Models to curb domestic violence emerge from tragic murder in Massachusetts in 2002

nyorkerThe July 22 issue of the New Yorker contains a riveting account (“A Raised Hand: Can a new approach curb domestic homicide?” by Rachel Louise Snyder) of how the tragic 2002 murder of Dorothy Giunta-Cotter by her husband led to a fundamentally new approach to prevent domestic violence fatalities by advocates at the Jeanne Geiger Crisis Center where she sought help.

The new approach was based on research conducted by Jacquelyn Campbell of the Johns Hopkins School of Nursing to identify risk factors for homicide and how the risk unfolds along a timeline. The risk factors for domestic violence fatalities include substance abuse, gun ownership, a record of violence and others such as forced sex, threats to kill, and choking. Dr. Campbell developed The Danger Assessment, an instrument used to help determine the level of danger an abused woman has of being killed by her intimate partner.

Two senior staff members at the crisis center, Kelly Dunne and Suzanne Dubus, began a multi-year effort to use the research to identify the highest risk cases and change the center’s procedures to save lives. But to identify high-risk cases and intervene effectively required separate agencies to work together for the first time. In 2005 the Domestic Violence High Risk Team, comprising representatives of the justice system, healthcare, and domestic violence advocacy, began its work. There have been zero fatalities since the team’s formation in 2005, a stunning improvement over a decade-long history of one fatality each year.

The Diane Rehm Show on August 1 covered the state of domestic violence fatalities and featured the new model implemented by the Jeanne Geiger Crisis Center. The guests included:

• Rachel Louise Snyder, the author of the New Yorker article,
• Suzanne Dubus, CEO of the Jeanne Geiger Crisis Center in Newburyport, MA,
• Jacquelyn Campbell of the Johns Hopkins University School of Nursing,
• Detective Bob Wile of the Amesbury, MA, Police Dept.

The lead-in to the program on the website highlighted the scope of the problem in our country and how the communities of Greater Newburyport, Mass. have broken down silos and found new approaches to stop homicides:

The Justice Department estimates that three women and one man are killed in domestic violence homicides every day. Between the years 2000 and 2006, murders resulting from domestic violence claimed 10,600 lives. In response to the murder of a woman north of Boston, a domestic violence crisis center decided to try a new approach to identify women at high-risk. Police, advocates and the courts there now work together to prevent murders by predicting when they might happen. Since then, homicides have dropped significantly. Now communities across the country are trying to replicate their success.

A program later in the day, Huff Post Live with Rick Camillari, included an interview with the Crisis Center CEO Suzanne Dubus who described a U.S. Justice Department-funded project to create a new model based on two programs: Domestic High Risk Assessment Team used in Massachusetts and the Lethality Assessment Program from the Maryland Network Against Domestic Violence. The coordinator for the Lethality Assessment Program, Dave Sargent, described how the project has created a user-friendly instrument for law enforcement and other field practitioners to identify high-risk cases and take action.

Another individual who is involved in the model testing project, Annie Lewis O’Connor of Harvard Medical School and founder & director of the Women’s CARE Clinic, spoke to the need to include the healthcare system in efforts to reduce fatalities. She described how healthcare and other professionals work in silos, resulting in a lack of follow-up when victims access one part of the health or social services system but are not referred to the myriad of available services. This U.S. DOJ-funded initiative will assess the ability of the project to replicate the model in twelve communities, followed by additional testing in six communities. The goal will be to have systems in place in all communities in a 5-10 year period.

An effort in New York City to identify high-risk domestic violence cases was reported in the New York Times on July 24 Police Take on Family Violence to Avert Deaths. The article says that the NY City program mirrors similar efforts around the country, including the Newburyport, MA, program. It describes how police units get specialized domestic violence training and that assignment to the unit is considered a detective tract position. It also describes how technology plays a role in scanning police reports for words such as “kill,” “suicide,” and “alcohol” and using ultraviolet light to identify physical injuries not yet visible to the eye that resulted from choking or strangulation.

It is also worth a second look at Jane Steven’s post on a trauma-informed approach called “community mobilization” in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan. It describes the formation of Hub, a cross-section of social services and enforcement professionals to identify at-risk individuals based on data supplied by agencies or analysts.

(For those who do not have a New Yorker subscription, the Jeanne Geiger Crisis Center has posted the entire story.)

Elizabeth Prewitt is a policy analyst for, the companion community of practice (a type of social network) to ACEsTooHigh. She served as director of government relations and public policy for the National Association of State Mental Health Program Directors (NASMHPD) from 2006 to 2011. She was the organization’s principal representative on Capitol Hill and liaison with federal agencies for the states’ mental health authorities.

7 responses

  1. Pingback: Sexual Abuse Of Nine-year Old “Boarding School Boy”: Edward M. Kennedy’s Childhood Trauma • Social Justice Solutions

  2. Pingback: Models to curb domestic violence emerge from tragic murder in Massachusetts in 2002 • Social Justice Solutions

  3. I appreciate the author’s attempt to offer solutions to the epidemic of DV murders in the US. However, as most “professionals” in this area do, the author is truly “missing the mark” when it comes to TRULY protecting DV victims. The New Yorker article, although thought provoking and well written, only briefly touched upon what has become a national epidemic: Batterers are remarkably successful at convincing judges and other court ordered “professionals” to award them custody of their children. It is a complete myth that family courts are “biased” towards mothers. The latest statistics I’ve seen stated that approximately 90% of batterers who file for custody WILL GET IT.

    The New Yorker article briefly touched on a very important fact: in court, batterers typically present well, while many of their victims suffer from PTSD, anxiety, depression, and a whole host of other problems. In abusive relationships, it is very common that the perpetrator has maintained control of the family’s finances. Victims have often long since been isolated from family and other support systems; thus, in most cases, victims have much fewer resources, compared to perpetrators. Family law attorneys who represent batterers have become quite adept at exploiting the perceived “weaknesses” of victims….the goal of the batterer and those representing him (because the majority ARE men) is to convince the judge that the victim is “crazy,” and thus, her claims of abuse cannot be believed. Junk science, such as “Parental Alienation Syndrome” (PAS), which has been rejected by the APA, ABA, and all mental health governing bodies, is routinely used in our courtrooms to place children in the care and custody abusers.

    PAS was invented by the late Dr. Richard Gardner and was based solely upon his *own* observations. His work was self published and not peer reviewed. After his death, it was discovered that Dr. Gardner had lied about many aspects of his “career.” Dr. Gardner began his rise to fame by advocating for child molesters. Gardner also wrote that children often enjoy sex with adults, children can “seduce” adults, and that “frigid” wives often “forced” their husbands to turn to his daughter to fulfill his sexual needs.

    His PAS idea said that one parent can brainwash a child into believing that he or she had been abused or molested….the “brain washer” was almost always the mother. For many years, Gardner “trained” judges, therapists, lawyers, GALs, etc that children who make allegations of abuse during court proceedings most often did so because the mother was just trying to “alienate” the child from the father (the idea that the child possibly COULD have suffered abuse was mostly discarded). Gardner recommended that the child should be removed from the care of the parent reporting the abuse (almost always the mother) and placed into the custody of the alleged abuser. The protective parent (who usually had no history of abuse and had typically been the child’s primary care taker) would be ordered into supervised visitation and “therapy” where they would then be forced to recant the abuse allegations or risk having all contact with their children severed.

    Although Gardner’s works have been repeatedly deemed as “junk science” (and would NEVER pass the Daubert Standard if family courts abided by it), Gardner’s PAS ideas still dominate and heavily influence courtrooms across the US.

    Here’s a hard, cold fact: women who report domestic violence or child abuse during divorce proceedings are MUCH more likely to lose custody of their children. The problem has become so bad, that many attorneys now advise female clients to NOT report DV or abuse.

    I have been through the turmoil of family courts and have seen it with my own eyes. Currently, I advocate for victims of DV who are at risk of losing custody of their children to abusers. I’ve heard women say over and over again: “Had I known then what I know now, I never would have left my abuser. At least when I lived in the home, *I* was the target for abuse. Now my children are the target. At least when I lived in the home, I could provide my children with some protection. Now, I am helpless to do anything and my children are enduring the abuse.” This is frightening. And these are NOT isolated cases.

    Next, I would LOVE to hear more about the free lawyers that are provided for victims of abuse…..I have yet to meet even one woman who was able to obtain a pro bono attorney or competent assistance from legal aid during a custody battle. I’ve heard from hundreds of women who sought help from DV shelters. They offer a roof over their head for a few days, maybe an outfit or two….and that’s about it. The DV advocates are often aware of the crisis in the family courts, but cannot provide any real solutions for combating them. Many women return to their batterers out of fear of losing custody of their children to the abuser.

    My own custody battle cost me $200,000. This is very typical. These battles leave already scarred victims even more battered, broken, and bankrupt. Free lawyers for DV victims to fight custody battles? Please, please share those resources and shout them from the roof tops. If you can’t supply those resources, then please do not spread the myth that they are “out there.” You might as well be telling women to go find a unicorn and the unicorn will carry them away from their abusers.

    Here’s another sad fact….judges, lawyers, custody evaluators, and others who make these life and death decisions typically have little DV training. They make decisions based on myth and personal bias. A new study has been published through the Department of Justice that demonstrates the correlation between the attitudes and lack of knowledge regarding the dynamics of abuse and a court’s willingness to award custody to an alleged abuser. Please look up the Daniel Saunders Department of Justice study, as I don’t believe I can post links on here.

    Another HUGE problem is the trend of police officers arresting BOTH parties on a DV call. This is another trend…’s rights websites publish advice on how to provoke and then provide evidence that the woman is the abuser. I’ve worked with many women who, after being beat on a regular basis for many years, may bite the batterer in self defense. The batterer then calls the police, shows the teeth marks, and the woman quickly become convicted batterers…..many police and judges seem to be more than willing to demonstrate their willingness to dole out punishment, regardless of gender.

    Moral of the story? Most “experts” who are setting up programs and offering advice to assist DV victims are completely missing the mark. Until protections are put into place that will stop the travesties I have described, DV and DV related murders will escalate.


    • Thank you for your very thoughtful and thorough comments on critical issues central to the domestic violence epidemic that were not raised in my report on the New Yorker article and subsequent coverage of the topic on NPR and Huffington Post. You made the excellent suggestion that we share the U.S. Department of Justice-funded report by Daniel Saunders, PhD of the University of Michigan School of Social Work, “Child Custody Evaluators’ Beliefs About Domestic Abuse Allegations:” Please let me know if this is not the report you mentioned. Elizabeth Prewitt


    • Virtually everything you say is true and I think you know that I am a staunch advocate for protective mothers. The information and research concerning Newburyport and other new approaches are completely supportive of the reforms we want in the courts’ response to domestic violence custody cases. You make an important point that the success of abusers in using custody to regain control over their victims and discourage them from leaving is undermining the previous success in reducing dv homicide.

      Fundamental to the practices in Newburyport, Maryland and the Justice Department grants for other communities to adopt similar best practices is the use of the Campbell Danger Assessment. Significantly, the Saunders’ study which you and I think so highly about and for which the author supplied a link specifically recommends that court professionals be trained in risk assessment and mentions the Campbell Danger Assessment as the kind of tool evaluators should be using if they were really engaging in screening for dv and risk assessment. In thiry years of practicing law I never saw one evaluator use a risk assessment which according to Dr. Saunders means that none of these evaluators actually screened for dv. This is one important reason the courts so often deny true allegations of abuse.

      It may well be that the way to reform the broken custody court system is to make it part of a larger effort to prevent domestic violence. I think we must avoid assuming that an abuser who is not viewed as dangerous based on the Campbell assessment is not necessarily safe, but that said, the danger assessment is a good tool. It can be used as part of other best practices to drastically reduce domestic violence crimes.

      My first exposure to the medical research discussed on this web site came as I was researching the difference between the good practices in Quincy, Massachusetts during the Quincy Model that drastically reduced dv crime and virutally eliminated homicides with the failed practices in Poughkeepsie, NY that included custody courts that strongly favored abusers. This led to a series of domestic violence homicides. I quickly realized that if we used the kind of best practices used in Quincy and updated it with new technology such as GPS or approaches like Justice Centers we could drastically reduce dv crime. In order to obtain these benefits, however the custody courts must stop sending children to live with abusers or else all the other reforms would be undermined. It was in this context a friend told me about a study by the Academy of Violence and Abuse that found based on similar medical research as is discussed here that we spend $750 billion a year on medical costs because of our continued tolerance of men’s abuse against women. When we consider other costs like crime and victims and others unable to reach their economic potential, our tolerance of dv is costing this country over a trillion dollars every year. It quickly became clear that adopting best practices which must include custody court reform would save $500 billion a year in addition to freeing most women and children from lives filled with fear and abuse. This huge savings should create a huge incentive for policy makers to adopt the best practices needed to gain these benefits. I became interested in Newburyport because I believe some of their practices should be included in the best practices that should be adopted.


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