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Helpmate staff organize groceries in the shelter kitchen Monday, May 19, 2014.  From left, Ann Flynn, associate director; Joy Henderson; Jodi Wygman; April Burgess-Johnson, executive director. Helpmate is a shelter and assistance program for victims of domestic violence. (AP Photo/Asheville Citizen-Times, Bill Sanders)
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Bill Sanders

Helpmate staff organize groceries in the shelter kitchen Monday, May 19, 2014. From left, Ann Flynn, associate director; Joy Henderson; Jodi Wygman; April Burgess-Johnson, executive director. Helpmate is a shelter and assistance program for victims of domestic violence. (AP Photo/Asheville Citizen-Times, Bill Sanders)

Buncombe County plan combats domestic violence

The Associated Press

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ASHEVILLE — The cavalry is no longer on its way for victims of domestic violence. It’s here.

That was the sentiment expressed by Helpmate Executive Director April Burgess-Johnson after announcing an ambitious new countywide plan last week to tackle domestic violence, marking the start of what advocates are calling the most comprehensive plan in Buncombe County’s history to address the issue.

The initiative is nearly a year in the making, the result of a troubling spike in domestic violence homicides in Buncombe County, and a significant increase in reported demand for victim’s services. The plan has been researched and championed by some of the highest level officials and advocates in the field, all of whom say they will work smarter and more collaboratively to tackle the issue, primarily with existing staff and resources.

Of course that cavalry will come at a cost, much of which will likely fall to an already-stretched shelter.

“It’s hard to express how significant the impact of this plan will be, and I am incredibly excited at the level of enthusiasm and willingness to do this work,” Burgess-Johnson said. “It’s truly like nothing I’ve ever seen.

“But the service needs were rising before we decided to implement this plan, so it is something we’re concerned about, trying to stretch an already lean system even further,” she said. “We have to get it right, though. This is something where you don’t often get a second chance.”

The plan will roll out over the next few months, with the full implementation of the plan set for October.

It involves lethality assessments of offenders to evaluate danger to victims, the creation of a high-risk intervention team, a public awareness campaign, focused deterrence on previous offenders, dialogue across different agencies and electronic monitoring of offenders.

“This is an incredibly aggressive plan, with a lot of players who know this problem very intimately, and have given it an enormous amount of thought,” Commissioner Holly Jones said. “It’s very ambitious, but the cost of doing something that isn’t ambitious is just too high.”

Growing demand, new research

Sheriff Van Duncan recounted at the May 13 announcement a day in December when he left one crime scene where a man killed his wife to go to another crime scene where a man killed his wife and was eluding police.

In all, the county had eight domestic violence-related deaths in 2013, the third most of the state’s 100 counties.

“We never want to see another year like that in Buncombe County,” Duncan said.

Unfortunately that spike in domestic violence turned deadly was not an anomaly.

Those numbers were mirrored in the county’s only shelter for victims of domestic violence, Helpmate, which reported a dramatic increase in both the number of victims seeking help and the severity of their situations, Burgess-Johnson said.

From July through December, the shelter took 63 percent more crisis calls than it had for that period the previous year. The shelter also saw a 12 percent increase in the number of nights clients were staying, meaning it’s taking longer to find safe housing for victims after they arrive.

The organization serves about 38 percent more clients per capita than the state average, with about 40 percent less staff than in similar sized counties.

Nationwide, domestic violence is the leading cause of injury to women — more than car accidents, muggings, and rapes combined — and it is the seventh leading cause of death.

While the data showing the need for domestic violence services are clear, tracking data for successful programing is still in its infancy, Burgess-Johnson said.

“The system we’ve been working with is really standard for this field, and that’s part of a movement that has existed for about 30 years,” she said. “Unfortunately the research part of that is much younger, and much of the data on what works has only been available to us in very recent years.”

Even some of the most basic, least technologically complex elements of the plan — like the cross system dialogue — have only shown up in other counties in recent years, Burgess-Johnson said.

“Buncombe County really is on the front end of curbing this issue,” she said. “I think it has taken a long time for society to grapple with the fact that this is not a private family matter.

“But this is a social justice matter, a crime and punishment matter, and an equal rights issue. It’s having equal rights to safety.”

Officials say the financial cost of the plan will be relatively small, focusing more on overhauling reporting protocols and existing resources to work smarter and communicate better.

The “eNOugh Campaign,” for public awareness and cross-agency dialogue will to begin immediately. Electronic monitoring, lethality assessments, the high-risk team and focused deterrence will follow.

Tracking violence, predicting risk

Burgess-Johnson said the flow of communication between the shelter and law enforcement as it exists is fairly informal, with no concrete assessment tools or common language to relay urgency or risk with any given case.

The lethality assessment, based off of research from Johns Hopkins nursing professor Jacquelyn Campbell, will assign victims a score based on a questionnaire that indicates her risk of an attempt on her life.

If a woman has a score of 18, for instance, she carries an 84 percent risk of a homicide attempt. A score of 23 or higher carries a 94 percent risk, and so on.

“Essentially it levels the playing field, allowing us to speak a language everyone understands,” Burgess-Johnson said, rather than advocates asking law enforcement to just take their word for it.

A major part of each branch of the plan will rely on smarter data tracking.

By keeping track of the individual and general patterns of abuse perpetrators display, they can predict the most dangerous factors and even times of the week or month in any given case.

Many factors can increase the risk of an attack, ranging from unemployment to gun access and substance abuse, whether or not a child is biologically related to the perpetrator, and income.

In some cases abuse is more likely around the perpetrator’s payday, for example, if the abuser is getting paid and feeding a substance abuse habit, then coming home high or drunk.

Many offenders have already come into contact with law enforcement, the court system, hospitals or DSS before a homicide or an abusive incident.

In Buncombe in 2012, there were 752 domestic violence orders of arrest. County officials say 65 percent of domestic violence victims had contact with the criminal justice system or a health care professional before they were murdered, and 58 percent of perpetrators had been arrested before they killed their partners and 22 percent had seen a mental health professional.

Rebecca Knight, the county’s first female district court judge and an early advocate for a family court system in the county, has been heavily involved in those discussions and research.

“This is a very unique crime, where often we know the identity of both the perpetrator and the victim before the crime is ever committed,” Knight said. “If we can identify the victims early on, we can actually stop that murder.”

The “high-risk team,” which will assess risk and lethality, is modeled after work done in Massachusetts.

From 2005-11, the state tracked all the domestic violence cases they handled in counties that had a high-risk team. No domestic violence homicides were reported in those counties, Knight said. In counties without a high-risk team in Massachusetts, 249 domestic violence homicides were reported during the same period.

Monitoring

The most tangible, and most directly expensive part of the plan will be the introduction of 20 new monitoring devices designated specifically for domestic violence cases.

The GPS tracking system is already in place in the county, but none is designated for this use, and none has involved giving victims a way to see the whereabouts of the abuser. The 20 new units will cost around $100,000, Jones said.

The GPS monitoring units would alert police and the victim immediately if the offender violated pretrial release conditions, such as getting too close to a victim or that person’s place of employment.

Law enforcement can draw boundaries surrounding a victim’s home, school and place of work. If any of the boundaries is crossed, police and the victim would be notified.

Authorities caution against thinking that the monitoring units would end fatal incidents, but research has shown it is a deterrent.

The Buncombe plan is based off of a Pitt County initiative, which has reported a decrease in recidivism because of it.

Help for Helpmate

The other financial impact to the county may be increased support for Helpmate.

The county has allocated just under $17,000 a year to the organization in recent years, and Jones said she will advocate for closer to $50,000 this year to meet the predicted increase in demand.

“This is an organization that’s already stretchered extremely thin, and at least in the short term we will be asking even more of them,” Jones said. “We just have to give them more support.”

The organization operates on a relatively tight budget of $792,257 a year. To put than in perspective, the Humane Society operates with about $1.8 million a year.

The six-bedroom facility has been full for all but three days over the past six months, sometimes with five or more women and children living in a dorm-sized bedroom.

Burgess-Johnson said one shelter in the Charlotte area recently implemented one leg of the plan — the lethality assessment — and reported 80-100 more calls per month on their crisis line.

“Anywhere that has had success in implementing a plan, especially one with a significant public awareness campaign, has seen an increase in demand,” Burgess-Johnson said. “We’re certainly bracing for that, and I do have concerns. I hope our donors and our community will meet is there.”