How domestic violence left so many kids alone

Close-Up 2004: The news that defined the year

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Andrew and Andre Umphrey, ages 8 and 11, are haunted by the thought that while their mother was being abducted from church at gunpoint, they were one floor below at youth services and helpless.

In the brothers' minds, they might have been able to rescue their mom from her violent ex-boyfriend on that Sunday in April if they'd been allowed up the steps. But adults at Victorious Faith Evangelic Outreach Church in Sheraden insisted on keeping them downstairs, out of danger.

What happened next was front-page news then and the stuff of the boys' nightmares today.

The ex-boyfriend, Alvin Starks, forced Andrea Umphrey and the couple's baby daughter, Aaliyah, into a van outside. Then he led police on a 50-mile chase that ended in Monroeville with Umphrey's shooting death.

Today, Andrew and 17-month-old Aaliyah live with their grandmother in the same Chartiers City house where their mother grew up. Audrey Umphrey, a retired nurse, is seeking to adopt them, as well as Andre, who is now living with his father.

Starks is in jail charged with first-degree murder and faces the death penalty if convicted. But Andrew still thinks he hears sounds at night, and is sometimes awakened by dreams of his mother arguing with Starks.

"I tell him he's safe now," his grandma said, "but he still has nightmares."

A record year

Members of the Umphrey family are just a few of the legacies of one of 2004's most tragic distinctions: The number of domestic violence homicides in the state reached 127 on Dec. 22 -- the last date for which figures are available -- and the highest annual tally on record, according to the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence. When the final nine days of December are counted, the number is almost certain to rise. The previous record was 126 in 2002.

In addition to Umphrey, the 2004 list so far includes Celia Flewellen, principal of the Homewood Montessori school, whose husband is charged with beating and stabbing her in their Beechview home in October. It also includes Edward Kost, 60, a Beaver County man whose wife admitted shooting him in the head last month following what she described as a lifetime of his abuse.

The victim who broke the record was Susan Stephens, 47, of Bell Acres, found dead last Tuesday by her daughter. Phanthanomm Phommaxaysy, the man who lived with her, was arraigned Thursday at the Allegheny County coroner's office on one count of criminal homicide.

This year's victims so far include 63 women, 43 men and 21 children.

Most of the killers were men, and most of the male victims were partners of women who were targeted by their estranged husbands or boyfriends.

Among counties in this region, the coalition reports that Allegheny had 22 victims; Beaver, Butler and Fayette had two each; and Westmoreland had four.

"It was an unusually bad year," said Allegheny County police Sgt. Christopher Kearns, supervisor of the homicide unit

The coalition reports that 70 of the 127 victims were shot. That's why the group is still pushing for House Bill 2403, which would enable more effective gun confiscation from abusers.

Starks, for example, had a 9 mm handgun, even though authorities were supposed to have removed his firearms after Umphrey obtained a protection-from-abuse order.

Umphrey's death sparked criticism of Pittsburgh, Allegheny County, suburban and state police, all of whom had officers at the scene. The incident is still under review by the Pittsburgh Police Bureau.

A centralized data system that allows law enforcement agencies to track criminal arrest warrants for those who violate protection-from-abuse orders went into effect in November. The system grew out of a task force that was formed after Umphrey's death.

Also new this year: formation of the first statewide review team on domestic violence fatalities. Spearheaded by the coalition, it includes experts in law enforcement, prosecution, health care, welfare, social service agencies, domestic violence and child abuse programs, and the governor's office.

Meanwhile, life goes on at the Umphrey household.

Aaliyah toddles around getting into everything within reach, pulling out her little ponytail holders faster than her grandma can put them in, and blowing a surprisingly solid note on her brother's trumpet.

"I taught her that," Andrew said proudly, holding the instrument while his sister produces a loud blast. She claps delightedly and hams it up with a belly laugh.

The baby doesn't appear to remember anything from that horrible day. Nor does she recognize her mother in family photos.

"She calls me Mama," Audrey Umphrey said. "I always correct her and say 'Grandma.' Then I show her pictures of my daughter. " 'That's Mama,' I say."

Andrea Umphrey was 35 when she died. A former cheerleader at Langley High School, she had attended the Pittsburgh Beauty Academy and the University of Pittsburgh, eventually becoming a bookkeeper with the Elmhurst Group in its Downtown office. Always involved in her children's activities, she had been president of the Parent Teachers Organization at Chartiers Elementary School. When Starks burst into the church, she was directing and singing with the choir.

Andrew made the honor roll last term at Westwood Elementary School. His grandma said he sometimes acts out at school, but he and his brother are getting help in dealing with their feelings at the Caring Place, a center for grieving children and their families.

For Audrey Umphrey, the last seven months have been exceedingly painful -- never more so than during Christmas.

"Andrea only lived a few blocks away," she said. "We talked every day. She'd bring the baby over before work and pick her up after. On the weekends she'd call me before bedtime to see if I was OK. She drove me shopping."

The one saving grace has been the return to Pittsburgh of her oldest child, Aleasia Umphrey-Peterson, who had moved back from California with her own family a year before the murder.

Hearing the adults say that Starks' trial is scheduled for April, Andrew's ears perk up.

"Can I go?" he asked. "I could tell them how crazy he is and what he did to my Mom."

His aunt and grandma shake their heads. This isn't the kind of thing children should be thinking about, but it's part of their lives now, and will be for a long time to come.

Sally Kalson can be reached at 412-263-1610 or .


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