Local police asking questions with the hope of saving lives

Lt. Bruce Lowe of the Groton City Police Department said the worst day of his career was in 2004, when he went to a Branford Manor apartment where a domestic dispute had turned deadly.

A Navy sailor had strangled his girlfriend and their 5-month-old daughter and left their bodies on the basement floor.

For that reason, Lowe said, he is 100 percent sold on a new Lethality Assessment Program in which police officers responding to domestic violence calls ask the victims in repeat cases and other serious cases 11 questions to determine if they are at risk of being killed.

"I've had the terrible experience of going to a residence where it really went wrong," Lowe recalled during a phone interview this week.

If the victim answers "yes" to certain questions, or if an officer suspects the situation could become lethal, the officer makes a phone call to Safe Futures (formerly known as the Women's Center of Southeastern Connecticut). The officer encourages the victim to speak with a Safe Futures advocate who provides her or him with advice for staying safe and with information on available services.

Groton City, New London, Waterford and Norwich police implemented the Lethality Assessment Program (LAP) as a pilot program last fall. Ten other departments statewide are participating, and the Connecticut Coalition Against Domestic Violence is assessing the program with the hope of expanding it to more departments.

The Groton City department, which started the program Sept. 15, had screened 19 victims by the end of the year. Seven were deemed in "high danger."

"At (a) bare minimum, it gets the victims to talk to a counselor and at least know some of the services that are available," Lowe said. "One of the things we find with victims is they believe their abusers when they tell them they have nowhere to go."

New London police screened 26 victims between Oct. 1 and Dec. 31 and deemed 24, or 92 percent of them, potentially lethal. Norwich screened eight victims and determined seven were high-danger cases. In Waterford, one victim was screened and determined to be at high risk of being killed.

Getting help they need

In the past, police officers would hand domestic violence victims a card listing local resources. Now they have a means of putting the victim in touch with somebody like Antoinette Cavanna, a counselor and case manager who works the second shift at Safe Futures' emergency shelter. On the hotline, Cavanna gets basic information about the case from the police officers, including what happened at the scene and how many "yes" answers the victim gave.

The officers encourage the victim to speak to Cavanna, who tries to make them understand they need to take action or they could die. In many cases, Cavanna tells the victims they should leave the home. She reassures them that Safe Futures will support them.

Cavanna finds out if the person can stay with a relative or friend. If not, she arranges for them to come to the emergency shelter or another safe location. If they decide to stay home, she helps them with safety planning and strongly encourages them to come in the next day for counseling.

If the abuser was arrested, Cavanna finds out if that person is going to be in jail overnight and asks the police to call the victim if the abuser is going to be released. Cavanna also sends an email about the case to the court-based victim advocates. Those arrested in domestic violence incidents are required to appear in court the morning after the incident. Victims don't have to go to court, but Safe Futures encourages them to speak with an advocate so the advocate can communicate the victim's feelings to the court.

"I think what we are trying to do here is make it as safe and non-threatening from the point of view of these women having to rely on strangers," Cavanna said.

Cavanna said she has also spoken with some male victims. She said the LAP program has helped to close a gap in the support system, making it easier for victims in potentially deadly situations to leave the home.

New London Police Sgt. Kevin Barney said involving outside agencies is helpful for victims, who are sometimes distrustful of police even though they initially called them for help.

"When they call, they want the violence to stop," Barney said. "The police go and the violence somewhat stops, but at the same time, something in their life has just changed. If we're taking a party out of there, we somehow or other are looked upon as someone who is taking part of their life away from them."

Following up with victims

In Waterford, police used the lethality screening in a strangulation case, according to Lt. Jeffrey Nixon. He said officers established a good rapport with the victim, who allowed them to take follow-up photographs of her injuries the next day, Nixon said. At the same time, a victim advocate from the courthouse had been notified of the case and reached out to the woman.

"While we were on the phone with her the next morning, the police knocked on the door, wanting to follow up from the night before," said Kathy Verano, supervisor of the court-based family violence victim advocates.

Liza Andrews, a spokeswoman for the Connecticut Coalition Against Domestic Violence, said the 14 participating departments conducted 428 lethality screens during the first three months of the LAP program. Officers deemed 268 cases "high danger," and of those, 156 victims took advantage of the offered services.

Safe Futures, the local affiliate of CCADV, did not receive any additional funding for the program, according to Emma Palzere-Rae, director of development and communications. The same person who answers the shelter's 24-hour hotline is answering the lethality calls, so no additional staffing is needed. The program is not about money, Palzere-Rae said.

"It's about saving lives," she said.

k.florin@theday.com

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