Domestic Violence Lethality Assessment

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Lethality assessments are a type of “danger score,” where police or advocates ask a victim of domestic violence questions to help identify high-lethality risk factors and raise awareness in the victim regarding their personal level of danger. Under a new Arizona law, the assessments can also be used when setting bail and domestic violence charges. The assessments will be the focus of a 2015 Domestic Violence Awareness Month press conference. MAG Regional Domestic Violence chair Robin Barker, who is also vice mayor of Apache Junction, will discuss the assessments and domestic violence, along with City of Phoenix Prosecutor Amy Offenberg, who is the domestic violence liaison for the city of Phoenix.

CHRISTINA ESTES: A terrible scene at Tempe Town Lake over the weekend is generating conversations about domestic violence. Police tell us a 27-year-old man intentionally drove an SUV into the lake, killing himself, estranged wife and their 3 young children. For our next guest, the need to increase awareness and support through an evaluation tool and new state law. To tell us more, Maricopa association of governments regional domestic violence chair, Robin Barker. City of Phoenix prosecutor, Amy Offenberg, domestic violence liaison for the city of Phoenix. Thank you for coming in. Amy, we have to address Tempe, such a horrible, horrible situation. As a prosecutor how does that impact what you do when you go to work? Do you think what are we doing here?

AMY OFFENBERG: Every time as soon as like this happens the first thing you do is did I ever deal with these people? Fortunately this is not one who I ever dealt with. But that is the first reaction any time there is a tragedy like this. And then you start thinking how do we get involved? How do we help? How do we make sure something like this doesn't happen again.

CHRISTINA ESTES: We do want to let people know that throughout the conversation, we will put up a web site and phone number that people can write down, call themselves or reach out if they're interested in getting help themselves or they want to help somebody else. October is domestic violence awareness month. Robin is using it to spread the word a tool that is being used to help identify victims most at risk of being killed.

ROBIN BARKER: That's correct.

CHRISTINA ESTES: Tell us about the tool. What is it called and how does it work?

ROBIN BARKER: The tool is called a lethality assessment, what it is in simple terms is a list of questions that a police officer or a victim advocate might ask a victim. You go through these questions and they assess how dangerous the situation is that they're in, and this tool is very valuable in 3 different areas really. First of all, it gives the victim a real sense of the danger. Sometimes domestic violence victims don't realize how much danger they're in. They have adjusted to that. It gives the police officer or the victim's advocate an idea of what kind of danger this is, and gives them an idea of what kind of resources they might need to get to this victim as soon as possible. And thirdly, it is a judicial side, after the passage of house bill 64 or 2467, and its implementation in July, now judges have the authority to go ahead and use the results of that lethality assessment when dealing with domestic violence cases.

CHRISTINA ESTES: Amy, are you aware and very familiar with the questions? There is 18 questions. A lot of questions that are being asked. Can you talk about some of them and why they're asked and what happens with the responses?

AMY OFFENBERG: Sure, Phoenix actually uses a very abbreviated version. The Phoenix police department uses a four-question assessment when they are out on the scene. The four questions that the Phoenix police department uses, how frequently and seriously does your partner intimidate you or threaten you? How frequently does your partner demand you do things and verify that you did them? And describe the most frightening or worse event involving your partner? And have you ever made it known to your partner that you wanted to leave? For women who are involved in these situations, when they leave is the most lethal time in a lot of situations. So the police are really looking in those situations for if they have made their desire to leave known, how the partner has reacted. Also use of weapons is a strong indicator of future lethality, so they're looking for indication that there are weapons involved in previous situations.

CHRISTINA ESTES: So what happens with the responses? We know that oftentimes, 911 call is made, officer goes out, asks these questions and then what?

AMY OFFENBERG: They do go into the police report and they are used in several ways. Phoenix police department, detective reviews them and they classify them into 3 different groups. Group ones are -- where they see controlling behavior with violence, the group twos are controlling behavior but no violence. Your stalking cases. Group 3 is where there is no indication of controlling behavior. So, the police divide them into these groups, which we as prosecutors then use for various reasons in our office. Judges are also hearing about this as -- the legislator -- legislature allowed the judges to hear the results of this in determining bail. When a person arrested for domestic violence crime goes before a judge, a judges is hearing the results of the questions. And is able to consider those in setting bail. And we have seen higher bonds in cases where there is indications of controlling behavior.

CHRISTINA ESTES: According to MEGS web site, there is an Arizona family every 30 minutes that is turned away from a shelter. Is there any follow-up, robin? Is there any response and help available if someone says I need help? I have to get out. But I go to a shelter and they tell me it is full.

ROBIN BARKER: There is a national help line that can be called who will refer that person to a closer situation here in, and, yes, shelter beds are a problem. You know, keeping enough beds available for the victims that are out there, but I believe that that is a problem that we are cognizant of and we are trying hard to take care of that as best we can to make more people aware of it, which helps to build more of it, etc.

CHRISTINA ESTES: As the region's domestic violence chair, did you come across anything, have you come across anything that surprised you or struck you or made you go I had no idea?

ROBIN BARKER: Lots of things, yes. The press conference on Friday, though I had an idea, I didn't hear it so starkly. Amy told a story of an older woman whose son was abusing her. This is domestic violence. And the woman ended up dead. Is that correct, Amy? Which just stymied me. You think of domestic violence as partners that are younger. You don't necessarily think of children and parents and so forth.

CHRISTINA ESTES: What has been your experience, Amy? You mentioned women, we know in most cases women are the victims. Both genders can be victims as well. Is there a certain age range, socioeconomic, education level?

AMY OFFENBERG: Domestic violence can affect anybody. Socioeconomic ranges, all ages, all nationalities. Nobody is immune from it. No group.

CHRISTINA ESTES: So, throughout our conversation, we have been showing the web site and the phone number. What advice would you give somebody who thinks they need help or someone who wants to help someone?

AMY OFFENBERG: First, if you are in danger, obviously call 911 immediately. That's the best thing you can do. Other than that, there are a lot of great resources out there. The Arizona coalition to end sexual and domestic violence has a wonderful web site and has a lot of resources to help people who are looking to get out of an abusive relationship. Also Phoenix has gone to a centralized screening for shelter. There is one number that you can call and get all of the information you need for available shelter beds throughout the Phoenix area. Also there are a lot of family advocacy centers throughout the valley. Phoenix has one, one in the east valley and one in the west valley. Staffed with victim advocates, police officers and others who can provide assistance to people who need help or who are trying to help somebody else in a domestic violence situation.

CHRISTINA ESTES: Amy Offenberg, Robin Barker, thank you both for coming in and sharing your insight. We appreciate it.

AMY OFFENBERG: Thank you.

ROBIN BARKER: Thank you.

Robin Barker : MAG Regional Domestic Violence Chair
Amy Offenberg : Phoenix domestic violence liaison

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