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A Kansas woman's death reignited concerns about domestic violence during pregnancy

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

A Kansas woman's death last summer is highlighting the elevated risk of domestic violence during pregnancy. Domestic violence shelters across the country are also reporting increased demand as pandemic aid is ending. Rose Conlon of member station KMUW reports.

ROSE CONLON, BYLINE: Dawn Wilson says she thought her husband might stop abusing her when she got pregnant.

DAWN WILSON: It was like, oh, now that I'm pregnant, things will get better. But, no, it seemed like it got worse.

CONLON: For years, she kept it a secret. She was living on a military base, and she was embarrassed. They were having a child together, and she wasn't planning on leaving.

WILSON: The only people that really knew was those that were stationed with me at the time and saw the abuse firsthand, saw the military police reports - you know, being six months pregnant and being drug down the hallway.

CONLON: They eventually divorced, but the emotions came rushing back in August, when her goddaughter, Zaiylah Bronson, died from apparent domestic violence. Prosecutors say her boyfriend strangled her. She was 16 weeks pregnant.

WILSON: She was having a boy, and that was going to be her new world.

CONLON: The 19-year-old had moved to Wichita for college. Wilson says her goddaughter loved children. She wanted to be a math teacher.

WILSON: Just that compassionate, that smile, that happy, that vibrant, that sunshine, that ray of sunshine, Zaiylah.

CONLON: Bronson's death is forcing a public reckoning with domestic violence as a leading cause of maternal mortality. Michelle McCormick, who directs the Kansas Coalition Against Sexual and Domestic Violence, says sometimes abusers feel threatened by their partner's pregnancy.

MICHELLE MCCORMICK: They have an expectation that they're not only in control but that their needs come first. When you think about the dynamics of pregnancy, of course, that shifts.

CONLON: While being pregnant can make it more likely for someone to be killed by an intimate partner, Tulane epidemiologist Maeve Wallace says Black moms, teenagers and those living in homes with guns are most at risk. And her research found a sharp increase in pregnancy-associated homicides during the pandemic.

MAEVE WALLACE: A lot of that has to do with a worsening of the conditions that we know to be root causes of violence - economic turmoil, unemployment, income inequality, food insecurity.

CONLON: The CDC estimates 1 in 4 women and 1 in 10 men have experienced severe physical violence from an intimate partner. Some data shows violence worsened during the pandemic.

(SOUNDBITE OF COMPUTER CHIMING)

AMANDA MEYERS: So this is our playground back here. This is also the shelter entrance to...

CONLON: The Wichita Family Crisis Center tripled its capacity, but executive director Amanda Meyers says it's still not enough.

MEYERS: We are full of women who have just had babies come in pregnant and go and have a baby and come back to our shelter. It's a very dangerous time. And the threat of more serious physical harm seems to be higher when the person is pregnant.

CONLON: The rising demand comes as shelter directors across the country say they're facing a fiscal cliff - cuts to regular federal funding plus the end of pandemic aid. Kansas and many other states have added extra money to help bridge the gap, but shelters remain stretched thin. Meyers wants to see more energy go toward longer-term violence prevention strategies. That could look like putting more resources into expanding access to mental health care or youth outreach programs to intervene in generational cycles of violence. Experts say it's also important for health care providers to screen pregnant and postpartum women for intimate partner violence during medical visits and help connect victims with resources. For NPR News, I'm Rose Conlon in Wichita.

SHAPIRO: The National Domestic Violence Hotline is 800-799-7233.

(SOUNDBITE OF BADBADNOTGOOD SONG, "STREET KNOWLEDGE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Rose Conlon