Initiative boosts fight against domestic violence

From Chisago County Attorney Janet Reiter—

Fifteen women from Minnesota lost their lives to domestic violence in 2010, according to the Minnesota Coalition for Battered Women.

Over the past decade, 194 women were killed by a current or former husband, boyfriend, intimate partner, household member or family member.

Last week, officers from Wyoming, North Branch and Lakes Area Police Departments attended training to implement an innovative program designed to address the level of domestic violence in their communities.

More than 30 officers from the three departments are now ready to use a scientifically-based tool, called a “Lethality Assessment,” to direct their response to domestic violence calls and assist victims seek help from battered women’s shelters like The Refuge Network.

The program is the Lethality Assessment Program — Maryland Model (LAP). It’s based on 25 years of research at The Johns Hopkins University School of Nursing. The research revealed:

• Only 4 percent of domestic violence murder victims nationwide had ever availed themselves of domestic violence program services.

• In 50 percent of domestic violence-related homicides, officers had previously responded to a call on the scene.

• The re-assault of domestic violence victims in high-danger situations was reduced by 60 percent if they went to a shelter for help.

The goal of the LAP: to prevent domestic violence homicides, serious injury and re-assault by encouraging more victims to use the support and shelter services of domestic violence programs.

How it works

A specific series of questions are used by officers to determine a level of risk associated with an abuser and the victim. When victims’ responses rate as high-risk on the Lethality Assessment, an immediate call is made to The Refuge Network’s hotline.

The immediate connection has been found to be much more effective than simply leaving a business card for the victim who often does not follow through once the abuser has been arrested and removed from the home.

“The Lakes Area Police Department is excited to take part in the Lethality Assessment process,” said Police Chief Stenson. “Ours is but the initial step in several elements working together to make sure the needs of domestic violence victims are being met to the best of our ability. A few minutes to assess and get a few questions answered is well worth the time to improve services.”

Later, the information gathered from the Lethality Assessment may be used by prosecutors to charge and prosecute the cases and by probation officers to determine levels of intervention — with the ultimate goal of keeping victims safe and reducing recidivism.

Chisago County probation officer Bruce Hagstrom supervises misdemeanor offenders. “We look forward to this new tool providing greater victim safety, and increased offender accountability by identifying higher risk domestic offenders,” he said.

Lethality Assessments will also be made available to judges making bail and pre-trial release determinations to assist the court in determining appropriate bail and pre-trial release conditions. Chisago County is already prioritizing domestic abuse cases by placing them on the fast track, allowing cases to reach jury trial on a priority basis.

Sgt. Randy McAlister, from the Cottage Grove Police Department, assisted with the training sessions in Chisago County. He has been an outspoken proponent of the LAP after its implementation in Washington County.

McAlister has seen the LAP assessment tool serve as the objective evidence that is sometimes needed to convince reluctant victims to get the help from the available domestic abuse programs and shelters.

Group effort

The implementation of the LAP in Chisago County is the result of positive collaboration between the Chisago County Attorney’s Office, Chisago County Court Services, The Refuge Network and law enforcement.

The adopted two-pronged intervention process features the law enforcement administered lethality screening tool and an accompanying referral protocol that provides direction for law enforcement, victims’ advocates, court services and prosecutors.

Assistant County Attorney Jennifer Bovitz, probation officer Bruce Hagstrom and advocates from The Refuge were instrumental in initiating the LAP in Chisago County.

If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic violence in their relationship, help is available at The Refuge Network. In Chisago County, call 651-247-2890.

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