Grants target domestic-violence homicides in three counties

​By Charles Taylor

Photo by Aileen Devlin/The Daily Reflector, reprinted with permission

Deborah Monroe, a domestic violence survivor, shares her story of an abusive relationship during a candlelight vigil at the Pitt County, N.C. courthouse Oct. 1 to mark the start of Domestic Violence Awareness Month.

More than 20 years ago, Sheila Moore predicted her murder in a letter to the editor of the local newspaper in Pitt County, N.C., but there was nothing the sheriff’s office could do about it. She had taken out restraining orders against her ex-husband, but no crime had been committed.

Not until her ex showed up one morning outside her workplace and fatally shot Moore and himself.

“Sheila’s death was an impetus here in the county, starting with the criminal justice system,” said Sgt. John Guard. In the years that followed, a special domestic violence court was established — and the sheriff’s office started a unit to deal with the issue in 1997.

At a time when domestic violence in the NFL has dominated the headlines, now comes word that Pitt County and two others across the country have been awarded $650,000 each from the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) to test best practices and evidence-based models to address domestic violence homicide prevention.

Pitt County, Contra Costa County, Calif. and Cuyahoga County, Ohio were selected from among 12 jurisdictions to participate in DOJ’s Domestic Violence Homicide Prevention Demonstration Initiative (DVHPDI). The Borough of Brooklyn, N.Y. was also chosen. The dozen localities had previously been awarded $200,000 in 2012 during phase one of the initiative.

“We have some model practices to address domestic-violence-related homicide, and we want to find out what works on the ground in communities … and find out how we can replicate it across the country,” said Bea Hanson, principal deputy director of DOJ’s Office on Violence against Women (OVW).

DomesticViolenceQ.pngOctober is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, and nationwide, about 1,200 victims of domestic violence — sometimes also called intimate partner violence — are murdered each year, according to the Maryland Network Against Domestic Violence, which pioneered the Lethality Assessment Program (LAP) model, which Pitt and Contra Costa will use. It teaches law enforcement officers how to screen domestic violence victims to determine whether their lives are at-risk through asking a standardized series of questions. Based on responses, a victim can immediately be referred to appropriate services.

Generally, the protocol consists of 11 questions, such as: “Has he or she ever used a weapon against you or threatened you with a weapon?” A “yes” answer will result in an on-the-spot referral to a domestic abuse support group.

“The LAP model specifically allows me as an officer to respond to a call where no crime may be alleged — where our traditional response would be we clear (the scene), there’s nothing we can do; we can’t arrest,” Guard said.

“For me that cultural shift of going from, well there’s not a violation of the law so I can’t do anything, to ‘Ma’am, based on your answers, people in similar situations as you have died is huge,’” Guard said.

Cuyahoga County will test a different approach, the Domestic Violence High Risk Team (DVHRT), pioneered by the Jeanne Geiger Crisis Center in Massachusetts. It focuses equally on victim safety and services, and offender accountability.

The county’s Witness/Victim Service Center will pilot the strategy in two Cleveland police districts. To assess risk, they’ll work together from incident report through arrest, prosecution, sentencing and the offender’s release, county officials said — to enable victims to make safe decisions throughout the process.

“This sets up a system that once we’ve identified a case and come together, we can add pieces to the conversation,” said Linda Johanek, CEO of the Domestic Violence & Child Advocacy Center in Cleveland. “Something as simple as victim notification has been an issue for our county; an offender may be released from jail and the victim never finds out.”

Guard, who has trained police departments to better recognize the signs of potentially fatal domestic violence, said both approaches “have the right answers;” it’s just a matter of “reaching across the silos” and sharing the pertinent information.

“In domestic violence, especially deaths,” he said, “we talk about if it’s predictable, then it should be preventable.”

The Justice Department picked pilot communities that had laid a foundation for the work in phase one — and for their diversity. Pitt County has 168,000 residents; Contra Costa is home to 1.05 million, Cuyahoga’s population is 1.28 million and. Brooklyn’s is 2.5 million.

“The four communities that we chose have the partnerships that are necessary,” Hanson said — “both real commitment from law enforcement in those communities as well as the partnerships that they need with community based-organizations.”

Another factor was the jurisdictions’ “readiness to move forward in terms of implementation.”

Contra Costa was well prepared to meet that criterion. It has had a Zero Tolerance for Domestic Violence (ZT) program since 2001, initiated by the Board of Supervisors, said Devorah Levine, who manages the county’s effort. It’s a public-private partnership to reduce domestic violence, sexual assault, elder abuse and human trafficking.

“Already we’ve been pretty successful through the network we have,” said Supervisor John Gioia, who has been on the board since 1999 and helped approve the ZT program.

“We’re seeing an increase in the number of survivors receiving restraining orders; we’re seeing an increase in the number of law enforcement reports that are prepared for domestic violence calls,” he said. “We’re seeing a reduction in the recidivism rate in the Domestic Violence Court.”

The county, in partnership with the city of Richmond, Calif., plans to build a family justice center where services for victims of violence and domestic violence — such as police and community-based organizations — are co-located. Three such centers are planned throughout the 716-square-miles county.

Gioia, who is president of the California State Association of Counties, added that Contra Costa has served as a model for the rest of the state.

To fund its ZT initiative, he explained, Contra Costa was the first county in California to place a fee on vital records like birth and death certificates or marriage licenses. Levine said this generates about $300,000 per year to fund the program, and other counties have followed suit.

The grantees hope that successful demonstration projects will mean that no victim of domestic violence ever has to, in effect, write her own obituary again.

“I look forward to working with the other partners in this project,” Pitt County’s Sgt. Guard said — “those that received the awards as well as our mentors that are going to be brought in to guide us and put us on the path to success in the Pitt County community.

“Here’s the deal for me, as a career cop for 22-plus years, I love it because it is a perfect vehicle to be the impetus for a cultural shift within the law enforcement community.”

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