Risk management: Seekhaven, MPD boost victim safety

A new partnership between Seekhaven and the Moab Police Department has been implemented to help victims of domestic violence find support before it is too late. The partnership is based around the Lethality Assessment Program (LAP), a tool designed to enable law enforcement officials and domestic violence service providers to work together to better assist victims.

As of July 1, the LAP training has been completed and the program is officially in operation at the Moab PD. The department has entered into a partnership network that includes Seekhaven, Monticello PD, Blanding PD, the San Juan County Sheriff’s Department and the Moab Valley Multicultural Center. According to Abigail Taylor, the program director at Seekhaven, “the objective is to save lives” with the LAP. “We are the only domestic violence and sexual assault shelter in Grand and San Juan County,” said Taylor, noting how in rural areas it can be challenging for victims to access services that can make a life or death difference. By partnering with law enforcement agencies throughout the region, Seekhaven will be put in contact with far more victims than they would otherwise be able to reach.

The LAP operates under the premise that “deaths or near-deaths [due to intimate partner violence] are predictable and preventable,” Taylor said. She described how the LAP was “created by the Maryland Network Against Domestic Violence…based off the research of Dr. Jacquelyn Campbell.” By allowing law enforcement to connect victims with service providers, the LAP addresses a shortcoming in how domestic violence cases are typically handled. Statistics show that domestic violence victims interact far more with law enforcement officers than domestic violence service providers. According to Dr. Campbell’s research, “only 4% of abused victims had used a domestic violence hotline or shelter within the year prior to being killed by an intimate partner.” Law enforcement officers are not in the position to offer support outside of legal recourse. Necessary types of support – like help in finding a different place to stay and basic mental health services such as counseling – fall under the purview of non-governmental agencies like Seekhaven.

Cases of homicide by an intimate partner are often the result of a gradual escalation of violence. Dr. Campbell’s research found that for 28 to 33 percent of victims, the homicide or attempted homicide was the first act of violence. That means “approximately 70 percent of these victims experienced violence by their partner beforehand,” noted Taylor. Furthermore, the research shows that in the year prior to the homicide, 44 percent of abusers were arrested and about one-third of victims contacted the police. Therefore, the potential for victims to later be murdered by a partner is often overlooked by police responding to less severe instances of violence or abuse. Moab Police Chief Jim Winder is confident the implementation of the LAP will address that inadequacy.

The LAP trains law enforcement officers on how to deal with domestic violence situations and gives them a well-defined protocol to follow. The LAP uses a set of 11 questions to assess the level of danger an individual faces from their domestic partner. Questions range from “Has he/she ever used a weapon against you or threatened you with a weapon?” to “Does he/she follow or spy on you or leave threatening messages?” It may seem obvious that a police officer would ask direct questions, but in Winder’s opinion, before the LAP, “those questions were not being asked.” Winder described the precarious position police officers often find themselves in, “you’re really walking a delicate balance when you walk into somebody’s home and they’ve already gone through a very traumatic and dramatic situation… a law enforcement officer…wants to be deferential, they want to ensure that the person doesn’t feel that we’re overly prying or being intrusive or offensive.” Winder went on to discuss how the LAP helps both officers and victims, “the protocol serves two purposes: it refreshes and refines the interview process and it hopefully enables people to look at their situation through a different light and make choices.” When officers receive a certain amount of affirmative responses to their questions, then they contact the local domestic violence service provider. The victim is offered the choice to speak with an advocate. If the victim takes that option, then the service provider will help them devise a safety plan for the next 24 hours. From there, things are highly dependent on the nuances of the situation. “Everyone’s situation is different…our services are always client-led,” said Taylor.

While the LAP partnership does signal great progress, there are still major obstacles to dealing with domestic violence, especially in a rural place like Moab. “Living in a small community it’s really difficult to not only access services, but it’s hard to discuss what’s happening in your private life,” said Taylor. In her experience, “housing is probably the biggest issue that I see on a day-to-day basis.” Taylor pointed out that when “someone chooses to leave an abusive relationship and they try to obtain a new, safe home… it’s very difficult to get that… throw a few kids in the mix and it’s even more difficult.”

Compared to his experience dealing with domestic violence cases as Sheriff of Salt Lake County, Winder said “it’s totally different.” He described how a victim’s options to flee an abusive relationship are greatly limited in a small town. He listed geographic isolation, the lack of anonymity, the stigma around seeking help and tough financial circumstances as the primary factors that make seeking help in a small city far more difficult than in a large one. “It has really forced me to reevaluate the whole response process for domestic violence because up there it was much more anonymous,” said Winder.

Seekhaven is well aware of how difficult it can be to find support. “A lot of victims experience victim blaming, so they’re afraid to reach out for help because it’s somehow going to be their fault,” said Taylor. She explained how Seekhaven’s strict confidentiality policy alleviates people’s concerns about seeking help. Except in certain cases, such as those involving child abuse, Seekhaven does not share personal information with anyone, even law enforcement and family members. Aside from the fear of reaching out, other factors like dependence, financial or otherwise, make leaving an abusive relationship extremely problematic. Through the LAP, high-risk victims can immediately be put in contact with a non-judgmental, understanding and well-trained service provider. Increasing the ease of accessing support services could be essential in breaking the cycles of domestic violence that are far too common, even in Moab.

Though the LAP partnership between Seekhaven and the Moab PD is still in its preliminary stages, both agencies are optimistic about the future of the program. “Seekhaven is really excited to work with the police department. We only have good things to say about them and we appreciate their willingness to assist these victims and work with us,” said Taylor. She also discussed the success of the training and how it allowed Seekhaven and the Moab PD to “build rapport and better understand each other’s protocols and how we both will operate on our ends when we’re both responding to these situations.” Winder expressed a similar sentiment, “God willing, we don’t have these situations that get to that point, but statistically speaking we probably will and the goal is to have been aware of it and be thinking about it more than we would have.” Early intervention is the key to preventing an abusive relationship from spiraling into homicide and the LAP will likely prove to be a vital tool in connecting victims with the services they need to improve their situations.

ByBy Nathaniel Smith

The Times-Independent