By Maria Caspani and Lisa Anderson
NEW YORK, Nov 25 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - After years of abuse at the hands of her estranged husband, Massielle Abreu seemed to be building a new life for herself and her three young children.
Gaining sole custody of her children, she set up a new home for them in a Harlem apartment complex in upper Manhattan, found a job at an afterschool programme, and obtained a restraining order against Reynaldo Lebron who beat her, raped her and threatened to kill her during their 10-year marriage.
But one evening in May 2010, Lebron showed up at Abreu's apartment and killed the 29-year-old in the hallway in front of their young children, shooting her twice in the chest.
Abreu had called police. They arrived minutes too late.
Abreu is one victim of the scourge of domestic violence that New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio vowed this month to tackle, unveiling a $800,000 project focused largely in public housing.
While the city has seen its homicide rate plummet 85.2 percent since 1990, hitting a 50-year-low of 419 in 2012 of which 16 percent were female, another story has been unfolding behind closed doors in a city of more than 8 million people.
Two out of every three women murdered in New York City in 2012 were killed in domestic violence, according to police figures, with authorities unaware in many incidences that these women were in danger with domestic violence often unreported.
Despite a myriad of groups involved in combating domestic violence, the rate of homicides by intimate partners only fell 21 percent between 2002 and 2012, according to the New York's 2013 Fatality Review Committee (FRC) report.
FRC data showed that in 2002 - before boyfriends and girlfriends were defined as intimate partners - 41 intimate partner homicides were recorded, mostly by men.
In 2012, there were about 40 such homicides, with 16 committed by boyfriends or girlfriends. Women accounted for 80 percent of victims.
Linda Lopez, deputy director of the Sanctuary for Families Legal Center, which provides services to domestic violence victims, said there had not been the same focus given to tackling the number of women killed by current or ex-partners.
Campaigners say that efforts to combat domestic violence are often disjointed and piecemeal.
"We talk about domestic violence and assaults and menacing but we don't really look at (the murder of women) as an issue that needs to be addressed," said Lopez with Nov. 25 designed as International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women.
THE MOST DANGEROUS TIME
It was Sanctuary for Families that Abreu first contacted for help in 2006 and the group helped her get a restraining order but many women are too scared to come forward, worried about losing their home, lacking legal status, or fearing reprisals.
De Blasio said last year only 25 percent of victims had contacted the police before they were murdered, which made it vital to make legal, health, housing and other resources more accessible to victims so they knew there was a path to safety.
A New York City Council report this month noted a marked increase in cases of domestic violence in New York City housing association projects citywide despite the police increasing the number of officers assigned to its domestic violence unit.
Liz Roberts, deputy chief executive of Safe Horizon, the largest victim services agency in the country, said domestic violence is primarily about power and control.
"We see in something like half of the cases that the homicide was around the time that the victims took steps to get out of the relationship," Roberts said. "A victim's deciding to leave is the most direct threat they can make to the abuser's power and control."
The nature of domestic violence makes it harder to tackle and track than other types of crime, said Linda Fairstein, a board member of the Joyful Heart Foundation, a charity that assists survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault.
Domestic violence often happens in the privacy of the home, where it is harder to spot and more difficult to address.
Fairstein, a former New York prosecutor of crimes of violence against women and children, said a stigma attached to domestic violence and fear of repercussions often stopped women speaking out.
She said mistrust of the police and justice system, language barriers and fear of deportation in the case of undocumented immigrant victims also played a role.
Nathaniel Fields, chief executive of the Urban Resource Institute, said it was time for law enforcement and the myriad agencies involved in fighting domestic violence to join forces to tackle the unacceptable high number of murders of women by former and current partners.
"I don't hear that urgency, I don't see a call to action. Sometimes it feels like it's an almost invisible issue," he said.
Abreu's estranged husband Lebron pleaded guilty to murder and is serving a minimum prison sentence of 18 years. Her brother, Paul, is raising her daughter Jayleen and sons Mark and Gabriel. (Reporting by Maria Caspani and Lisa Anderson, Editing by Astrid Zweynert and Belinda Goldsmith)
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