Yes or No? Your Answers to Questionnaire Could Save Your Life

The Lethality Assessment Program (LAP) brings the Family Safety Center’s prevention and intervention resources to where the victim is, when he or she is most vulnerable. This early intervention is important given that on average it takes a victim seven or eight attempts to leave an abusive situation.

LAP was introduced in the Shelby County Sherriff’s Office in the fall and so far, four out of nine MPD precincts have been trained. When LAP was introduced with Shelby County Sherriff’s Office in October, the program generated 26 calls in one month. Now, with Shelby County and 40% percent of MPD precincts on board, FSC received 261 LAP-related calls in the first three weeks of May.

“It is very difficult for victims to take that ‘big step’ and leave an abusive intimate partner, it is a complicated, emotionally charged situation. The LAP allows us to cut through some of those issues and offer help ‘in the heat of the moment’, when the victim has taken the initiative to call police,” says Olliette Murry-Drobot, Executive Director of FSC. “LAP is a win-win for both the officer on the scene and the advocate on the phone, because the chance of either of them being successful is far greater when they work together in this manner.”

How it works
When an officer is on the scene of a domestic disturbance involving intimate partners, he or she uses a standardized 11 question protocol to determine the risk level for the victim. Depending on the responses, the officer will advise the victim that based on their “score” they are in danger.

“We say look, it isn’t safe for you to remain in this situation, let me put you in touch with someone who can talk to you about options,” says Major John D. Smith, Memphis Police Domestic Violence Bureau Commander.

If the victim “screens in” and agrees, the officer calls one of the advocates on duty. Major Smith explains that the officer provides an assessment of the situation, reviewing the victim’s responses, before turning the phone over to the victim. The advocate spends an average of three minutes with the officer and 14 minutes with the victim.

The advocate focuses on safety planning to make sure the victim has a safe place to go to if they feel that staying in their home is not safe. If the victim agrees to seek emergency shelter, go to the home of a friend or family member, or visit FSC for an order of protection and counseling, the officer will escort the victim to make sure they get there safely.

Major Smith says LAP gives the officers a standardized way to evaluate volatile intimate partner situations, and the advocate can help diffuse the situation by reassuring the victim there are options. Even if the officer strongly recommends that the victim should leave his or her situation, the advocate can help a victim to figure out their next step. That’s when the advocate can make all the difference.

“We can’t force someone to seek help. I tell the officers not to get discouraged if the victim chooses to stay, and ends up calling police again the following weekend. Our job is to continue reaching out. We are here to save lives,” says Smith.

“We are helping victims that otherwise would not have reached out to Family Safety Center, so this has really broadened our impact,” says Murry-Drobot. “Our biggest challenge now is staffing. We are reviewing call volumes to see where we need more help. We want to make sure we are adequately staffed to make this program a success. Currently, we have seven staff members who are on call on a rotating basis.”

Major Smith agrees. “The last two precincts we brought on board are two of our largest, so the call volume has picked up tremendously. We rolled this out slowly to gauge how many calls we would call, but now we need more advocates. We don’t want to overwhelm our advocates but we have a job to do, and our purpose is to save victims. Whatever it takes to make that happen,” says Smith.

Revealing questions
The first three questions in the lethality screen focus on imminent danger, asking if the offender has ever used a weapon against you or threatened to kill you or your children. A “yes” answer to any of the first three questions automatically triggers the LAP protocol. The remaining questions focus on a wide range of behaviors including whether the offender has ever choked the victim, attempted suicide, or stalked the victim.

The Lethality Assessment Program in use in Memphis/Shelby County was created by the Maryland Network Against Domestic Violence in 2005. The screening tool is adapted from an instrument used by clinicians to determine a victim’s likelihood of being killed by an intimate partner. After the LAP was developed, a few hundred homicides and near-homicides were retroactively reviewed using the Lethality Screen and it was determined that close to 90% of the homicides and near-homicide victims would have been assessed as “high-danger.”

Even if the victim chooses not to seek help while the officer is on the scene, it is an opportunity to give a victim tools for the future. Also, since it is a standardized tool, law enforcement and advocates can assess situations and discuss solutions using a common language, not just the officer’s instincts on the scene.

“We will definitely be using LAP questionnaires to identify trends and work collectively to better serve our clients through prevention and intervention,” says Murry-Drobot.

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