Many people were shocked and saddened over a tragic story from Spring Texas in which domestic abuser Ron Lee Haskell was looking for his ex-wife and went to the home of her sister and brother-in-law demanding to know where she was.
When they were unable to tell him, Haskell executed the two parents and their five young children. Their oldest daughter managed to survive with a critical head injury and notified the police that he was headed to her grandparents’ home to kill them.
This is a powerful personal story that naturally attracts human interest and sympathy. Good people needlessly lost their lives because of our continued tolerance of domestic violence and so many others, particularly the murderers’ ex-wife and children must try to live with this trauma for the rest of their lives.
Society could better respond to tragedies like this if the media changed the way it covered these stories.
This is a human interest story, but it is also part of a pattern. Reporters should discuss what parts of the story are common and which are unusual. Reporters should speak with a domestic violence expert to help the readers understand what happened and why.
Some of the stories have referenced the problem as a domestic dispute. This is a misleading phrase that suggests both parties are responsible. This man went out and killed six people and wanted to kill more. There is nothing mutual about it.
Answering the Questions
Did Ron Lee Haskell Commit his Murders because he is Crazy?
I have never met anyone involved in the case and would be unqualified to diagnose him if I did. There is a tendency, however to assume that anyone who could commit such a horrendous act must be crazy.
It is a natural attempt to separate ourselves from people like Haskell who commit the worst atrocities. It is certainly possible that he could be diagnosed with some mental health issues, but this is rarely the cause of domestic violence crimes. In this case he plotted his crime carefully and has a long history of domestic violence.
One of the strongest indications of danger in the context of domestic violence is a belief that she has no right to leave. This is exactly what he has demonstrated over and over but most professionals do not know to focus on this important issue. They often limit their inquiry to incidents of physical abuse.
This is one of the reasons the custody courts so often deny or minimize true allegations of abuse and continue to place children in danger. Haskell killed the Stay family because of his belief system and sense of entitlement.
Could the murders have been prevented?
We know this from the experience in communities that have taken domestic violence seriously and adopted the best practices to prevent these crimes. And we know it from some of the information that has come out in this case that would have convinced experts to take effective preventive action.
Communities like Quincy, Nashville and San Diego enjoyed a significant reduction in domestic violence crimes and an even greater reduction in murders when they adopted the effective practices that are part of the Quincy Solution.
Mr. Haskell was arrested and convicted of DV crimes and his wife and mother obtained orders of protection against him. This was the opportunity for the justice system to impose accountability and make him understand his behavior is no longer acceptable.
It appears the courts chose to minimize his previous crimes and this only encouraged the murderer to continue his abusive path.
He strangled his mother for having contact with his ex-wife. Strangulation is an important factor in lethality assessment.
If he was to be released from jail, they could have made him wear a bracelet monitored by GPS. This might have led to his capture the first time he went to his ex-in-law’s home and even better would have discouraged him from trying to commit further crimes.
His arrests, convictions and protective orders should have resulted in preventing any access to weapons. Domestic violence crimes should be treated as potential murders because too often they are. The Quincy Solution saves lives because it takes domestic violence seriously.
How did this repeatedly adjudicated Abuser Receive Shared Custody?
Many of the news stories mentioned that this abusive father received joint or shared custody. This is true even though he had arrests and convictions for domestic violence crimes and additional protective orders against him. He was limited to supervised visitation.
This is a significant clue because custody courts desperately try to keep even dangerous fathers in their child’s life. The evidence would have needed to be overwhelming to restrict Haskell in this way.
None of the stories I read discussed how he could have obtained shared parenting. This is part of a larger problem in which abuser groups and the cottage industry of evaluators and lawyers who make large incomes by helping abusive fathers lobby, for legislation to encourage shared parenting.
This is based on political views about “parents’ rights” and the mistaken belief that children need both parents equally. In reality they need the safe parent more than the abusive one and the primary attachment figure more than the other parent.
Most laws that favor shared parenting appear to provide an exception in cases where the parents cannot cooperate such as domestic violence cases.
The most credible research suggests shared parenting is a bad idea because of continuity and other problems. Some research supports shared parenting under the best possible circumstances which include the parents being able to work together, good communication and living nearby.
Clearly this was not true in the Haskell case. The events in this case illustrate the need for a battered mother to avoid contact with her abuser but shared parenting requires these dangerous interactions.
One of the big problems with shared parenting is that abusers who would never be considered for sole custody routinely seek shared custody to gain control and as a first step towards sole custody.
Courts view shared custody as a good way to resolve difficult cases. This routinely results in battered mothers forced to co-parent with their abusers.
The Saunders’ study found that abusive fathers use this authority to control their victim by refusing to agree to decisions unless he gets what he wants, and use the exchanges to harass the mother or seek to resume the relationship.
In other cases with far less dramatic outcomes the shared custody arrangement creates enormous harm to the children. The misuse of shared parenting in domestic violence cases is all too common.
This case is not an exception and the fact that even a Ron Lee Haskell, with his long record of abuse could obtain shared custody demonstrates courts and legislatures must eliminate the possibility of shared parenting at least until that courts learn how to recognize and respond effectively to domestic violence allegations.
Is the Haskell Case Unusual or Common?
Most domestic abusers do not commit murder, but because this outcome is so catastrophic it makes sense to take the danger seriously and to conduct a risk assessment.
Abusers who do murder usually kill their intimate partner or the children so the murder of her extended family is unusual. Unfortunately his decision to kill children is all too common.
Abusers do not start with murder so there is virtually always a pattern of controlling and coercive behavior that often includes criminal behavior as in the Haskell case.
It is also common for the most dangerous abusers to seek custody and for the courts to take unnecessary risks by giving them access to the children.
The imposition of supervised visits is relatively rare in the context of domestic violence custody cases. The Saunders’ study found that courts are not requiring supervision as often as it is needed.
Unfortunately the failure of the criminal justice system to create meaningful accountability for Mr. Haskell is all too common and an important reason why there are so many of these tragic stories.
Why was the Order of Protection Mutual?
I have not read any explanation of how it was created, but it is likely part of a pattern of accommodating the abuser. This was an even bigger problem until the federal government used its influence through grants to discourage this dangerous practice.
Courts that do not have the understanding of domestic violence that they need often create a false equivalency between an abusive father and a mother trying to protect herself and the children. The father may invent an allegation or the mother may have responded defensively to his abuse.
Courts should be asking the question who needs protection? The problem with a mutual order is that if the father assaults the mother and she calls the police, all he has to do is claim she hit him and they will offer to arrest both or neither.
Abusers are also more likely to make false allegations so that it is dangerous for victims when their partner is given a protective order against them.
Too often courts view mutual orders as a way to settle difficult cases and the victim may be pressured to accept a dangerous resolution. The victim is often told that the protective order only says you can’t do things you wouldn’t do anyway so there is no harm. Until he lies about it.
Why Discuss Painful Tragedies
These stories about unimaginable pain and suffering are hard to read, write, or think about. I know many of my readers are already in pain from personal stories in which the court failed to protect them and even worse placed innocent children in jeopardy.
I don’t want to exploit these tragedies or add to the pain people are already suffering. For me a story like this is so much worse because I have done the research and know most of these tragedies can be prevented. The Stay family could be laughing and playing and worrying about issues that today seem minor.
Cassidy Stay is a brave and resourceful 15-year-old girl who saved her life by playing dead after Haskell shot her in the head. As soon as he left she called police to warn them he was on his way to kill more people including her grandparents. She is a hero and her quick thinking may have saved many other lives and led to the murderer’s arrest.
It’s hard to imagine how she gets on with her life after a traumatic experience like this. And how does Melannie Haskell, the ex-wife of the murderer and intended victim cope with the guilt while trying to raise and protect her young children? I hope they will find the support, treatment and courage to make the most of their lives.
When I was practicing law, the one bright patch in a sea of pain and anguish was to watch newer clients interact with established clients. They would help each other and it was wonderful to see women who thought they could not even help themselves suddenly making a big difference in the lives of others.
Similar to the families of the Newtown victims who are working to prevent gun violence, many protective mothers and domestic violence victims have found that working to reform the broken court system provides healing and a sense of purpose.
I have seen the excitement from domestic violence advocates and victims when I discuss the promise of the Quincy Solution. This is our best opportunity to fundamentally change our response to men’s abuse of women in ways we know will make a huge difference.
It is not surprising that there are proven practices that dramatically reduce domestic violence crime. Unfortunately preventing abuse is not a high enough priority to create the urgency needed to implement the needed reforms. People I have spoken to recognize that the $500 billion in savings can create the incentive needed to adopt the Quincy Solution. This represents our best opportunity to prevent tragedies like the one in Spring, Texas.