Grant to Spread Domestic Violence Program to Other States

By Donna St. George
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 23, 2008

A Maryland program designed to prevent domestic violence-related homicides will soon be replicated in other parts of the country with the help of a new federal grant, officials announced yesterday.

The $105,280 grant will fund training for at least five jurisdictions across the nation on Maryland's "lethality assessment program," which helps police officers who respond to 911 calls identify high-risk abuse cases at the scene and put victims on the phone with counselors on the spot.

The program, started in 2006 and based on research by experts at Johns Hopkins University, has been embraced by 87 law enforcement agencies across the state, including all of the counties in the Washington suburbs.

"What's exciting is that we have created a model program here in Maryland and we're taking it on the road," said Michaele Cohen, executive director of the Maryland Network Against Domestic Violence, which launched the effort with the researchers' help.

The program's organizers said it has put more than 3,000 high-risk victims in touch by phone with counselors in the immediate aftermath of a violent incident. Of those, more than 800 have gone into a domestic violence program for additional services.

Advocates said these victims might not otherwise seek help.

At a news conference in the Bowie offices of the Maryland domestic violence organization, Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.) commended the effort, which she credited with reducing domestic homicides in Maryland. The grant from the federal Bureau of Justice Assistance will expand the effect, she said.

"Now we're going to take it nationwide to save lives nationwide," Mikulski said.

Other elected officials weighed in with similar praise, including Rep. Donna F. Edwards (D-Md.), Prince George's County State's Attorney Glenn F. Ivey and Prince George's County Sheriff Michael Jackson. "This is an exciting step forward," Ivey said.

To assess lethality, police are trained to ask 11 pointed questions -- about weapons, employment, threats, children -- that researchers said indicate possible peril. In such cases, police make a call to counselors right away and encourage victims to take the phone.

The Maryland program has attracted attention from across the country. It was named one of the top 50 programs in the 2008 Innovations in American Government competition, sponsored by Harvard University's Kennedy School.

Fifty-nine law enforcement agencies in Maryland use the lethality assessment, 17 others are in training, and 11 have committed to the project.

"I think the potential is that more and more places around the country are going to be using this method, a research-based method," said Dave Sargent, a retired D.C. police lieutenant who has shepherded the Maryland program since its inception.

Typically, police officers at the scene of an incident are left to guess about potential dangerousness; some might hand out counseling phone numbers, but there is no direct contact with a domestic violence program, Sargent sai d.

The expansion nationally comes as Maryland leaders prepare to bring their idea into hospital environments and clergy counseling efforts. They also plan to work with the remaining 23 law enforcement agencies in Maryland that have not signed on.

At the same time, researchers at Hopkins, Arizona State University and the University of Oklahoma have just been awarded a $581,232 two-year federal grant to bring the program to eight police jurisdictions in Oklahoma, where they will also conduct extensive research to determine whether the lethality assessment can be scientifically validated and how the program affects the incidence of violence and the seeking of help.

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