Health Investigations


Keilee Sparks was done. The 29-year-old from Greenup County spent eight years in an abusive relationship and now, she had a plan to get out, family members say. 

She worked at Tudor’s Biscuit World in Lavalette, W. Va., right over the Kentucky border, where she’d been living with her partner for a few years. Her boss helped her get an apartment, and on Thursday, March 12, Sparks told her partner Gary Lee Damron that she was leaving. 

“She said… ‘This time, you’re not doing this to me again,’” said Dawn Workman, Sparks’ sister. 

Workman said Damron used their 4-year-old son as a means of control over Sparks, but she had contacted a lawyer, and was at peace with the fact that she would have to fight for custody. 

“It got to the point where she hated being there,” Workman said. “She hated being around him.” 

The most dangerous time for a victim of domestic violence is when they try to leave, research shows. That proved true for Sparks. 

The next day, according to law enforcement, Damron walked into Tudor’s Biscuit World and shot and killed her. He turned himself into the police and was charged with first degree murder. The magistrate entered an automatic plea of not guilty on his behalf. 

Valarie Maynard, with the Wayne County Public Defender’s Office, said she couldn’t comment on the case except to say that everyone is innocent until proven guilty. She said they have filed a motion for bond to be set, with a hearing scheduled for Friday. 

Keilee Sparks was one of at least three women from northeastern Kentucky killed in domestic violence incidents in less than a month. 

“We probably had three [domestic violence] murders in ten years in our [area development] district,” said Ann Perkins, the director at Safe Harbor, the domestic violence shelter in Ashland. “It’s always a dangerous time for domestic violence, but even more so now.” 

Experts, advocates and shelter directors fear that domestic violence is on the rise in Kentucky during the pandemic — even as data shows fewer people are seeking out the protective resources available to them. 

The coronavirus pandemic has created a situation ripe for domestic violence. Victims may be isolated with their perpetrator, and tensions may be running high because of financial insecurity or children being home from school all day. 

“On some of our hotline calls, we can often hear the abusive partner in the background, making it not safe for the person to seek help,” said Christy Burch, the executive director of the Women’s Crisis Center in northern Kentucky. “This is a dangerous time for women, and I worry that we’re not hearing from more of them.”

Pandemic exacerbates problems 

Petitions for protective orders filed in Jefferson County in the first two weeks of April show that the inconveniences and fears brought on by the pandemic are heightened for victims of domestic violence. 

In one complaint, a woman asked her husband to lower the volume on the television so she could hear a Zoom call she was on with her daughter. According to her petition, which was granted, he reacted by grabbing her iPad and shoving her to the ground, where she hit her head. 

Another woman wrote in her request for a protective order that she is working from home and her partner kept threatening to destroy her work computer when he got angry. 

“I try not to provoke him,” she wrote. 

Custody issues are flaring up as co-parents disagree about how to handle social distancing and homeschooling. People are moving back into bad situations after being laid off. And the federal stimulus checks distributed last month have also caused conflict. 

“I went to respondent’s home to talk with him about money that was direct deposited to his account (tax money and stimulus.) Words were exchanged and [he] hit me,” one woman seeking a protective order wrote. 

But advocates worry there are many more of these situations that are not being reported, and the data supports that concern. 

Since the state of emergency went into effect in early March, the number of protective orders issued has dropped precipitously, data from the Administrative Office of the Court shows. 

In the first two months of 2020, domestic violence orders were up about 5%. But between early March and mid-April, they dropped nearly 25% compared to the same time last year. 

“A lot of women are sitting on the couch next to their perpetrator right now,” said Perkins of the Safe Harbor domestic violence shelter. “He’s monitoring every call she makes, every move she makes.”

And there’s confusion about what services are still available during this time of court closures and limited municipal services. 

One person applying for a protective order in Jefferson County wrote that her partner “repeatedly states that he will never let me go, and talks often about how police are not even responding to hit and runs, do you think they will be able to help you?” 

All counties are still issuing protective orders, and all law enforcement agencies are still responding to domestic violence calls. 

In a Facebook Live with the mayor’s office in mid-April, Louisville Metro Police Lt. Shannon Lauder stressed that the police will always respond to domestic violence calls. 

“If you are in an abusive situation, if you don’t feel safe, if abuse has occured, please call 911,” said Lauder. “There are runs that LMPD has stopped responding to, but it has nothing to do with domestic violence, so please call 911 if you need us and we will come.”

LMPD has rolled back some of its earlier restrictions and will now respond in-person to most calls, according to the Courier-Journal

The number of criminal cases filed that involve domestic violence charges have remained pretty steady compared to this time last year, according to AOC data. In the first two months of 2020, they were up nearly 10% compared to the same time last year; after the state of emergency went into effect, they are down about 2% over last year. 

Shelters seeing drop

Kentucky’s 15 regional domestic violence shelters are also still open for business, a message they would like to make sure everyone hears. They all still operate 24/7 crisis lines as well. 

They are taking significant precautions — temperature checks, spreading out beds and preparing quarantine rooms, adding cleaning routines and rotating staff schedules.

But several shelters say they’ve seen a concerning decline in the number of people seeking help. 

Bethany House Abuse Shelter in Somerset is usually close to its capacity of 21 people. Over the weekend, they had just two. Some of the vacancy is due to good news: they recently moved two families into their own apartments. But she fears others are afraid to come in.

“These are kind of unknown scary times anyway,” said director Kristi Childers. “Staying at home with the devil that you know may be easier than stepping out alone into a world that is brand new to all of us.”

LKLP Safe House in Hazard is currently down to one resident at their shelter; their capacity is 15. Safe Harbor in Ashland saw several people leave before the shelter began limiting residents’ movement in and out, preferring to stay with family than be stuck in the shelter with strangers. 

But all of the shelter directors interviewed said they are using this unwelcome lull to prepare for what is coming: an expected surge in need for their services once restrictions begin to loosen and victims are able to get away from their perpetrator long enough to seek help. 

Even in the last few weeks, as there’s been more talk about reopening businesses and sending people back to work, several shelters said they’ve seen call volume increase on their crisis lines. 

Uncertain financial future

At the same time that shelters are bracing for a surge in need, they’re also staring down a very uncertain financial future. 

These shelters rely on state and federal funds for most of their operations; some receive local dollars as well. All of those funding streams will be impacted by the economic downturn in one way or another. 

“We already do so much on so little,” said Burch, from the Women’s Crisis Center in northern Kentucky. “We’ve been full since July 2018. We’ve been talking about building a new shelter, about adding more beds. Our community can’t afford for us to see any cuts.” 

Many of these shelters see Lexington as a harbinger of things to come. As part of Mayor Linda Gorton’s plan to make up a revenue shortfall, she has proposed cutting funding for agencies and nonprofits, the Lexington Herald-Leader reported

That includes GreenHouse17, the domestic violence shelter serving Fayette and 16 other counties in central Kentucky. Executive Director Darlene Thomas said she is remaining hopeful that city leaders will find dollars to send their way before the budget is finalized. 

She uses the roughly $200,000 in city funding as match money for federal grants, so the loss for the shelter could quickly double or even triple. She said she hasn’t figured out where the cuts would actually come from yet, but any way she looks at it, the ramifications are significant. 

Reducing non-residential services like housing support and case management means they won’t lose shelter beds. But Thomas said those are the services that keep people out of the shelter to begin with. 

“It’s hugely cost-effective to keep people out of the shelter when you can,” she said. “It is better for the whole family. It’s better for mental health. It’s better for a sense of security and independence.” 

But that’s better than the alternative — cutting shelter beds and turning people away when they’re finally taking that first difficult and dangerous step to safety. Thomas acknowledged that those first 24 hours after leaving a partner are the most dangerous. 

“We’re just not going to do that,” she said. 

‘She was really that strong’

Dawn Workman said she knew her sister Keilee was in an unstable relationship. She even knew Damron was abusive, she said, but she didn’t know the full extent of it until after her sister died. 

“You would never see her without a smile, no matter what she was going through,” said Workman. “She was really that strong, and still went on like every day was just the best day of her life.” 

Workman said her sister had struggled with drug addiction but was two years clean. She loved her three children, and her sister said, that’s why she kept going back to Damron. He had convinced her she wouldn’t get custody of her youngest son because of her past. 

Kentucky court records show several old misdemeanor charges for both Sparks and Damron, and a series of domestic violence orders filed by both since 2015. 

About four years ago, Workman said, they moved to West Virginia to be closer to his family. The family tried to convince her not to move and grew increasingly alarmed by what they heard once the couple had left Kentucky. 

“He had threatened her the whole time they were together that he would kill her,” said Workman. “I don’t know if she just didn’t think that he would really, really do it.” 

Hearing that her sister was killed came as a shock, Workman said. And the pandemic has made the aftermath so much worse than they could have imagined. They had to turn family and friends away from her funeral and Sparks’ dad, who lives in Iowa, couldn’t travel in for the memorial. 

But they held a small service for close family, and had a socially-distanced balloon release a month later. 

“He ripped her from us,” Workman said. “He thought we would never get to say our goodbyes. But we did. And she was just as beautiful as she ever was.” 

If you or someone you know is in a dangerous situation, or you just want to talk, the National Domestic Violence Hotline is 1-800-799-7233. Find a local shelter and a 24/7 crisis line at KCADV.org. 

 

Eleanor Klibanoff is a reporter with the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting.