Lethality Assessments Show Promise for Limiting Further Violence

What are lethality assessments and how can they help? The practice is one of many highlighted in the recent survey by the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF).

One model — The Lethality Assessment Program—Maryland Model (LAP) – was created by the Maryland Network Against Domestic Violence (MNADV) in 2005. The goal is to identify victims most at risk of serious injury or death by their intimate partners and connect them to service programs. In Maryland, trained officers ask victims questions in their Lethality Screen for First Responders.

Dr. Campbell

Dr. Jacqueline Campbell

Read about the roots of the model, adapted from Dr. Jacquelyn Campbell’s Danger Assessment.

PERF’s study found that 42 percent of responding agencies use lethality assessments, or “structured risk” tools – to assess the level of danger a victim faces. The yes-or-no questions help determine the need for a safety plan. Questions include whether violence from the offender has increased; whether the offender has a criminal history or a history of drug or alcohol abuse; whether the abuser has violated an order of protection; and whether the victim has decided to leave the offender.

Of the agencies using this assessment, 81 percent include the findings in the police report, the PERF survey found. Seventy-nine percent of agencies using the tool say responding officers administer the assessment.

MNADV says using LAP has “improved partnerships and collaboration among law enforcement officers and other community practitioners and advocates.” Agencies have created new guidelines for hotline advocates who speak to high-danger victims and special protocols for health care providers.

Researchers who studied seven Oklahoma police jurisdictions found that “the LAP demonstrates promise as an evidence informed collaborative police-social service intervention that increases survivors’ safety and empowers them toward decisions of self-care.”

Download that report here.

Family Justice Centers: A Best Practice

A broad survey by the Police Executive Research Forum reinforces the benefits of Family Justice Centers in addressing domestic violence. The concept Under_One_Roof_copyrefers to a multi-agency service delivery model where “multi-disciplinary team of professionals who work together, under one roof, to provide coordinated services to victims of family violence,” according to the Family Justice Center Alliance. The centers offer one place for victims to ‘talk to an advocate, plan for their safety, interview with a police officer, meet with a prosecutor, receive medical assistance, receive information on shelter, and get help with transportation,” the organization’s site explains.

The PERF study, which included 358 law enforcement agencies, found that 43 percent of responding agencies have a specific unit devoted to domestic violence cases. The average size of these specialized units is 11 people; the median staff includes 5 people.

Survey respondents working in Family Justice Centers affirm the model’s value. “Every day we are collaborating and sharing information,” Sgt. Jordan Satinsky of the Montgomery County, Maryland, Police Department told PERF researchers. “We know each other and have built trust with each other,” said Sgt. Rachael Van Sloten of Oakland, California.

The concept dates to the late 1980s, and in 2003, the U.S. Department of Justice identified the San Diego Family Justice Center model as a best practice in the field of domestic violence intervention and prevention services. In 2003, then-President George W. Bush created a $20 million initiative to create these one-shop centers.

According to the Department of Justice, documented outcomes of Family Justice Centers include: reduced homicides; increased victim safety; increased autonomy and empowerment for victims; reduced fear and anxiety for victims and their children; and reduced recantation and minimization by victims.

Download a 2007 DOJ report here, which outlines specific best practices.

Download “The Family Justice Center Collaborative Model,” published in 2008 in the St. Louis University Law Review. Its authors are four directors of Family Justice Centers.  About 80 Family Justice Centers operate across the United States. Experts clearly support the model, and they appear to be successful. So why doesn’t every community have one?

An Introduction to Data from Police Executive Research Forum Study

A recent newsletter of the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) provides a wealth of data and information about domestic violence. PERF is an independent research organization that focuses on policing issues. Its mission includes strategies relevant to efforts to end domestic violence: developing community policing and problem-oriented policing; and evaluating crime reduction strategies.

This post provides an overview of the information the study uncovered. You can download the report here. Future posts will take a closer look at issues the report addresses, including Family Justice Centers and police strategies for dealing with repeat offenders. And we’ll keep an eye out for more news from PERF, which holds its annual meeting June 2 to 5 in Phoenix.

PERF surveyed 358 law enforcement agencies about their domestic violence investigations. The survey asked for statistics and descriptions about strategies and programs. PERF researchers then interviewed police officials via phone about their department’s best practices.

“Many of the most promising programs involve cooperation between police and victim services groups,” the newsletter says in introducing its findings.

Researchers crunched the numbers, and here’s what they found:PERF

• 14% of homicides involved domestic violence.
• 64% of the agencies reported that the percentage of homicides involving domestic violence remained stable between 2009 and 2013.
• 18% said the percentage of homicides involving domestic violence in that period increased; 18% said it decreased.
• 27% of the departments surveyed said aggravated assaults included domestic violence.
• On average, departments surveyed said 8% of their agency’s total calls are related to domestic violence.
• 95% of respondents said their agency has a specific policy for responding to domestic violence incidents.
• 43% of agencies have a specific unit devoted to domestic violence cases.
• In 84% of agencies, personnel outside the domestic violence unit are trained on responding to domestic violence cases.
• 27% of agencies provide training on domestic violence between same-sex partners.
• 65% of agencies have special policies for handling domestic violence cases perpetrated by law enforcement personnel.
• 89% of agencies provide victims with information on how to obtain orders of protection.
• 44% of agencies help victims fill out paperwork for an order; 29% accompany victims to court to obtain an order.
• 42% of agencies use “structured risk” of lethality assessments to determine the level of danger to the victim.
• 88% of agencies document domestic violence incidents by location; 73% document incidents by perpetrator.
• 39% percent of respondents said their agency has a specific policy for responding to repeat offenders.

Whew. That’s a lot to take in. Think about these statistics, and stay tuned for closer looks at some of the issues the survey addressed.


More than Half Of Colorado Offenders Did Not Complete Mandated Treatment

coloradoA team of academics recommended changes to Colorado’s domestic violence offender treatment programs after a study found that more than half of the state’s domestic violence offenders at significant risk of re-offending failed to complete their assigned treatment. The findings were the result of a yearlong study of more than 3,000 domestic violence cases in Colorado.

The recommendations, outlined in a 20-page report released in February, include more cautious reassessment of offenders over the course of treatment; continued research on the effectiveness of batterer treatment models; standardized tools to demonstrate treatment milestones and success; and development of best practices with co-occurring disorders. The research was done by Tara N. Richards, assistant professor in the University of Baltimore’s School of Criminal Justice in the College of Public Affairs; and Angela Gover, professor in the School of Public Affairs at the University of Colorado Denver. They spent a year evaluating how organizations were implementing the Domestic Violence Offender Management Board’s state Standards policy on responding to domestic violence.

Press releases summarize the policy as including the use of multidisciplinary treatment teams consisting of a probation officer, treatment provider, and victim treatment advocate to supervise domestic violence offenders, and the assigning of offenders to differentiated treatment intensity levels based on their criminogenic risks and needs.  The report notes that Colorado has mandated court-ordered treatment for domestic violence offenders since 1987. Although most states have such policies, “Little is known about the extent to which these standards are implemented as intended and if so, whether they are effective in reducing recidivism,” the report says.  In addition to increased safety for the victim and the community, treating offenders “provides the offender with the opportunity for personal change by challenging destructive core beliefs and teaching positive cognitive-behavioral skills,” according to the report.

Researchers found that almost half of the domestic violence offenders in the study were placed in high-intensity treatment (rather than low or moderate intensity) because of “significant criminogenic risks and needs, such as prior domestic violence or non-domestic violence crimes, substance abuse, or the use or threatened use of weapons against their victims.”

Richards and Gover will continue to work with domestic violence treatment providers in Colorado to improve ways to engage offenders in treatment, the universities reported.

Tougher Laws Proposed in South Carolina on State’s High Domestic Violence Rate

Proposed changes to South Carolina’s domestic violence law could increase the penalties for offenders and make it harder for them to reoffend.

Proposals include revoking gun ownership rights for 10 years for many domestic violence offenders. This sensible policy would both keep victims safer and make it more difficult for offenders to escalate violence and face further criminal charges.

nikkiA Greenville Online editorial concedes that limiting gun ownership does not guarantee an end to repeated domestic violence incidents. “Louisiana adopted such a law last year and the results six months after it was implemented show the law restricting gun ownership has had little impact to date,” the editorial says.

Legislative proposals in South Carolina also support increasing jail time and fines for offenders; reforming bond provisions and improving educational efforts. Another proposal would create a tiered system for charging offenders, which would allow prosecutors more leeway in imposing punishments most appropriate for the level of abuse.

According to a 2013 report by the National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV), in a single 24-hour period, more than 66,000 victims of domestic violence received help and support from service organizations in the United States. In South Carolina, 475 domestic violence victims were served by 11 programs that participated in the count.

South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley has created a task force that hopes to change the state’s generational cycles of domestic abuse. The task force and the bills follow a series by The Post and Courier that reported that 300 women in the state were killed by their husbands and boyfriends in the last 10 years. For more than 15 years, South Carolina has been among the top 10 states nationally in the rate of women killed by men, the newspaper reported.

One reason for that, experts say, is an entrenched history of domestic violence. Gov. Haley hopes the state’s task force will change the culture. “What you hear is whispers,” Haley said in early February. “People whisper about domestic violence. They pray about it, but they don’t talk about it. If we are not talking out loud about it, we are denying something that is very real in South Carolina.”

Batterers’ Intervention Programs Address Root Cause of Domestic Violence

bangorDespite claims that batterers’ intervention programs (BIP) fail to change offenders’ attitudes toward women or domestic violence, the facilitator of a long-running program in Bangor, Maine, remains convinced they can make a difference.

Kathryn Maietta and her husband facilitate the only batterers’ intervention in their county. She thinks it’s a mistake that domestic violence offenders in her community must receive psychological counseling and anger management courses, but are not required to attend a BIP. That failure means offenders do not learn how to change their behavior, according to a Bangor Daily News story. (The writer spent several months observing Maietta’s program. It’s a deep dive and worth a read.)

Although the National Institute of Justice says such programs have “a modest affect,” the article cites a 2004 paper that shows that offenders who attend a BIP are less likely to offend. Retired Bates College psychology professor Robert Moyer reviewed 300 studies that compared re-offense rates of those who completed batterers’ intervention programs with the rates of program dropouts. “… dropouts are more than twice as likely to re-offend as completers are,” Moyer wrote.

The Maine program follows the model of Emerge, created in 1977 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Among Emerge’s goals for offenders are to immediately stop physical abuse and intimidation, understand the harm this behavior has caused; and develop an understanding of how you have benefited from your behavior in the past and how you can benefit from changing your behavior now

Skeptics of BIPs cite their ineffectiveness, lack of availability, and cost. But Maietta, who runs the program in Maine, cites the misperception of domestic violence as an anger management problem as a major barrier to faith in BIPs. “Domestic abuse,” she told the Bangor paper, “is about power and control.” Understanding that core truth could change the way communities respond to offenders.

Another North Carolina Community Learns from High Point’s Success

Agencies addressing domestic violence in Henderson County, North Carolina, have made a smart move. The community recently formed the Offender Focused Domestic Violence Initiative, bringing together organizations and public servants working to end family violence.

Now advocates, victim service providers, law enforcement and legal professionals share information and discuss strategies to address the problem. Offenders “will be put on notice, and violators will be punished in a collective effort to save victims and deter abuse,” blueridgenow.com reported.

The alliance developed in response to concerns about after the level of domestic violence in the community. In 2013, four homicides – all that occurred in Henderson County that year — resulted from domestic violence. Ten out of the county’s 16 homicides over the past five years were linked, the news outlet reported.

Organizers learned from the success of the High Point Police Department’s program, which two years ago shifted attention from the victim to the offender. Strategies include focusing on offenders through face-to-face intervention; monitoring offenders; and clearly outlining the consequences will be if the abuse continues.

The goal is simple: Intervene before anyone gets hurt or arrested. High Point police say the number of domestic violence-related calls, injuries, and arrests have declined. So has the number of deaths.

The approach is gaining steam. In addition to communities in North Carolina, law enforcement agencies in California, Florida, Michigan, Tennessee and New Jersey are starting offender- focused initiatives. Some are turning to High Point’s staff for training, a North Carolina Fox station reported.

Sheriff Charles McDonald

Sheriff Charles McDonald

In Henderson County, officers are getting more training in strategies to investigate domestic violence calls. The new initiative focuses on more than just the arrest, said Sheriff Charles McDonald. The traditional approach “hasn’t necessarily allowed us to effectively deal with putting people on notice, holding them to standards and effectively reducing the amount of incidents,” he said.

The alliance hopes to let offenders know they “know you’re headed in a bad direction. You need to stop. We’ll help you now, but there comes a time and place where every exposure is going to reap an increased penalty,” McDonald told blueridgenow.com.

The plan is “not just putting more people in jail, but hopefully stopping more people from having to get to the point where jail is the only answer left,” he said.

Supreme Court to Consider Facebook Threats

anthony elonsis

Anthony Elonsis

The Internet makes so many tasks easier: We can order dinner, schedule a taxi ride, quickly confirm who won the 1953 World Series (that would be the Yankees.) But the Internet can be a tool for evil deeds as well, with social media emerging as a new way for offenders to stalk and threaten their victims. The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to rule this summer in an important case about threats on Facebook.

In a chilling story, NPR reported the threats  Anthony Elonis, of Allentown, Pennsylvania, made on his Facebook page about his estranged wife. He wrote:

There’s one way to love ya, but a thousand ways to kill ya,
And I’m not going to rest until your body is a mess,
Soaked in blood and dying from all the little cuts.
Hurry up and die bitch.

Another post says:
Revenge is a dish that is best served cold with a delicious side of psychological torture.

Elonis’s wife obtained a restraining order, which barred her estranged husband from “threatening, harassing or contacting her, even indirectly,” NPR reported. But he kept posting. A threat that alluded to school shootings caught the attention of an FBI agent, and Elonis was eventually convicted and sentenced to 44 months in prison.

Elonis claims the posts were meant as jokes and are protected under the First Amendment. Further, he contends that under the federal threat statute, the jury must find that he intended his Facebook posts to be threatening.

Federal prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald told NPR that since Elonis made the posts after his estranged wife obtained a restraining order, he could have foreseen the reaction.

Fitzgerald considers social media a potential breeding ground for violent threats. “There’s an epidemic of threats out there, and with the Internet it’s going to get worse,” he said.

The National Network to End Domestic Violence urges the Supreme Court to uphold Elonis’s conviction and filed a brief in the case. Victims “have experienced real-life terror caused by increasingly graphic and public posts to Facebook and other social media sites — terror that is exacerbated precisely because abusers now harness the power of technology, ‘enabling them to reach their victims’ everyday lives at the click of a mouse or the touch of a screen,’” the brief says.

Community Comes Together to Support Innovative Massachusetts Law Addressing Domestic Violence

DeleoElected officials are beginning to understand the need for systemic change regarding domestic/intimate partner violence (IPV).  In 2014, The Massachusetts Legislature passed SB 2334.

“I firmly believe that comprehensive action – examining existing loopholes, elevating criminal penalties and prioritizing prevention – is the only strategy that will result in systemic change.” – Speaker of the House Robert Deleo

The law is comprehensive and not without detractors, yet it addresses some of the more egregious remnants of lax laws and takes a bold step forward.  The Women’s Bar Association of Massachusetts, the state coalition against domestic violence Jane Doe, Inc.,  and domestic violence advocates throughout the state applaud the comprehensive legislation.  Key provisions that will go into effect in 2015 include:

  • Delaying bail for domestic violence offenders by six hours
  • Levying charges and heightened punishment for strangulation and suffocation incidents
  • Establishing Fatality Review Teams
  • Expanded training for law enforcement and judges
  • Allowing employee leave time for victims

The law will also get rid of “accord and satisfaction” agreements.   Accord and satisfaction are out-of-court settlements used to resolve charges involving physical violence.  Abusers tend to intimidate victims by pressuring them to accept this option.

The specific strangulation and suffocation charges are ground-breaking and necessary.  According to the Journal of Emergency Medicine,  23% to 68% of female domestic violence victims experienced at least one strangulation-related incident from their abusive male partner during their lifetime.  Research also bears out what victims, legal practitioners, and medical personnel already know – strangulation is one of the most potentially lethal forms of intimate partner abuse.  Currently, charges run the gamut from misdemeanor simple assault to the impossible to prove attempted murder.  A 2008 Journal of Emergency Medicine study found that a woman who experiences nonlethal strangulation — whether by someone’s hands or by ligature or other means — is seven times more likely to be the object of a murder attempt by her assailant.  It also found that 43 percent of women killed in domestic violence attacks, and 45 percent of attempted-murder victims, had been strangled by a partner in the previous year.

This new law is a step in the right direction and demands specific collaborative efforts by employers, schools and civil courts.   Injury prevention experts from the Centers for Disease Control, community health departments, academic research  and the domestic violence field support the need for a community response.

Other violence prevention initiatives requiring community involvement include offender focus intervention, GPS monitoring, bystander training, and Coaching Boys Into Men.




A New Tool from Canada Seeks to Reduce Domestic Violence Offenses in Maine

Police officers in Maine are seeking to reduce domestic violence offenses in the new year with a tool from Canada named ODARA, the Ontario Domestic Assault Risk Assessment.

The ODARA is a validated checklist of factors that help authorities assess  “the likelihood of whether someone who has previously assaulted a romantic partner will do so again in the future.”


Photo: Senior Constable Fiona Foxall, Wellington Forensic Imagery

The ODARA assessment was chosen to help reduce domestic violence offenses after Maine passed a law in 2012 that mandated “the use of a standardized, evidence-based risk assessment tool for domestic violence offenders.” The Maine Coalition to End Domestic Violence explained the law was originally passed as part of an effort to reduce homicides in the state. Roughly 50 percent of homicides in Maine are domestic violence related. In 2014, there were 20 homicides reported in Maine. 13 of the 20 were categorized as domestic violence related. Out of the 13, seven were children under 13. A domestic violence case is reported every 94 minutes.

According to its website, the ODARA “is the first empirically tested and validated domestic violence risk assessment tool to assess the risk of future domestic assault, as well as the frequency and severity of future assaults.”  The ODARA is essentially a scorecard with 13 questions that consider “prior history of domestic abuse, threats to harm or kill a victim, a victim’s concern of future assault, the presence of children and whether there are indications the abuser is using drugs or alcohol.” The Maine Coalition to End Domestic Violence explains the factors considered are “found to be the strongest predictors of domestic violence recidivism.”

An offender can receive a score anywhere from a 0-13. The higher the score, the more likely the repeat offense. If an offender scores a seven or higher, they are 14 times more likely to reoffend.

Maine is the first state in the U.S. to use the ODARA and will decide whether or not they will offer electronic monitoring of the offender based on the score. District Attorney Maeghan Maloney explains “What I ask the court for, in order to keep the victims safe, is either a bail amount to hold the defendant in jail or the use of an electronic monitor.”

The ODARA sounds like a promising tool in the fight against domestic violence. We are starting off 2015 in the right direction!