By Karolina Szatkowski
Recently, I had the distinct pleasure of speaking at a Domestic Violence Symposium, focusing on the effects of domestic violence trauma on children. Sitting with a panel of women who hailed from a variety of professions all connected by their work in domestic violence, we each answered questions regarding treatment modalities best suited for children exposed to domestic violence and shared how agencies and institutions in our communities were screening for domestic violence. When we were encouraged to share how each one of our agencies could protect and serve children best when they have been exposed to domestic violence, a representative from the prosecutor’s office quickly replied that although difficult, he always recommends that the victim leave the relationship and enter a domestic violence shelter with the children to ensure safety.
My seatmate, another representative from the prosecutor’s office, chimed in vigorously, sharing a story I am all too familiar with – that of a woman, who saved her children, but was killed by their father, her husband and abuser. This woman (who must remain unnamed due to pending court proceedings) had left her abusive partner with her children, obtained a restraining order and entered the domestic violence shelter. Some time later, she was found by the abuser and, as was reported, shot sixteen times on a busy street in front of theirchildren. It was reported by one of her children that the last thing she said, screaming, was “take your sister and run.”
“That was the best thing she could have done for them,” concluded the prosecutor’s representative.
Slowly, painstakingly and deliberately, I positioned the microphone in front of myself and asked my panelists and the audience, “What would have happened if when she obtained that final restraining order, he was held accountable for his actions?”
The United States has the highest rate of intimate partner homicide of any industrialized country (Krug, Dahlberg, Mercy, Zwi & Lozano, 2002). More so, we are learning that the mere presence of firearms is directly associated with increased risk of homicide to females. In response to facts such as these, the Danger/Lethality Assessment (www.dangerassessment.org) was created with the help of domestic violence survivors, shelter workers, law enforcement and other clinical experts, to address the risk factors leading to intimate partner homicide. Literally it’s an instrument that helps determine the level of danger a victim of domestic violence has of being killed by an intimate partner.
What makes this instrument unique is that it recognizes that it is not only physical violence that leads to intimate partner homicide but also factors such as gun ownership, avoiding arrest, substance abuse, controlling behavior and constant jealousy, destruction of property and threatening the children. The Danger/Lethality Assessment consists of 20 questions which can be filled out by the survivor or with the help of a trained worker and takes about twenty minutes to complete.
Although I have been trained, along with fellow domestic violence liaisons in the state of New Jersey, to my knowledge, not a single county has adopted the Danger/Lethality Assessment Program. On the other hand, the Maryland Network Against Domestic Violence reports that in 2012, 100 agencies completed 12,108 screenings and of those 6,224 (51%) were rated as “high danger.” In 2013, 19 more agencies began to do LAP screenings and in that year 12,751 screenings were completed and 6,688 (52%) of those were found to be in “high danger.”
We will never know what could have happened differently if we had done more than issue a restraining order in the aforementioned case. I wonder how many lives can be impacted, starting today, if each of us were prepared to take responsibility for holding batterers accountable and adopting programs such as the Danger/Lethality Assessment. Perhaps this is the best thing we can do.
Karolina Szatkowski is a licensed social worker, serving as the director of the PALS (Peace: A Learned Solution) creative arts domestic violence program at the YWCA Union County, NJ and as an instructor for Rutgers University Violence Against Women Continuing Education Program. She has worked in the field of domestic violence with victims, offenders and children and has made it her mission to continually empower women and girls, raising awareness about domestic violence and the importance of batterer accountability.