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Kansas student Zaiylah Bronson was killed while pregnant. Deaths like hers are rising

Wichita State University student Zaiylah Bronson was 16 weeks pregnant when, prosecutors say, her boyfriend killed her in August.
Courtesy Bronson family
Wichita State University student Zaiylah Bronson was 16 weeks pregnant when, prosecutors say, her boyfriend killed her in August.

Homicide is a leading cause of maternal mortality, and experts say the problem is getting worse.

WICHITA, Kansas — Dawn Wilson thought the abuse from her husband might stop when she got pregnant. But the mom of four, who was living on a military base in Germany at the time, said it got worse.

“(I was) six months pregnant,” she remembers, “and being drug down the hallway.”

For years, she said she kept the abuse a secret from almost everyone. She was embarrassed. They were having a child together, and she wasn’t planning on leaving.

“I still felt like he loved me,” she said, “so I hid it.”

They eventually divorced. But it was only last year, when her kids were mostly grown, that Wilson finally talked to them about what had happened — and finally sought help to deal with the lingering trauma.

Late last month, the trauma came rushing back when Wilson’s goddaughter, Zaiylah Bronson, was found dead in the trunk of her boyfriend’s car in Wichita. Prosecutors say he strangled her. She was 16 weeks pregnant.

“She was having a boy,” Wilson said, “and that was going to be her new world.”

The 19-year-old Bronson, whose family lives in Leavenworth, graduated from high school early and moved to Wichita two years ago to attend Wichita State University. Wilson said she loved children, and she was studying to become a math teacher.

“She loved kids,” Wilson said. “She just loved people.”

Bronson’s death is focusing attention on persistent domestic violence issues that experts say have worsened during the pandemic, including for pregnant women. And it comes as shelters across Kansas are reporting unprecedented demand for their services — at the same time that extra pandemic funding is drying up.

A leading cause of maternal mortality

Homicide kills more pregnant and postpartum Americans than any single medical complication. An August report by the Kansas Maternal Mortality Review Committee found that it’s a leading cause of pregnancy-associated death for women in the state, behind only car accidents and cardiovascular conditions.

“A lot of the concern around maternal mortality — and rightly so — is around high rates of things like hemorrhage and hypertension,” said Maeve Wallace, an epidemiologist at Tulane University who recently led two large studies examining pregnancy-associated homicide in the U.S. “But homicide is happening with a troubling magnitude as well.”

Being pregnant makes anyone more likely to experience intimate partner violence. But Wallace said Black moms, teenagers, and those living in homes with guns are most at risk. The risk is also greater for pregnant and postpartum women living in rural areas, and they’re less likely to receive intimate partner abuse screening at health care visits.

And Wallace’s research discovered a sharp increase in the risk of pregnancy-associated homicide during the pandemic. Between 2018 and 2019, pregnant women were 16% more likely to be homicide victims than their nonpregnant counterparts. In 2020, that jumped to 35%.

“To my mind, a lot of that has to do with a worsening of the conditions that we know to be root causes of violence,” she said. “There was a lot of economic turmoil — unemployment, income inequality, food insecurity.”

A significant majority of the cases, Wallace found, involved firearms. Kansas data shows firearms were used in 72% of the state’s domestic violence homicides.

Nonfatal abuse can also leave lasting wounds for survivors and their children.

A growing body of research indicates maternal stress during pregnancy can impact children’s health well into adulthood. One study published this year found brain structure differences in three-week old babies whose pregnant mothers had experienced intimate partner violence when compared with those without in-utero exposure to violence.

Escalating abuse

The financial and logistical stresses of bringing a new person into the world can strain the healthiest relationships. But when there’s a history of abuse, it can turn deadly.

Pregnancy can feel threatening to abusers who want to be the center of their partner’s world, according to Michelle McCormick, executive director of the Kansas Coalition Against Sexual and Domestic Violence.

“Some perpetrators of harm have an expectation that they’re not only in control, but that their needs come before everyone else’s needs,” she said. “When you think about the dynamics of pregnancy, of course, that shifts.”

McCormick said she saw the dynamic repeatedly when she worked with perpetrators in violence intervention programs.

“Those who abuse talked about their concerns — what’s it going to mean if there is this shift of focus to a child who’s being brought into the world?”

The Wichita Family Crisis Center serves many pregnant and postpartum women fleeing abuse, according to executive director Amanda Meyers. She said people who already show warning signs of abusive behavior — like extreme jealousy and controlling behavior — are more likely to escalate that behavior when their partner becomes pregnant.

“It’s a very dangerous time,” she said. “The threat of more serious physical harm seems to be higher when the person is pregnant.”

But, often, the red flags are small.

“One of the common themes I see is that when it gets bad, it gets bad quickly, and it gets very, very bad,” she said.

“That’s why I’m constantly reminding survivors, ‘You’re not imagining this. It’s OK to just pick up the phone. You don’t have to leave — you don’t have to make a huge life choice right now. Just pick up the phone and have a conversation about safety planning.’”

Homicides on the rise

Total domestic violence rates in Kansas have remained relatively consistent since 1992, when officials first began tracking the data statewide. In 2021 — the most recent year for which data is available — the Kansas Bureau of Investigation reported 22,593 total incidents.

But the incidents that do happen are getting more lethal. Domestic violence homicides have ticked up in recent years, exceeding 30 each year between 2017 and 2021.

This year, the Topeka Police Department has recorded five domestic violence homicides, compared with four in 2022 and two in 2021. Wichita police counted eight domestic violence homicides so far this year, compared with just two each during 2022 and 2021.

“We’re still trying to figure out why we are seeing an increase,” said Wichita Police Lt. Steven Thornton. “It’s not a large increase, but we want to make sure we get ahead of it.”

Officials in both cities have recently rolled out new efforts to reduce the violence. In 2020, Wichita police received a federal grant to create a domestic violence diversion team. Thornton said it has enabled the department to enforce more outstanding arrest warrants if a domestic violence perpetrator leaves the scene, making the victim safer.

Earlier this year, Topeka police formed a domestic violence unit that focuses on repeat offenders and more serious cases. City officials also created a new program to prosecute the crimes. Lt. Donna Eubanks said it’s a response to a rise in domestic violence incidents involving weapons and deadly force.

“Our concern was reducing those aggravated battery cases,” she said.

“A tough summer”

Shelters across the state say this year has been particularly intense.

On several occasions over the last few months, the Safehouse Crisis Center in Pittsburg has had its 14 beds completely occupied — reflecting a hike in the number of clients requesting shelter as well as an increase in the length of time they need to stay.

“It’s just not something we’ve ever experienced before,” Executive Director Brooke Powell said. “In the last six years that the shelter has been open, I had never experienced it being completely full.”

The Alliance Against Family Violence in Leavenworth has had to turn away dozens of victims over the last two summers due to a lack of bed space. Mike Trapp, the shelter’s executive director, said requests for help usually rise during the summer because it’s often easier for mothers to leave abusers when kids aren’t in school. But the extent of the recent increase is unusual.

The Wichita Family Crisis Center is also full despite moving into a new building earlier this year that tripled its capacity. Meyers said the shelter saw a 65% increase in the number of bed nights needed by victims in June alone.

“It’s been a tough summer,” Meyers said. “The question is, why?”

Shelter operators say it’s unclear whether abuse is increasing this year or if victims are just becoming more comfortable seeking help.

“Violence has always been there,” Powell said. “We’re grateful that survivors are reaching out to get help, and they’re not suffering alone.”

But most shelters, including the Domestic Violence Association of Central Kansas in Salina, report an increase in the seriousness of the violence they’ve seen this year, too.

“The severity of the abuse has increased — the kinds of physical and mental issues that victims have encountered,” CEO Andrea Quill said.

The rising demand comes as shelter directors say they’re facing a financial cliff. Extra pandemic money that helped them serve more people is drying up — at the same time that they’re dealing with substantial cuts to their annual federal funding.

Between 2019 and 2023, the money going to Kansas from the Victims of Crime Act program, a federal pool of money funded by offenders, dropped from $20 million to $12 million annually.

In response, Kansas officials have upped the money going to domestic and sexual violence crisis centers from the state general fund to help offset the federal reduction.

“If they had not done that,” said McCormick with the statewide Coalition Against Sexual and Domestic Violence, “the majority of our programs would have had to close.”

But that additional money isn’t guaranteed for future years. And shelters say they were stretched thin even before the reduction. Many report struggling to retain staff due to low wages.

“The demand is increasing exponentially,” said Meyers, “but the funds are stagnant.”

For the Salina shelter, that means a program that supports survivors with housing costs in the months after they move out of the shelter is in jeopardy.

“If we lessen the options that are available to victims, they are more likely to return to their volatile situation,” Quill said. “If there’s no affordable housing out there and no assistance that can help while you get back on your feet and find employment, then what can you really do?”

She and other shelter operators said a lack of affordable housing in their communities is a growing problem that’s requiring some clients to stay longer at the shelter, making it more difficult to open up room for new clients.

It could also cause people to stay with their abuser if they can’t afford to live on their own.

“I just worry about the increased risk of harm,” McCormick said.

Reducing pregnancy-associated violence

Wallace, the Tulane epidemiologist, said it’s crucial for health care providers to screen patients for intimate partner violence during prenatal and postnatal medical visits — and offer to connect victims with resources.

But reducing the violence likely requires a broader approach.

“From state policies around gun laws to reduce violence in the population,” Wallace said, “to broader social and economic policies that can address some of the root causes of violence.”

Like, she said, policies that reduce income inequality. Research shows people living in states with high income inequality are more likely to experience intimate partner violence during pregnancy.

Meyers wants to see more resources go toward a holistic violence prevention model, including expanding access to mental health care and substance use disorder treatment.

“We’re so used to, in this community, just putting a Band-Aid on the situation after the crisis has occurred,” she said, “that it’s hard to get the conversation — and funding — for really addressing the problem at its inception.”

She said it could also involve outreach programs to intervene in generational cycles of violence. Kids who grow up witnessing abuse in their homes are more likely to be victims or perpetrators of abuse as adults.

“In order to address this as a community-wide public health issue, we have to talk to young people, but also with adults,” she said. “And that looks like addressing the values and behaviors and beliefs that underlie dating violence.”

How to get help

If you’re in immediate danger, call 911. The Kansas crisis hotline for victims of domestic violence, sexual assault and stalking is 888-END-ABUSE (888-363-2287). The national domestic violence hotline is 800-799-7233.

Rose Conlon reports on health for KMUW and the Kansas News Service.

The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, KMUW, Kansas Public Radio and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy.

Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news media at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.

Rose Conlon is a reporter based at KMUW in Wichita, but serves as part of the Kansas News Service, a partnership of public radio stations across Kansas. She covers health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy.