Acting District Attorney Michael J. Flaherty Jr. announced the formation of a domestic violence high-risk team in Erie County. The HRT is funded in part through a grant program authorized by the U.S. Department of Justice's office on violence against women.
The three-year, $900,000 grant includes funding for a high-risk team coordinator to be located at Child and Family Services' Haven House, a victim advocate to be employed by the International Institute of Buffalo, a prosecutor and investigator to be located at the district attorney's office, and a probation officer.
"Thanks to the bold leadership of Congressman Brian Higgins and Congressman Chris Collins, we will be able to strengthen services to all victims of domestic violence in Erie County," Flaherty said.
Erie County Probation Commissioner Brian McLaughlin said, "The probation department is proud to be a member of the domestic violence high-risk team, which is the latest step in an aggressive, unified, multi-partner campaign in Erie County to assist victims, and hold the criminals who commit these acts accountable."
Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz said, "Domestic violence takes many forms, but none of them are acceptable, and we need to be vigilant and proactive to end this problem. When grant funding for domestic violence staff dried up, I moved these essential jobs into our operating budget so those workers would not be lost. Now, the formation of a high-risk team provides another tool for Erie County and our partners to use as we work together to end this communitywide problem."
"Domestic violence infringes on one of the most basic freedoms - that of comfort and safety in our homes," Higgins said. "This federal grant allows us to pull together local resources to provide the best support and protection to those most at risk."
"We need to do more to prevent violence against women," Collins said. "This grant funding will allow Erie County to establish a domestic violence high-risk team, which will help current and potential victims of domestic abuse secure the protection they need.
"Domestic abuse has no place in our country, and I am proud to support a program that will make a difference in our communities."
The New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services stated there were 29 homicides as a result of domestic violence from 2010-14 in Erie County. County statistics indicate another 7 occurred in 2015. Across the state, nearly 50 percent of all women murdered last year were killed by an intimate partner.
The domestic violence high-risk team model incorporates both victim advocates and law enforcement utilizing risk assessments to identify the most dangerous domestic violence cases. These cases are then monitored by a multidisciplinary team that shares case information with victim consent, and implements case-specific intervention plans to mitigate the danger.
Erie County is looking to replicate the success of the nationally recognized model initiated by the Jeanne Geiger Crisis Center of Newburyport, Massachusetts, in partnership with the Maryland Network Against Domestic Violence and the work of Dr. Jacquelyn Campbell of the Johns Hopkins University School of Nursing.
The assessment used by advocates is called the "danger assessment." Campbell, who is a leader in intimate partner homicide research, originally developed this evidence-based tool. The "danger assessment" helps to determine the level of danger an abused woman has of being killed by her intimate partner.
There are two parts to the tool: a calendar and a 20-item scoring instrument. The calendar helps to assess severity and frequency of battering during the past year, and assists victims in visualizing, rather than minimizing, their abuse history. The 20-item assessment instrument uses a weighted system to score yes/no responses to risk factors associated with intimate partner homicide.
Law enforcement personnel use a separate, shorter screening tool adapted from Campbell's "danger assessment" instrument. Officers review this 11-item questionnaire at the scene of a domestic call. If a victim presents with certain risk factors, officers urge victims to call a local domestic violence hotline and will assist with making the call. This law enforcement tool and approach is called the "lethality assessment program," devised by the Maryland Network Against Domestic Violence.
In Erie County, the Lancaster Police Department has been a leader in the law enforcement community in this effort. LPD Chief Gerald Gill has asked that his department be the pilot jurisdiction for this effort in Erie County.
"Domestic violence is an issue in every community big or small. Our department has been a partner with the DA's office on this issue for years and we look forward to piloting the innovative lethality assessment protocol and to begin referring cases to the high-risk team," Gill said.
Recently, Chief William Strassburg of the City of Tonawanda Police Department also indicated his department's interest in using the lethality assessment protocol.
The team coordinator, based at Haven House, will be charged with obtaining all relevant current and background information pertaining to a case and organizing meetings. The team then develops an intervention plan informed by the assessments, a review of history and criminal behavior patterns, the concerns of the victim, and the context and severity of violence.
Campbell's research shows domestic violence escalation often follows predictable patterns. Certain risk factors such as the perpetrator owning a gun, unemployment of the offender, threats to kill, and the victim's belief she could be killed are indicators of increased escalation of lethality. This same research shows 83 percent of victims, perpetrators, or both, had contact with criminal justice, victim assistance, and/or health care agencies in the year prior to the homicide. Campbell's research highlights the wealth of early identification and prevention opportunities that exist to assess risk.
The DA's office said perpetrators of domestic violence tend to be manipulative and savvy about the criminal justice system, often taking advantage of court delays and miscommunication within the system. This leaves the victim overwhelmed and confused about how to move forward. The high-risk team is an important method for strengthening communication, collaborations and service delivery among local domestic violence service providers and law enforcement personnel in Erie County.