Helping Women at Risk

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

EACH YEAR, more than 1,200 women in the United States are killed by their husbands or boyfriends. Only a tiny percentage of them will have sought help from domestic violence programs. Despite being abused -- which often brings police attention -- they don't fully comprehend or accept the extent of the danger posed by men who they thought loved them. Identifying those most at risk so they can get help is the aim of an innovative Maryland program that is gaining national attention. The program is helping to save lives, and that should spur its expansion.

The latest recognition for Maryland's "lethality assessment" program comes from Harvard University's Kennedy School, which selected it as a finalist in a contest for government programs that make a difference. The program, as The Post's Donna St. George has reported, trains police officers to use a series of targeted questions to identify victims who are at risk of being killed. Have you ever been choked? Threatened with a weapon? Spied on? Those deemed to be in danger are immediately put in touch with counselors. The protocol, developed by the Maryland Network Against Domestic Violence with research by experts at Johns Hopkins University, has spurred increased numbers of women to get help.

By no means is the program a cure-all for domestic violence fatalities, but for the first time it has law enforcement working hand in hand with domestic violence programs. To date, 68 police agencies from every part of the state have signed on. Prince George's County has just started experimenting with its use in courts when women seek protective orders. That's a particularly welcome development because, as the recent case of the Castillo family made clear, courts need a better system of assessing risk. In that awful case, three children died; the father charged in their drowning had been deemed not to be dangerous. We can't help but wonder how the children's mother, Amy Castillo, might have answered the 11 questions of the lethality assessment. Similarly, the assessment might have helped Melissa Virasith, a St. Mary's County woman who was critically injured, and whose boyfriend was killed, after the courts failed to grant her a protective order against her estranged husband.

The winner of the Harvard competition, to be named in September, will be awarded $100,000 for use in expanding and replicating its program. Another notable finalist is the District's Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services. The much-criticized department is trying new ways to engage troubled youths, and the Harvard nod is an encouraging sign that it's headed in the right direction.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company