Asking the right questions can make all the difference in most situations, but some counties are finding it can mean safety for domestic abuse victims.
Domestic violence differs from other assaults because of the emotional bonds between the victim and assailant, which makes victims hesitant to take legal action against their tormenters. Researchers hope, however, that a series questions posed to victims by investigators will spark a realization that what happens to them is a deviation from normal behavior and trigger a call for help.
“Victims tend to think their situations are unique,” said Megan Fisher, assistant district attorney for Johnson County, Kan. “They think, ‘He’s not usually like this when he’s sober.’”
The questions include asking whether the abuser has threatened bodily harm.
“When a police officer reads questions like that aloud, there’s a point where people realize that it’s so common that there are routine questions to address it, it’s time to do something about it.” She said. “It opens their eyes, that’s why it works, in my opinion.”
The questions are called the Lethality Assessment Protocol and consist of 11 standard questions, though some agencies may add more. The 11 questions were developed by the Maryland Network Against Domestic Violence. If the victim answers “yes” to any of three questions indicating a present danger, such as if the perpetrator has made death threats, law enforcement agencies refer them immediately to domestic violence support groups. Answering “yes” to four of the remaining questions will also provoke a referral. Officers naturally have the liberty to make referrals regardless of the answers, though.
|The Lethality Assessment Protocol typically consists of 11 questions, though law enforcement agencies are free to include additional questions.
Answering “yes” to one of the following questions triggers referral to a domestic abuse support group:
- Has he/she ever used a weapon against you/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?
Answering “yes” to four of the following questions triggers referral to a domestic abuse support group:
- Does he/she have a gun or can he/she get one easily?
- Has he/she ever tried to choke you?
- Is he/she violently or constantly jealous or does he/she control most of your daily activities?
- Have you left him/her or separated after living together or being married?
- Is he/she unemployed?
- Has he/she ever tried to kill himself/herself?
- Do you have a child that he/she knows is not his/hers?
- Does he/she follow or spy on your or leave threatening messages?
The second tier of questions — including “does he/she have a gun or can he/she get one easily?” and “Is he/she violently or constantly jealous or does he/she control most of your daily activities?” — builds a case for intervention from a smattering of less imminent threats.
Johnson County began using the Lethality Assessment Protocol in July 2011, as did Washington County, Minn. In both cases, every law enforcement agency within the counties’ borders has adopted it.
Washington County Sheriff William Hutton said despite its simplicity, the protocol made a difference in his office’s work.
“I’ve responded to my share of domestic violence calls in 29 years of law enforcement, and I absolutely see a benefit to it,” he said. “It’s asking the right questions, making the right referrals and provides a benefit to the victims and us. Just that someone would ask them these questions allows victims to see it’s not normal behavior, it’s not right and it needs to be dealt with.”
In addition to aiding referrals, Hutton said the questionnaire helps standardize report writing for his deputies. Answers to the assessments are also sent to the judge when charges are filed, to help determine risk when setting bond.
Johnson County law enforcement agencies follow up the questionnaire with a follow-up visit a few days later.
Since the system’s implementation, Fisher said, Johnson County’s partner domestic violence organization has seen a twofold increase in use. She said that the year and a half the system has been in place has been too little time to accurately study its effect on recidivism, but the focus on domestic violence has brought together law enforcement and victims’ advocates, two groups she said that don’t necessarily see eye to eye.
The protocol has also been used elsewhere, including Clackmas County, Ore., Strafford County, N.H. and Montgomery County, Md.