The 13 questions that could save a life

The red and blue strobe lights from the police car flash in the room as the officer talks to the woman huddled on the couch.

During domestic violence calls, law enforcement agencies around the county have been using a 13-question assessment to determine if victims are in danger of death from their partners. Photo by Tammy Sakry
During domestic violence calls, law enforcement agencies around the county have been using a 13-question assessment to determine if victims are in danger of death from their partners. Photo by Tammy Sakry

The bruises do not show yet, but she and her partner had an argument that became physical and the officer is now asking 13 important questions that could save her life.

Most law enforcement agencies in Anoka County have been using the lethality questionnaire since 2011 to determine if domestic violence victims are at risk of death from their partner.

In the past, officers only wanted to know the details of the incident of the day, said Anoka County Chief Deputy Sheriff Tom Wells.

Since September 2010, sheriff’s deputies have been using the questionnaire to learn more about the history of violence in the relationship in an effort to reduce murders by domestic violence.

The assessment is a “more thorough tool” than the typical questions asked by law enforcement, Wells said.

Before the Anoka County Lethality Assessment Program (LAP) was adopted by police departments around the county and the sheriff’s office, officers would only establish the facts of what happened during the current incident, he said.

“With the assessment, we look at the total history of what has happened before and what is likely to happen in the future,” Wells said.

LAP looks at past incidents in the relationship because what has happened in the past is extremely important in what could happen in the future, he said.

While the circumstances of the current incident may not be very severe, past incidents may indicate if the victim could be at high risk for death, Wells said.

Has the offender ever used a weapon against you or threatened you with a weapon? Or threatened to kill you or your children? Do you think your partner will try to kill you?

If the answer is yes, the victim is considered at high risk.

The assessment also includes questions on whether the partner has a gun or can get one, if he/she has ever tried to choke the victim, jealousy, controlling behaviors, suicidal behavior and stalking.

Answering yes to four of those questions also indicates a person is at high risk of death by domestic violence.


Connecting to services

For people who fall into the high-risk category, the officer makes a call to Alexandra House, a Blaine-based shelter for battered women and children, and its on-call victim advocates.

Prior to LAP, officers would call Alexandra House advocates hours or days after leaving the scene.

During 2011, the sheriff’s deputies conducted 98 LAP screenings and 67 people were considered to be high risk.

The nine Anoka County police departments participated in LAP during 2011. They conducted 350 screenings and identified 255 people as being high risk for death by domestic violence.

LAP started in September 2010 with the Columbia Heights Police Department and sheriff’s office, said Sue Redmond, Alexandra House community program director.

The other departments began using LAP at various times during 2011 as they were trained, she said.

Using a $400,000 grant from the United States Department of Justice, Office on Violence Against Women (OVW), a partnership of the Anoka County Sheriff’s Office, Anoka County Attorney’s Office, Anoka County Corrections Department, Anoka County Public Health Department, city prosecutors, Alexandra House and several law enforcement agencies looked at ways to improve how law enforcement, the legal system and advocates respond to domestic violence.

There were long discussions on how to respond collectively to domestic violence and how to help the victims and families, said Connie Moore, executive director of Alexandra House.

The group researched existing programs and chose the Maryland Network Against Domestic Abuse’s Lethality Assessment Program, which has been in place since 2005.

The program is research-based and the Maryland group sent trainers to Minnesota to help with the start-up.

The program is about reaching more victims and providing them with the desired services, Moore said.

It also gives victims more knowledge on what their options are and how the system will work, she said.

The Anoka County program reaches farther than the Maryland program as it includes more agencies and goes beyond connecting victims with advocates, Moore said.

It is a systemwide approach to dealing with domestic violence, Redmond said.

Even without the grant, which runs out Sept. 30, the Anoka County program would have moved forward, Moore said.


Changing the system

With the program selected, officers and victim advocates had to be trained.

For Alexandra House staff, they had to learn how to respond to officers at the scene and work with victims who may not be ready for their services.

The advocates were trained on the LAP and what it was meant to detect, said Redmond.

“Often staff is working with victims seeking us for help… because they recognize a need and are reaching out for help,” Redmond said.

LAP is more proactive and the victim may not have reached the recognition that they need help yet, she said.

With the knowledge gathered by the LAP, advocates explain all the services that Alexandra House offers and helps the victim develop a short-term safety plan in the 10 minutes they have to talk to the victim, Redmond said.

In the past, officers would connect advocates hours or days after leaving the scene and advocates might not have been able to reach the victims because they had left the home of incident, she said.

“We only reached 64 percent. With LAP, we have been able to reach out to 82 percent,” Redmond said.

The key to LAP is to protect the victim’s safety, Moore said.

“It is really getting victims of domestic violence connected to services as fast as possible,” Moore said.

Even though victim safety is key, victims of domestic violences are not required to answer the LAP questions or talk to Alexandra House representatives.


Legal system

If the domestic violence case is considered a felony, the Anoka County Attorney’s Office will handle the case.

Once a case is assigned to an attorney, the victim will hear from a victim/witness advocate, like Emily Krech, who is the victim/witness program supervisor for Anoka County.

The victim/witness advocates meet with victims in person as well as their Alexandra House advocates and explain what will happen in court and what their role in the prosecution process will be, Krech said.

The advocates also meet one-on-one with the victims.

“Before LAP, we would try to met with victims,” but because of the nature of the crime, victims did not want anything to do with the prosecution, Krech said.

“This program has given us the opportunity to meet with the victim (as well as) have a copy of how they answered the lethality questions,” she said.

“We get to see part of their history and the relationship that was so raw at the time of the incident.”

Being able to see that relationship and what they were dealing with at that time helps, Krech said.

While victims still recant their stories, there are less of them with LAP, she said.

According to Krech, having the in-person contact makes a huge difference for the victim and the case.

Because they know who they are talking to, the victims “are not as scared to call us and tell us if they are not in agreement with what is happening. And they are more cooperative,” Krech said.

That in-person meeting gives them reassurance that their thoughts and opinions will be heard, she said.

LAP has also reduces the time it takes for cases to go through the court process.

It used to take eight months to a year. Now, it takes about three months, Krech said.

Reducing the time has decreased the number of recanted stories and protection order changes, she said.

Misdemeanor and gross misdemeanor cases are handled by city attorneys and Alexandra House advocates are also available to assist victims, Moore said.

One of the problems with prosecuting domestic violence cases is victims recanting their stores, said Scott Baumgartner, attorney for the city of Anoka.

“They will make a report one night and by the time (the case) gets to court a month down the road, the story has changed,” he said.

The assessment may have more people realize how dangerous the situation they are in is and that it is ongoing domestic violence, Baumgartner said.

Having the information gathered during the LAP and from the advocates, prosecutors get a better understanding of the situation and can take the information into account for bail, plea bargaining and sentencing decisions, Anoka County Attorney Tony Palumbo said.

Domestic violences cases are a challenge for prosecutors, said Paul Young, assistant Anoka County Attorney.

“They can be some of the most challenging cases to prosecute because of the familial relationships,” he said.

“We have people who are personally invested in the outcome of the case, they know each other and (the victim has to deal with) the emotion of that, trying to maintain a household and parent kids (as well as the couple’s) friends in common and family.”

Cases like this can also be challenging because the parties were drinking, memories change when it takes a long time for the case to get to court and the victim could be dealing with pressure from family members to change their story or possibly lose their jobs or housing because of the incident, Young said.

“(LAP) gives us a better opportunity to get the best possible result, with the goal of reducing violence (and) the best opportunity to be positive in what is a tragic event,” he said.

LAP also has programs and services for the offender, including electronic monitoring, counseling and treatment.

“Personally, I would rather see a troubled family dealing with domestic violence get fixed rather than see someone sit in jail,” said Baumgartner.

If his prosecutions drop by 50 percent because everyone is getting along, it’s well worth it, he said.

Anoka County has applied for a federal $300,000 grant from OVW for the LAP program for the next two years.

“We would like to see the grant renewed,” Palumbo said.

“We still have a lot to do. We have just planted the seeds and we want to see them grow.”

Tammy Sakry is at [email protected]

  • Natana Taare

    What are the 7 questions?