Governor, others to tout program that assesses victims of domestic violence

State officials will gather Thursday in Hartford to tout Connecticut's designation as the first state to implement statewide a program in which police screen victims of domestic violence to determine if they are in danger of being killed by their partner.

Southeastern Connecticut embraced the Lethality Assessment Program early, taking part in a pilot program when it was introduced in the state in 2012 and becoming the first region in which it was used by all state, local and tribal police departments.

Police responding to domestic violence calls ask victims a series of questions to determine if they are at high risk of being killed, then immediately connect them with a counselor who helps the victim, perhaps by creating a safety plan, finding temporary housing or navigating the legal system.

"Connecticut is the first state, the only state, to have every single police department on board, and it's all volunteer. We don't get any money," said Katherine Verano, executive director of Safe Futures, the New London-based agency that works with victims of domestic violence and sexual assault.

When police in southeastern Connecticut deem someone at high risk and place a call to Safe Futures, a staff member takes the call on a designated law enforcement cellphone and starts working immediately to determine how the agency can help.

"We're so beyond thrilled," Verano said of the program's effectiveness. "It's the best tool I've ever seen to bring agencies together."

Verano is the statewide trainer for the Lethality Assessment Program and has trained people from as far away as China to use the tool. She said she plans to attend the Connecticut Coalition Against Domestic Violence's media event at the Legislative Office Building in Hartford on Thursday, at which expected guests include Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection Commissioner Dora Shriro and Watertown police Chief John Gavallas, who is president of the Connecticut Police Chiefs Association.

According to Karen Jarmoc, president and chief executive of the Connecticut Coalition Against Domestic Violence, police in Connecticut conducted 22,566 lethality screens over the past five years. The officers ask a series of 11 questions of those who have been assaulted by an intimate partner, beginning with, "Has he/she ever used a weapon against you or threatened you with a weapon? Has he/she threatened to kill you or your children? Do you think he/she might try to kill you?"

Fifty-one percent of those screened were deemed to be in high danger. Of those, 73 percent spoke with a counselor when police at the scene placed a phone call to the local domestic violence organization. Eighty-nine percent of victims who spoke with a counselor at the scene followed up for services.

Dan Cargill, director of law enforcement services for CCADV and a retired state police detective, said law enforcement agencies and domestic violence programs signed on for the program without a legislative mandate or budget.

"They've seen the value in this," he said.

Police officers screen victims at the end of investigations, a process that takes about 10 minutes.

"It's more work for law enforcement, but the added work is well worth the benefit of helping victims and their families get to a safer place in their lives," Cargill said. "Truly being able to identify the dangerousness of a victim's situation is the other critical piece."

It succeeds, Verano said, because agencies work together to offer their particular expertise.  

Verano and Groton Long Point Police Chief Jeffrey Nixon, who is a member of the Safe Futures board of directors, in June traveled to Beijing, China, which passed its first domestic violence law in 2016, to educate police, social workers, lawyers and professors on the program. The trip was organized and paid for by the Paul Tsai China Center at Yale Law School. During the past month, teams from Beijing and Hunan and Taiwan visited Connecticut to learn more.

The Lethality Assessment Program, which is based on the research of Dr. Jacquelyn Campbell of The Johns Hopkins University School of Nursing, was initiated in Maryland. Verano said she and some of the China contingent recently went to Baltimore to meet with Campbell.

For those who assist victims of domestic violence, one death resulting from intimate partner violence is too many. According to the Connecticut Coalition to End Domestic Violence, Connecticut averaged 14 intimate partner homicides a year between 2000 and 2015, representing 13 percent of all homicides.

Southeastern Connecticut experienced at least four cases of intimate partner homicides in recent years.

  • Patrick Antoine is awaiting trial on charges he fatally stabbing his pregnant wife, Margarette Mady, on June 2, 2016, and set fire to their Norwich apartment.
  • James F. Hodgdon Jr. was charged in September 2015 in the murder of his 58-year-old wife, Dianna Hodgdon, at their home in Norwich.
  • David McKeever, 49, is awaiting trial in the fatal stabbing of his longtime girlfriend, Delma Murphy, at their New London home in November 2015.

Also pending is the case of Chihan Eric Chyung, whose conviction for fatally shooting his wife, Paige Anne Bennett, was overturned by the state Supreme Court in April due to a legal error. He remains incarcerated and is expected to be retried early next year in New London Superior Court.

k.florin@theday.com

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