'Lifesaving' questions assess domestic violence victims' risk of being killed
Editor's note: This story is part of a series on domestic violence. Look for our previous stories on how the COVID-19 pandemic affects victims of domestic violence; how agencies and schools are helping youths learn the warning signs and build healthy relationships; and how technology has changed the way abusers control, coerce and stalk their victims.
Before the statewide implementation of the Lethality Assessment Program — or LAP — officers responding to domestic violence incidents in the Town of Groton would hand victims a blue piece of paper with a list of phone numbers they could call to try to get help.
"A lot of times that blue piece of paper would end up tossed on the floor or in the trash," Chief Louis J Fusaro said. After handing off the list, the officers may have never seen that person again, never known if they got help — or if they survived.
But now, all officers — and first responders — statewide are trained to ask a series of 11 questions when responding to an incident where domestic violence is involved, the potential danger is high or even when a gut feeling suggests it's needed. And with domestic violence rates on the rise during the COVID-19 pandemic, these screenings are more important than ever.
The list of 11 questions in the LAP screening was created after years of research by Dr. Jacquelyn C. Campbell at Johns Hopkins University. She looked at thousands of cases of intimate partner homicide to identify patterns and created the standard for evaluating how much danger a victim is in.
"Depending on how they answer those questions, they'll screen in as either high risk or not high risk," said Christine Foster, director of crisis counseling and Camp HOPE for Safe Futures, a social services organization that assists domestic violence victims. "And to be clear, we aren't assessing their risk of being hurt, we're assessing their risk of being murdered."
Safe Futures, based in New London, works closely with police departments in 21 cities and towns in southeastern Connecticut. The organization, and others like it statewide and nationwide, has seen a spike in domestic violence incidents during the pandemic; Safe Futures helped nearly 10,000 victims of domestic violence in 2021, up from a little over 7,000 the year before — an increase of 30%.
In Connecticut, 37.7% of women and 33.9% of men experience some sort of violence from a domestic partner in their lifetime, according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. At least 35% of the state's criminal court docket is made up of domestic violence cases, according to Safe Futures Executive Director Katherine Verano.
These statistics make tools like LAP — implemented statewide in 2012 — even more important.
"The whole idea about the LAP program is to stop the violence, stop the cycle of abuse," Fusaro said. "And this tool helps connect folks who are victims of domestic violence with resources."
Fusaro said his department has tried to be at the forefront of making sure the LAP program is utilized throughout the state. One of its sergeants, Richard Sawyer, trains officers from across Connecticut's eastern district in how to most effectively implement LAP screenings.
LAP saves lives by helping victims understand just how serious their situation may be, said Sawyer, the department's domestic violence liaison officer.
Since Connecticut first responders started using LAP, the number of domestic violence victims who connect with advocates has jumped from about 4% to 86%, according to Sawyer and Foster.
And when a person screens in as high risk, officers really try to drive that point home. "The officers know that they need to be frank when they have these discussions," Sawyer said. "We let them know, 'According to my LAP screen, you're at a high risk of being killed by your spouse or your partner.'
"Sometimes it's the first time they've really heard this out loud," he said, acknowledging that for many domestic violence victims, abusive behavior becomes the norm, something they've lived with for years, even decades. "Sometimes it takes an officer to tell you 'this person is likely to kill you.'"
Three key questions
One way responders identify folks at high risk is if the person answer yes to the top three questions on the screening form: 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?
A victim responding yes to these questions indicates that the person might be killed by their partner. The next step, Sawyer said, is to connect the victim with a domestic violence advocate, such as someone at Safe Futures, right away.
Sawyer trains officers to make that quick connection even if the victim is hesitant. "What I've often encouraged officers to do is to make that call regardless of if they (the victim) want to talk to them or not," he said. "To put them (the advocate) on speaker phone and say, 'We know you don't want to talk to an advocate, but they're right here if you do.'"
Verano, who led statewide LAP training in Connecticut for more than a decade, said she developed a lot of trust in the process after seeing real-life examples of its accuracy. When she first learned about the program she said she went back and reviewed local cases of homicide by intimate partners. If those victims had been screened through LAP, first responders would have been able to let them know how much danger they were in based on their answers to the LAP questions.
"Every single one, if I'd asked those questions, they would have screened in as high risk," Verano said.
At Safe Futures, advocates are now available any time of day to take calls from first responders when someone screens as high risk.
"We have our own designated LAP line available 24/7, when that phone rings we know it's a high danger, high-risk call and we are there for them 1000%, 24 hours a day," Verano said. "When we're training advocates I always tell them, answer that call like it's a 911 call."
Verano also said that since advocates are answering those calls from police, implementing LAP protocols created more direct partnerships between police and domestic violence organizations. It also shows victims that the two agencies are collaborating and are both there to help them.
Chief Brian Wright with the New London Police Department said that LAP screenings are in line with police departments' goal of being proactive, not reactive when it comes to domestic violence.
Following a homicide-suicide that left a young couple dead in a domestic violence incident in New London earlier this year, Wright said it's vital for police, family and friends to have conversations about domestic violence before it even occurs, and especially before it escalates. He said he hopes family, friends and first responders will be aware of the resources available to victims, and know the warning signs of escalating abusive behavior before things become violent.
He said that once police are called in to help with a domestic violence situation, it's usually already a severe circumstance. But by conducting these screenings at the first visit to a home where domestic violence is occurring, officers have an opportunity to "intervene before we even get to that extreme end of the spectrum," he said.
Wright said the LAP protocol also gives officers an opportunity to let victims know what options and resources exist for them.
Fusaro, who is a new member of Safe Futures' board of directors, said LAP "has saved people and created an avenue for people who may not have ordinarily reached services."
"I think that this has saved lives in the Town of Groton, in the region and in the state of Connecticut," he said. "These systems help prevent people from falling through the cracks."
The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence defines domestic violence as "the willful intimidation, physical assault, battery, sexual assault, and/or other abusive behavior as part of a systematic pattern of power and control perpetrated by one intimate partner against another." Abuse is not always physical: abusers use coercion, threats and intimidation to control a partner's actions and communication with others; use emotional abuse to diminish victims' confidence and self-worth; minimize their own toxic behavior, blame the victims and deny their own wrongdoings to avoid responsibility; use economic abuse to limit victims' access to money; and isolate victims from friends and family.
If you are a victim of domestic violence, help is available.
Call (860) 701-6001 for Safe Futures' free, confidential, 24/7 hotline. It only takes a few minutes to ask for help.
The National Domestic Violence hotline can be reached at (800) 701-6001.
Resources also are available online at thehotline.org, safefuturesct.org and ncadv.org. These websites allow you to quickly close the webpage if you're being monitored. The Domestic Violence Hotline website also offers options for support via text message or online chats.