Lethality tool takes on abuse

by Jim Boyle


The Elk River Police Department has responded to more than 1,000 domestic disputes in the past five years.

They have made 186 arrests for domestic assault, including 13 for felony domestic assault. But none of the assaults have resulted in death. Local law enforcement  hopes to keep it that way.

Agencies throughout Sherburne County, including the Elk River Police Department and the Sherburne County Sheriff’s Department, went on the offensive a couple of years ago with the adoption of a new tool called a lethality assessment.

Officers who find themselves at the scene of domestic disputes now have a way to assess whether a victim is in danger of being killed or seriously injured.

It’s a screening test for first responders that spells out when an assessment is needed and what triggers an immediate referral to domestic abuse centers.

The goal is to get victims out of harm’s way and to put them in touch with domestic violence services — sooner rather than later.

When lethality assessment results show extreme danger, it triggers an immediate response from police and sheriff’s deputies that includes handing a phone to victims with an advocate on the line to talk to them.

Anoka County considered  adding the lethality assessment in 2010. Officials there brought all the players together‚ from public defenders, prosecutors, court administration and judges to police and domestic abuse victim advocates.

They developed a system and a policy and beefed up services in the county for those in high risk situations.

“My hope was that people involved in these situations would see that what they’re going through is not normal,” said Scott Baumgartner, who works as prosecutor in Anoka County and serves as the City Prosecutor for the city of Elk River. “This might be all they know. This might make them think this is not right.”

Anoka County officials were able to smooth out some concerns, and their work made it easy for their counterparts in Sherburne County to embrace the model quickly.

“They already had worked out the protocol,” Sherburne County Attorney Kathleen Heaney said.

Agencies throughout Sherburne County have combined to administer more than 200 lethality assessments since the start of 2012. In the past, seeking domestic abuse services has been left up to the victims to seek out.

“You can’t expect someone who has been beat down, made to feel worthless and isolated to stand up and advocate for themselves,” Heaney said.

Elk River Police Patrol Sgt. Brian Boos said he has used the lethality assessment tool several times. He hasn’t had any cases trigger an immediate response, but he views it as a valuable tool.

“It doesn’t leave the onus on the victim,” he said.

He said use of the assessment will decrease the number of repeat calls to the same residence and do a better job of getting victims the help they need.

There are 1,500 fatalities due to domestic violence every year in the United States, and police in 50 percent of these cases were previously on the scene of domestic homicides. Only 4 percent, however, had ever availed themselves to domestic violence services.

The lethality assessment program was initially  developed in Maryland in 2005 when the average number of deaths annually due to domestic violence in that state averaged 68.

At a time when some states are reporting record high spikes in domestic violence murders, Maryland has witnessed a 34 percent drop in intimate partner homicides between July 2007 and June 2012.

The Maryland model is now used in 14 states..

Research done by the Dr. Jacquelyn C. Cambell found that abused women who took advantage of community-based domestic violence program services were almost never the victims of murder or attempted murder. There is a 60 percent reduction in risk of severe assault when victims utilize the services of a domestic violence advocacy program, according to information released at the ninth International Family Violence Research Conference in 2005 in  Portsmouth, N.H.

The screenings help by bringing greater awareness of danger and lethality, and they systematically cause greater consideration of proactive interventions. It fosters better coordination, communication and cooperation.

It also allows victims to see through a different lens, one that doesn’t accuse them of being at fault. Officers bring that point home on the scene and advocates pound it home.

“Our officers get it,” Baumgartner said. “They’re compassionate, and they genuinely care.

“They know it’s a question of power.”

Here in Elk River, domestic violence victims deemed to be in high levels of the danger are put in immediate contact with Rivers of Hope in Monticello or Anna Marie’s in St. Cloud.

These nonprofits are able to make the victims aware of services available and help establish a short-term safety plan. Needs might include food, clothing, new locks or a different place to live.

“We’re asking them to step into the unknown,” Heaney said.

The advantage of doing the assessment at the time of the dispute is victims grasp better the danger they’re in. When they’re given the information asked to make a call later, there’s not as much success. “You lose the immediacy,” Baumgartner said.

The prosecutor noted these are not just criminal cases they are talking about; they are also victims’ cases. He said Anoka County is seeing a pattern of more people getting help they need.

“I’d be surprised if we didn’t see something similar,” Heaney said.