Connecticut averages between 12 and 15 domestic violence homicides each year, says Joe Froehlich, director of law enforcement services at the Connecticut Coalition Against Domestic Violence, “which is in our estimate 12 or 15 too many.”
That is why the coalition received grant money in 2012 to try out a program designed to give police officers responding to a domestic violence call a way to assess the danger a victim might be in and connect them to available services. Originally, 14 police departments and eight domestic violence organizations were trained in the Lethality Assessment Program. That has now expanded to 33 police departments and all 18 domestic violence organizations in the state. Froehlich estimates there are 110 police departments in Connecticut.
“The program was designed as a field instrument that would take no more than 10 to 15 minutes additional time on a scene between doing the screen, making the phone call and having the victim speak to the advocate,” says Froehlich.
Typically, standard operating procedure for a police officer responding to a domestic violence call is to leave a card with a number for services on it when the officer leaves the scene. The Lethality Assessment Program or LAP – created by the Maryland Network Against Domestic Violence in 2005 and based on the Danger Assessment scale created by Jacquelyn Campbell, RN, Ph.D., a national leader in research and advocacy in the field of domestic violence or intimate partner violence and the Anna D. Wolf Chair and professor in the Johns Hopkins University School of Nursing, has officers complete the 11-question Lethality Assessment with the victim before leaving the scene.
“The LAP is a short form of the Danger Assessment accompanied by a protocol whereby women at high risk on the LAP are immediately put in touch with a domestic violence advocacy organization by the police officer at the scene,” says Campbell. “The domestic violence advocacy organizations have been trained to administer the full Danger Assessment with the woman so that she can have that full information when she follows up with services,” she says by email. “We have found that more women at high risk do follow up with services if helped to be in contact with them at the scene of a domestic violence call by police.”
The assessment has officers ask victims questions like: has he/she ever used a weapon against you or threatened you with a weapon; has he/she threatened to kill you or your children; do you think he/she might try to kill you?
A “yes” to any of those three questions would deem the victim in “high danger” and prompt the officer to call one of 18 local domestic violence organizations with the victim present. “They would call and explain that they had just conducted a lethality screen and then encourage the victim to speak with an advocate to do immediate safety planning,” Froehlich says. The victim is not required to speak with the domestic violence advocate on the line. However, from Sept. 15, 2012, to July 31, 2014 there have been 3,209 assessments completed by officers. Of those, 1,754 or 55 percent of those have been considered high danger. Of the high danger victims, 1,380 or 79 percent talked to advocates and 1,033 individuals or 75 percent followed up and went to services.
Michaela Mendelsohn, Ph.D., a private practice psychologist who also works with the Victims of Violence Program at Cambridge Health Alliance in Cambridge, Mass., says the assessment helps focus attention and effort on the highest risk cases.
“The measure upon which the assessment was based has demonstrated reliability and validity in terms of differentiating those cases that are mostly likely to result in a lethal outcome and it seems like items on the assessment were well chosen,” she says.
“I was particularly impressed by the way in which the screening process is an intervention in itself. It helps the victim reflect on his or her own experience and potentially realize or become more conscious of how much risk he or she is facing, which might result in that person taking steps to increase their safety. The interpersonal component is also important – the officer expressing his or her concern by asking important safety questions and directly facilitating a connection with victim services.”
Connecticut is one of 30 states where some police departments are using the assessment. Other New England states include N.H. and Vermont.
By Rivkela Brodsky