Local leaders helping China develop domestic violence response

Police in China are starting to ask the same questions of domestic violence victims that Connecticut officers have been asking for years in part because of the efforts of Safe Futures of New London.

Last month, Katherine Verano, executive director of Safe Futures, and Jeffrey Nixon, chief of the Groton Long Point Police, traveled to Beijing to educate police, social workers, lawyers and professors on the Lethality Assessment Program, a screening tool that police departments here use at the scene of domestic violence calls to determine if a victim is at high risk of being murdered. If the person is determined to be at high risk, she or he is immediately connected to counselors who can help create a safety plan, find temporary housing, navigate the legal system and other services.

The trip was organized and paid for by the Paul Tsai China Center at Yale Law School. Verano was able to bring her daughter along, and Nixon was accompanied by his wife. Their teaching materials were translated ahead of time, including a training video made at Safe Futures. With the help of interpreters, Verano and Nixon team-taught the program to groups of 60 people a day for four days.

The Asian country, where experts estimate as many as one third of all families are afflicted by domestic violence, passed its first domestic violence law in 2016. China's approach to domestic violence is evolving, and the experts from Yale are seeking to avail the country of the progress made in Connecticut and across the country since 1985, when Tracey Thurman of Torrington, who was nearly killed by her estranged husband, successfully sued the police department for ignoring or rejecting the escalating violence.

Verano said that to some extent, the authorities in China are just learning what "domestic violence" means.

"A female officer said to me, 'We don't have domestic violence. We go to a house and there's slapping and hitting, but that's not domestic violence," Verano said.

Knowing the importance of remaining respectful and diplomatic, Verano said she told the woman, "Thirty years ago, we didn't believe that was domestic violence either."

"They have very few shelters or hotlines," Verano said. "They really realized in this forum where they had to go."

By the end of the training sessions, Verano and Nixon said their students were working together to figure out how to implement the program.

"They broke into roundtables of mixed groups and talked about, 'How could we do this?' '' Verano said.

"It came down to them talking about technical things, like 'How can we set up phone lines?' '' Nixon said. "They wanted to get it done."  

To their delight, every day the people in training wore purple bracelets from Safe Futures that say, "There's no excuse for abuse." And by the end of the week, Verano and Nixon said they felt like celebrities. Participants wanted to talk to them and pose for pictures and to learn more about their work in the United States.

 "The amazing thing was, they were open to change, even though they are so culturally structured," Nixon said.

The Lethality Assessment Program, based on the research of Dr. Jacquelyn Campbell of The Johns Hopkins University School of Nursing, was initiated in Maryland. Introduced in Connecticut in 2012 by the Connecticut Coalition Against Domestic Violence, the LAP, as it is called, is now being used by 96 out of 110 police departments statewide. It is a voluntary program that does not require additional funding.

The first three of the 11 questions in the screening tool are as follows: Has the (person accused of domestic violence) ever used a weapon aginst you or threatened you with one? Has he/she ever threatened to kill you or your children? Do you think he/she might try to kill you?

Southeastern Connecticut was the first part of the state to get every police department to use the LAP. Nixon, a longtime advocate for domestic violence victims, started serving as a police liaison for LAP trainings while still employed as a police lieutenant in Waterford. He is now a member of the Safe Futures Board of Directors and is working with Verano and others to educate first responders and medical professionals about the signs of strangulation, a commonly seen form of domestic violence that can be a precursor to homicide.

In southeastern Connecticut, police who in the past would have handed a victim a business card with a few contact numbers, have used LAP to determind that 327 victims were at high risk of being murdered based on their responses to the questions, according to Verano. Police officers identified an additional 13 victims based on their experience and training.The victims were immediately connected with a counselor from Safe Futures who could help them create a safety plan, find temporary housing and navigate the legal system.

"One victim said, "I never thought the police would be so kind," Verano said. "They worked as a team. I couldn't believe they were there to take care of me and my son."

Verano and Nixon worked with attorney Su Lin Han, a senior fellow at the Paul Tsai China Center, on the China project. Han was traveling over the holiday weekend. She could not be reached for a phone conversation but in an email referred to a recent article she wrote on the topic.

Han's recent article for the Website China File indicates that the two most prominent features of the new domestic violence law are written police warnings and court protective orders, not arrests.

She cited several pilot projects in the Hunan province in which the All-China Women's Federation, a women's advocacy organization, is working with police and courts to establish multi-agency domestic violence response systems focusing on coordinated crisis intervention in high risk cases.

"One important feature of such systems is the close collaboration between police and victim support services by training police officers to screen for victims who are in danger of death and serious injuries, and connect them to domestic violence hotlines for immediate safety planning," she wrote. "Similar screenings in the U.S. have resulted in a significant increase of high risk victims receiving support services."

k.florin@theday.com

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