Josie* knew it probably wasn't okay that her boyfriend pushed her around and sometimes called her names, but it didn't seem that bad because he also claimed to love her. At least, it didn't seem that bad until the morning he threw her to the floor and punched her in the face.
When police officers visited Josie later that day in Norwalk Hospital, they asked her a series of questions about her boyfriend and their relationship. The thirty-year-old woman was shocked to learn her answers revealed that she was at high risk of being further injured or even killed by her boyfriend. She promptly agreed to speak with a DVCC counselor, who helped her to plan a temporary safe course of action. Later, Josie was also visited in the hospital by a counselor from DVCC's Medical Advocacy Project (MAP), who further discussed safety planning and described in detail to Josie all of the DVCC services available to her.
The whole process was "eye opening" Josie told DVCC Victim Advocate Lili Vizcaino the next day, after Vizcaino had called to follow up. Because the police officer had asked her those questions, informed her that the answers showed her to be at risk, and put her in touch with a domestic violence counselor, Josie realized she was in serious danger. Additionally, after speaking with the MAP advocate and Vizcaino, she was impressed and relieved to know she could rely on first-rate services and support.
And that's exactly the point of the Lethality Assessment Program (LAP), a screening tool employed, in conjunction with DVCC, by police departments in the seven communities we serve and the Connecticut State Police. Developed by Dr. Jacquelyn Campbell of Johns Hopkins University in Maryland, LAP is designed to reduce the number of homicides resulting from domestic violence by creating a greater awareness of danger and immediately connecting victims to domestic violence services. Initially piloted in Norwalk and 13 other cities across the state, LAP screening is now done by 80 law enforcement agencies in Connecticut, including Stamford, Norwalk, Westport, Darien, New Canaan, Wilton and Weston.
According to Joe Froehlich, Director of Law Enforcement Services for the Connecticut Coalition Against Domestic Violence, which collects statistics for the program, 80% of victims assessed as "high danger" have spoken with domestic violence counselors. And Maryland's LAP project, the oldest in the nation, is credited with reducing the state's domestic violence-related homicide rate by 40%.
Further strengthening the efficacy of LAP are the weekly meetings Vizcaino has with Officer Maggie Thompson, who serves as the Domestic Violence Liaison between the Norwalk Police Department and DVCC. They agree that working as a team benefits everyone.
"There is much better communication since we started this," Thompson said. "I think the program has helped change attitudes within the police department and has helped officers to communicate more effectively. And if either Lili or I have a question, we can immediately contact each other."
"It's also made the police more aware of DVCC's services and has helped us obtain better contact information for victims so that we can follow up," Vizcaino added.
Following a weekly docket meeting on the domestic violence cases before the court, Vizcaino and Thompson review the LAP calls for the past week, during which they discuss calls where victims spoke with or declined to speak with DVCC; discuss whether or not dual arrests were warranted in cases where both parties were arrested; and decide which cases might benefit from a home visit.
Every week, Vizcaino, Thompson and another Norwalk police officer embark on visits to victims who may be in danger and who have not responded to other efforts to contact them. Their counterparts in Stamford, DVCC Victim Advocate Marielynn Herrera and two of the officers from the Stamford Police Special Victims Unit, do the same. The surprise visits are not always welcome initially, but that usually changes.
"People are nervous at first, mainly because they think they've done something wrong," Thompson said. "But when they understand why we're there, most people open up and we learn a lot."
One area where the lethality assessment and home visit programs have clearly made a difference is within the Spanish-speaking community, where many undocumented victims have been intimidated by their abusers into believing they will be deported if they report the abuse.
"Once they learn the truth, that there will be no repercussions from immigration, they are much less reluctant to pursue a case against their abuser," Thompson said.
During a 12 month period from January through December 2015, our seven police departments and the State Police performed 380 LAP screens. Of those, 153 presented as "high danger". At the time of the screening, 117 of those victims spoke with a DVCC LAP hotline counselor. Out of the total number of screenings, 231 victims went on to use other DVCC services, even though they may not have presented as high danger or immediately spoken with a LAP hotline counselor!
*Names have been changed for safety.