speed with which that violence happens — seems to be increasing too, Schroeder said.
“Things are happening in a much shorter time frame,” she said.
That has had consequences for people experiencing domestic violence: they don’t have nearly as much time to get help. There isn’t a simple explanation for the increase, but the isolation and “collective trauma” of the pandemic played a significant role, Schroeder said.
“All of that was really hard on families in healthy homes,” she said. “Now imagine you’re someone experiencing domestic violence.”
There have also been consequences specific to Harbor House: as a nonprofit with limited resources and more people in need of help, the organization has had to focus on providing services for victims in crisis, despite long-term plans to do more to solve the root causes of domestic violence.
“Right now, we’re scooping people out of the river,” Schroeder said. “How do we keep people from falling in the river?”
The role guns play in domestic violence — a gun was involved in both of the recent murder-suicides — continues to be a concern, Schroeder said.
A domestic violence assault involving a gun is 12 times more likely to result in a death than those involving any other type of weapon or bodily force, according to a report by End Domestic Abuse Wisconsin.
Nationally, 4.5 million women have reported being threatened with a gun by an intimate partner, the report says.
The safety plans advocates at Harbor House include details about whether a gun is present in the home, how accessible it is and whether it has been used in threats before, Schroeder said.
“It doesn’t even have to be a verbal threat,” she said. “It’s just a movement. It’s an action.”
The pandemic-related backlogs that still plague courts across the state have left many victims of domestic violence “stuck in limbo for a really long time,” she said
Schroeder doesn’t blame prosecutors or the courts for the situation, but that doesn’t change the circumstances for people waiting to hold their abusers accountable.
“We are where we are,” she said.
Two murder-suicides in two months have Fox Cities domestic violence advocates on ‘high alert’