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Police Tool Assesses Domestic Abuse 'Lethality'

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By Donna St. George
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 2, 2007

A growing number of police departments across Maryland are adopting a domestic violence program that uses a series of pointed questions to identify those most at risk of being killed and get them immediate aid or counseling.

Organizers say the effort has connected counselors with hundreds of people who otherwise were unlikely to seek help. Called "lethality assessment," the program is based on research from experts at Johns Hopkins University. It has been embraced by 57 police forces statewide, including agencies in Prince George's, Calvert, Anne Arundel, Howard, Charles, St. Mary's and Frederick counties.

Under the new approach, which has sparked national interest, police who answer domestic 911 calls take a far more involved role with the victims they encounter at the scene. When a case shows a high risk of lethality, police talk to the victim about the danger, phone a counselor immediately and encourage the victim to talk. Since early last year, 900 people have done so.

Counselors say these victims have often been living with their situations for so long or in such isolation that it is hard for them to see the peril they face.

"If it saves only one life, then it has done what it was supposed to do," said Capt. Daniel Hall of the Prince George's County sheriff's office, which started the program in January in a district that includes Suitland, Capitol Heights, Landover and Seat Pleasant.

The questions, 11 in all, probe whether victims have ever been threatened with a weapon, been choked or received death threats. Police also ask if the abuser has access to a handgun.

"It's difficult for many women to believe that the person who they loved -- who loved them, who may be the father of their children -- is capable of killing them," said Janis Harvey, who works with the program as chief executive of the YWCA of Annapolis and Anne Arundel.

The program comes at a time when domestic violence activists and police are increasingly working together but still searching for the best ideas, especially when it comes to preventing homicide.

"A lot of states are watching what Maryland is doing," said Cheryl O'Donnell of the National Network to End Domestic Violence. "They are very interested in seeing the results."

Federal statistics show that 1,181 women and 329 men died in intimate-partner homicides across the United States in 2005, the most recent year available. Virginia had 67 victims and the District 14 that year. Maryland had 56 in fiscal 2006.

Among those keeping an eye on the new program are officials in Virginia and the District. "It's not something we have in Virginia, but it's a concept we support," said Kate McCord of the Virginia Sexual and Domestic Violence Action Alliance.

Ken Noyes, co-executive director of the D.C. Coalition Against Domestic Violence, went further: If District police and advocates could create such a program, he said, "I have no doubt that lives could be saved."


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© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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