The Story Behind 'Telling Amy's Story': Strong Centre County Response to Domestic Violence
Whenever my 6-year-old reminds me to lock the door because of “robbers” or “bad guys,” I remind him that State College is one of the safest places on the planet to live. The bad guys just don’t like to hang out here. They know they can’t get away with it.
After all, State College is the third safest metropolitan area in America, according to Congressional Quarterly Press’s 2010 Metropolitan Crime Rate Rankings.
Crime, especially violent crime, isn’t really something you worry about when you live in a place called “Happy Valley.”
But after hearing the story behind the documentary “Telling Amy’s Story,” I was reminded that, for many people, locking the door doesn’t work.
The bad guys already have the key.
While muggings and homicides are rare here, domestic violence isn’t.
State College Police Detective Deirdri Fishel heads a specialized unit within the State College Police Department that coordinates responses to domestic violence cases at a county-wide level. So far for 2010, this unit has reviewed 322 domestic violence cases in Centre County, Fishel said. And that number doesn’t include every call in the county; it comprises just the most difficult or complex cases.
As Fishel points out in the trailer of the documentary, “If you can’t be safe in your own home, does it matter if your community is safe?”
“Telling Amy’s Story,” produced by Penn State Public Broadcasting's Joe Myers, pieces together the events that led up to the death of Amy Homan McGee, a Penn State graduate and mother of two boys who was shot point blank by her husband in 2001. (The film is re-airing on WPSU -- Comcast channel 3 -- at 9 p.m. Dec. 16.)
But the story behind the film is the successful community response to domestic violence here in State College.
According to Anne Ard, executive director at Centre County Women's Resource Center, that response is a product of The Centre County Domestic and Sexual Violence Task Force, a collaborative effort dating back to the early '90s between law enforcement—particularly the State College Police Department—and the Women’s Resource Center.
The work in that task force, Ard said, led to the Centre County Domestic Violence Fatality Review Committee, which meticulously analyzes everything that happened prior to a domestic violence homicide, in the hopes of gleaning information that can be used to thwart a future tragedy.
The story of Amy Homan McGee is its most crucial lesson. Her timeline became the basis of a training guide for local law enforcement. Then Verizon Corporation provided the funds to turn the narrative into a movie (McGee worked in a Verizon store), and Penn State Public Broadcasting handled the production.
Since then, the movie has had a sort of cult following. The film has been shown on more than 200 PBS stations nationwide, and was recently screened in New York City at an event hosted by Meredith Vieira. The Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence requested copies of the film, and distributed them to every domestic violence program in the state.
One of the questions prompted by the story of McGee is why she didn’t reach out to the Women’s Resource Center. “There’s no doubt in my mind that she was probably referred to services,” Ard said. “For whatever reason, she was not able to access them.”
To fix those gaps in the system, the State College Police Department applied for a two-year federal grant. In 2005, it received $300,000 to create a more comprehensive partnership between law enforcement and victim services—a natural extension of the department’s historical approach to involving key members of the community in its domestic violence efforts.
That grant has been renewed twice, and Fishel is getting ready to apply for a fourth round of money.
Out of those funds, the department started Fishel’s specialized domestic violence unit and hired an advocate from the Women’s Resource Center to work in the department and accompany Fishel on all of her unit’s domestic violence investigations. Having someone present whose only job is to look out for the victim, the reasoning went, would help eliminate reservations a victim may have about reaching out for help.
“I don’t know of any other county in Pennsylvania where there’s a non-profit employed victim services advocate working in the police department,” said Fishel, who narrates the film. “This is how forward thinking and advanced we are in Centre County.”
In fact, in 2009, the State College Police Department was the recipient of the International Chiefs of Police Association Excellence in Victim Services Award.
The department’s collaborative model, which is new to law enforcement, has bolstered its reputation as a pioneer in combating domestic violence. It’s just one of the reasons that Fishel, 40, is a fixture on the national speaking circuit—this past fall, she visited seven different cities in six weeks.
In October, Domestic Violence Awareness Month, Susan B. Carbon, director of the United States Department of Justice’s Office on Violence Against Women, invited Fishel to lead a discussion about the importance of a coordinated, collaborative response to domestic violence for DOJ staff. The event included a viewing of “Telling Amy’s Story.”
The complexity of this issue, and the many variables that affect whether someone reaches out for help, is part of what makes McGee’s story so important. It will frustrate you, make you squirm and leave you feeling angry.
But behind McGee’s horrific crime lies another story: the work of local victim services advocates and Fishel—women from two completely different parts of the community, united in their cause in making us all feel safe.