It had been several days since anyone saw Marilyn Rivera and her two young daughters. On Wednesday, a worried relative went to Rivera's Springfield apartment, opened the door, and saw a body. Rivera, 35, had been killed, and officers found her daughters dead in their bedrooms, police said yesterday.
Rivera's husband, Juan Mejia, was charged with murder late Wednesday night. She and the girls, Joselyn Delrio, 9, and Joselyn Maria Delrio, 6, became the state's 39th, 40th, and 41st domestic violence homicide victims this year, a startling number that has alarmed advocates for victims.
Over the past two years, the number of domestic violence homicides has almost tripled, from 15 in 2005, as federal funding for domestic violence programs has dipped, according to Jane Doe Inc., which tracks the number of domestic violence homicides.
"This drastic rise suggests to us that there is a systemic failure," said Jane Doe spokeswoman Toni Troop. "We are failing victims as a whole."
Including Wednesday's slayings, there have been six killings related to domestic violence in the past two months, according to Jane Doe.
Springfield police did not describe how the victims were killed, but said they had been dead for at least two days. The cause of their deaths has not been determined and the motive remains under investigation.
After discovering the bodies, police found Mejia, 32, at Holyoke Hospital, where he was checked into the psychiatric unit, said Hampden District Attorney William M. Bennett.
Mejia, who was not the father of the girls, was arraigned yesterday on three counts of first-degree murder in Springfield District Court. A not-guilty plea was entered on his behalf, and he was ordered held without bail.
Troop said several factors could be contributing to the rise in homicides, including reduced funding. Federal support for local domestic violence prevention programs fell by 15 percent in the last three to five years, she said, and many organizations have been unable to hire enough people who can fan out to the community and reach victims.
In fiscal 2006, domestic violence shelters took in 4,591 men, women, and children, but 5,520 were turned away because of lack of space.
"We know that there aren't enough resources to meet the need," Troop said. "That is unequivocal."
On the legal side, advocates need to find out whether judges presiding over domestic violence cases are holding batterers who violate restraining orders accountable or if they are mandating that they receive treatment, she said. One of the 36 people accused in this year's homicides had attended a batterer's treatment program, Troop said.
The trend in homicides has troubled law enforcement officials, who see them reflected in their own counties. Middlesex District Attorney Gerry Leone said that he has noticed a sharp increase in the number of domestic violence incidents and the number of people carrying weapons. The two trends have combined to form an increase in the number of batterers using weapons against their victims.
"It's an unfortunate mix of different violent episodes, some with weapons, some without, some with serious injuries," he said. "It really runs the gamut."
Leone's office started a domestic violence unit in September, and staff members have begun meeting with local hospitals about training workers to recognize signs of abuse in patients.
Rivera had not filed a restraining order, and Springfield police had never responded to complaints of domestic violence at the couple's apartment on Pearl Street, Bennett said. The lack of restraining record or any type of record complaint is not typical, said Troop. In 65 to 80 percent of domestic violence homicides, there was some history of abuse, she said.
But Leone said one of the major problems his office faces is the reluctance of victims to report their batterers.
"It's amazing the stories you hear," Leone said, describing one encounter between the chief of the domestic violence unit and a victim who had visited the emergency room several times for injuries her partner inflicted.
The victim denied she had been abused. Then the chief asked her about the time he had kicked and slapped her.
"Her answer was, 'But that's OK,' " Leone said.
Maria Cramer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.