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Authorities believe new domestic violence assessment tool will save lives

DATE:  October 17, 2014
CONTACT PERSON: Emily H. Harris- 610.891.4163

Ridley, PA – On August 7, 28 year-old Christina Corrigan-Belajonas was repeatedly stabbed by her husband and fatally shot in the head in front of their two sons, aged 4 and 5, at their home in Drexel Hill. He left her to die and fled to New York abandoning their sons at a CVS and later died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound while police were in pursuit.   

This is just one tragic story of the eight domestic related homicides that have occurred this year in Delaware County. That number has doubled since 2012. As a response to the rash of homicides that are directly related to domestic violence, officials and advocates are now focusing on how to make the system safer for victims and explore ways police can potentially save lives.

Delaware County District Attorney Jack Whelan attended a police officer training on Friday, Oct. 17 to announce plans to better identify and serve high risk victims of domestic violence in partnership with the Domestic Abuse Project of Delaware County, Inc. One way is through the implementation of a county-wide Lethality Assessment Program (LAP) for all police officers in Delaware County, a procedure that officials say can help identify threats before violence occurs.

Officials believe lives can be saved through the two-pronged intervention approach of LAP protocol, in which first responders to domestic violence calls conduct a research-based lethality screening to determine if there is a high risk of the victims being seriously injured or killed, and if necessary, immediately connecting victims with advocates for support and safety information.

While several police departments already have LAP pilot programs underway, including Norwood Borough, Collingdale Borough and Marple Township, the Domestic Abuse Project of Delaware County, Inc. is providing training for officers with the goal to have every responding officer trained in conducting the assessment and implementing the protocol.

 “The lethality assessment is an easy and effective tool that helps identify threats before violence occurs. With practices like this in place, we will definitely save lives,” said District Attorney Jack Whelan. “With assistance from Domestic Abuse Project we will be able to provide all of our officers with this vital tool," he said.

Once trained, the police officer arriving on the scene of a domestic violence incident will assess the situation. If factors indicate danger exist, the officer will ask the victim a series of questions to identify the level of danger each victim has of being killed. Victims who answer yes to one of the first three questions are considered to be at high-risk. Victims who answer yes to four of the next eight questions are also considered to be in danger. LAP protocol then directs law enforcement to initiate the intervention and connect high-risk victims with the domestic violence hotline, where the victim will immediately be connected with services.

The program originated in Maryland by a team of researchers who identified several factors that indicate an increased risk of homicide by an intimate partner. In Maryland, where every law enforcement agency participates in the program, domestic violence deaths have dropped by an average of 34 percent over the past five years.

Since the Delaware County Domestic Abuse Project was established 36 years ago, it has grown to include help for battered men and children as well as women from all walks of life. The Domestic Abuse Project offers free services to victims of abuse, including help navigating the legal system and obtaining protection orders. The group also provides emergency housing for victims and their children at several shelters at secure and anonymous locations. Rita Buckley Connolly, DAP Executive Director, believes the lethality assessment program will keep victims of domestic violence safe by encouraging more victims to use the support services available.

“The board and management at Domestic Abuse Project are very encouraged by this LAP new victim service agency partnership with the Delaware County District Attorney’s Office and law enforcement in the County,” said Rita Buckley Connolly, DAP Executive Director.  “We are hopeful that the County’s partnership with us will identify high-risk victims of domestic violence sooner and result in lives saved.” 

The Domestic Abuse Project has provided assistance to 3,608 victims in the 2014 fiscal year alone during which DAP attorneys made 362 court appearances, 146 victims were assisted with temporary protection from abuse orders and 164 clients were represented for final Protection from Abuse orders. In addition, 3,211 nights of emergency shelter were provided to 56 women and 75 children.

If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic violence or is a survivor of sexual assault, the Domestic Violence Project can help.  The Domestic Abuse Project also offers an email address that is monitored all day and night, and operates a 24-hour hotline: 610-565-4590.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Protection, an average of 24 people per minute suffers rape, violence, or stalking by an intimate partner in the United States.