Working to Predict and Prevent Domestic Violence

Ed. Note: Champions of Change is a weekly initiative to highlight Americans who are making an impact in their communities and helping our country rise to meet the many challenges of the 21st century.

Suzanne Dubus

My name is Suzanne Dubus and I am the CEO of the Jeanne Geiger Crisis Center in Newburyport, MA. I was one of the champions honored at the Champion of Change event held at the White House last week - which was thrilling! I was so honored to be on that podium with the other Champions and hope that our work allows us to work together in the future.

The Jeanne Geiger Crisis Center is entering its 30th year of operations but the focus for the last seven years has been about preventing domestic violence homicide. In 2002, we experienced first-hand the pain of not being able to save the life of a client, Dorothy Giunta Cotter, who opted to remain in the community with a protective order and a safety plan. We knew Dorothy’s case was potentially lethal: we knew her husband had taken her hostage in the past, had strangled her with a telephone wire, and had threatened to kill her if she ever left him. Yet Dorothy did not want to flee to a shelter and disrupt the lives of her children. She did everything we asked of her: she worked with the police and the courts; we retained legal counsel for her; and she was working with advocates.

Of the 20 factors used to determine danger in domestic violence cases, 16 were present in Dorothy’s case. Unfortunately, eight years ago when this occurred, danger assessments were not regularly used throughout the system and there was no formal mechanism in place to communicate about high risk cases. Though Mr. Cotter had been before the court only five days before the homicide for violating the protective order, the court released him on a low cash bail. The judge had no idea the danger this man posed to his wife, because there were no channels for communicating information between advocates, law enforcement and the courts. All of these parties had fragments of information, but none of us knew the whole story.

On March 26, 2002, William Cotter broke into the marital home and shot and killed Dorothy while their 12-year old daughter was upstairs on the phone with the police department. He did this despite a protective order prohibiting him from going to the home – an order that he knew Dorothy had planned to extend at court the next day. As the police came into the home, Mr. Cotter turned the gun on himself and committed suicide.

Innovating A Solution: Formation of the Greater Newburyport High Risk Response Team: After much analysis of the events leading up to Dorothy’s murder, JGCC designed and implemented an innovative approach to identify high risk cases and interrupt predictable patterns of escalating violence. At the core of this team approach is the belief that domestic violence homicide is both predictable and preventable.  The team’s methodology is based on four guiding principles: (1) risk assessments help determine which offenders are dangerous; (2) close monitoring of dangerous offenders will be continuous and coordinated, (3) information will change rapidly in high risk cases; and (4) clear channels of communication will exist across all disciplines. To identify the most dangerous cases, the Team developed risk assessment tools based on the research of Dr. Jacquelyn Campbell. These assessments, which are completed by victim advocates, responding officers and probation officers, provide a common language for discussing cases across various disciplines. The risk assessment then forms the basis for the individualized intervention plan, which is developed collaboratively and with significant participation from the victim. Both the risk assessment and the intervention plan are updated as the situation unfolds.

Through the use of risk assessments, the traditionally incident-driven criminal justice system has been challenged to widen the lens through which domestic violence cases are viewed. The assessments help reveal the batterer’s history and pattern of behaviors, and allow for considering distinct acts of violence in context. By tracking lethality factors and violent behavior patterns, homicides and re-assaults are prevented.

We are in the seventh year of operations and we have changed how this community addresses not only the most dangerous cases of domestic violence, but all victims have benefitted from a system that is more cohesive, efficient, and responsive. Our sixth year data shows that there have been zero homicides; the majority (92%) of victims has been able to stay safely in their own homes, in their own communities; and there have been very few re-assaults.

The Jeanne Geiger Crisis Center is hard at work creating the National Center to Prevent Domestic Violence Homicide which will allow us to continue to train other communities across the nation in this model.

Suzanne Dubus is the CEO of the Jeanne Geiger Crisis Center in Newburyport, MA.

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