Can the difference between life and death come down to asking 11 questions?
Domestic violence researchers in Oklahoma -- with the help of some law enforcement agencies, including the Tulsa Police Department -- have been testing this premise for the last year or so, at the scene of domestic violence incidents, using a set of questions known as a lethality assessment.
The questions are straightforward by design. Some are obvious: "Do you think he/she might try to kill you?" Others a bit more subtle: "Do you have a child that he/she knows is not his/hers?"
Simple, yes -- but, "I wouldn't say it's easy," said Sgt. Stephanie Jackson, who supervises the domestic violence detective division of the Tulsa Police Department. "I would say it's probably one of the most difficult things the victim is doing at that point."
The assessment is not yet standard police protocol in Tulsa, but is under study as part of a research project that also involves victim advocates with Domestic Violence Intervention Services - Call Rape. In addition to asking the 11 questions, police involve victim advocates to speak with victims at the scene of the incident. The advocate helps develop a safety plan that might involve arranging for a stay at a shelter for domestic violence victims. Victims can also visit the Ann Patterson Dooley Family Safety Center -- 3010 S. Harvard Ave. -- for help in seeking a protection order or with other services.
"We have a state law, every officer has to give a safety card to victims of domestic violence, but then that's incumbent on the victim to go and find the services," said Janet Sullivan Wilson, an associate professor at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center who's helping oversee the research.
Overall, it's a much more aggressive approach that will also be ramping up in Tulsa through a two-year, $650,000 federal grant just now kicking in. The money will pay for the formation of what's being described as a rapid-intervention team focused on domestic violence cases where the victim is most at risk.
The grant money is unrelated to the research study of lethality assessments in the field. But it also will make use of a similar set of questions known as a danger assessment to estimate the potential for greater violence, said Suzann Stewart, director of the Ann Patterson Dooley Family Safety Center.
"We are able now with this grant to pull together our high-risk, high-lethality intervention team to immediately address the situation," Stewart said.
The grant will fund four new positions: a prosecutor in the office of the Tulsa County District Attorney, a police detective based at the center, an attorney to help victims file for protective orders, and a court case coordinator to help keep track of all the cases.
"We serve all of Tulsa County," Stewart said, adding that people concerned for their safety "don't have to be battered to a pulp before they come here."
The grant will help funnel resources to those who need them most, however. Stewart said the grant was announced in early fall, with a prosecutor already hired but other positions yet to be filled. The new team will be fully in place by January or February, she said.
"The belief is, if you can predict something, you can prevent something," Stewart said.
The history of attempting to assess the likelihood of escalating domestic violence began in the 1980s with Jacquelyn Campbell, now a nursing professor at Johns Hopkins University in Maryland.
"She really validated that tool. It's a 20-item tool to assess the danger, how dangerous is a domestic violence situation to the victim as well as to the police," Sullivan Wilson said. "And then in working with police in Maryland, they said 20 items was too much."
About eight years ago, the 11-question assessment began to be used by Maryland police, Sullivan Wilson said. Police statewide now use the assessment as part of their standard protocol at the scene of domestic violence incidents, she said.
Sullivan Wilson has long taken an interest in preventing domestic violence, serving as a driving force behind the creation of the Domestic Violence Fatality Review Board, a statewide committee, about 12 years ago.
According to the board's annual report last year, there were 1,000 domestic violence homicide cases from 1998 to 2010 -- with a total of 1,231 deaths, including almost 200 deaths in which the perpetrator died by suicide or was killed by police.
Sullivan Wilson said the board knew about the Maryland protocol, and was interested in making the assessments more widely used in Oklahoma.
"We made a proposal for doing a grant here and also went to the Oklahoma Association of Chiefs of Police and said we'd like to get this lethality assessment out to Oklahoma police, but it needs to be studied," Sullivan-Wilson said.
Several police departments, including those in Tulsa and Oklahoma City, volunteered to take part in the research, which includes a control group in which no such lethality assessment takes place. Follow-up interviews are conducted six months after the reported domestic violence incident to find out if victims have sought out services.
Jackson described the advantages in using the assessment.
"I would say, from the field point of view, we've gotten victims closer to the resources and more immediate safety planning, with being able to contact the DVIS-Call Rape volunteer," Jackson said.
Sullivan-Wilson said about a dozen more interviews are needed to complete the study, with results forthcoming early next year.
"We're hoping, by the end of the study, this intervention and protocol and assessment will connect people with services more quickly and more efficiently," Sullivan-Wilson said, emphasizing the need for strong data.
Tulsa police have not made a decision about what to do once their role in the research project ends, but "we are looking at incorporating the collection of the survey information into our standard domestic violence supplemental report," Officer Leland Ashley, a police spokesman, wrote in an email.
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