New move against domestic abuse

The Baltimore Sun

Howard County police officers responding to domestic violence calls must now offer on-the-spot telephone referrals to domestic violence counselors for those victims who show certain risk factors.

This month the county joined nearly 60 other jurisdictions in the state to require the "lethality assessments" -- a series of questions officers use to decide whether to immediately offer to call a counselor at the county's Domestic Violence Center in Columbia, who can offer further resources to the victim.

There are four criteria to determine when the lethality assessment should automatically be used -- if there has been an assault; if the call is at a repeat address or for a repeat offender; if the victims say they will fear for their safety once the officer leaves; and if the officer believes it's the correct step to take.

If those conditions don't exist, the officer asks three questions -- "Has he or she used a weapon against you or threatened you with a weapon"; "Has he or she threatened to kill you or your children"; "Do you think he or she might try to kill you?"

A positive response will prompt the officer to call a counselor.

If the victim responds "no" to all of those questions, the officer then asks eight additional questions, including inquiries into the perpetrator's access to a gun and employment status. If the victim answers "yes" to four of those eight questions, the officer will call a counselor.

All of the county's patrol officers have been trained to give the assessments, said Detective Sgt. Steven Martin, supervisor of the department's domestic violence unit. The department has given 34 training sessions, which last about 90 minutes, Martin said.

He said all officers eventually will be trained to give the assessments. Martin added that although some officers have had difficulty getting used to the new procedure, most understand its value and appreciate the additional resources the counselors can offer.

"This is -- traditionally -- not questions they would normally ask," Martin said. "Generally, they've responded well to it."

In the past, the typical response to a domestic violence call was to give victims "the green sheet" -- a piece of paper that offers information about domestic violence resources, Martin said. He said the assessment is a more proactive approach.

"With the lethality assessment, we're putting them in contact with a real person," he said. "It's a lot more effective. This is more immediate.

"There's not too many times in law enforcement that you can say, 'Someone in your situation has been killed.' To tell that to a victim ... that's empowering."

Martin said the assessment has been given about 15 times since Jan. 1. The department has no figures on how many people have sought further resources as a result of speaking with a counselor after the assessment.

The lethality assessments have seen success in other counties. In Harford, one of the first counties in Maryland to use them, almost 70 percent of victims agreed to speak on the phone with a counselor in 2006, according to the Maryland Network Against Domestic Violence. In the state, 30 percent of those victims who spoke with a counselor went for additional services.

The Howard County Police Department created its domestic violence unit in October 2006 with federal grant money. Martin said the department has a heavy focus on domestic violence because the issue affects entire families, including children who often grow up to be batterers if exposed to domestic violence during their childhood.

Boys who witness domestic violence are twice as likely to abuse partners and children when they become adults, according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

Martin acknowledged it's ultimately up to the victim to take advantage of the new service.

"The victim has to be empowered to go get these resources," he said.

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