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Can we stop domestic violence before it turns to murder?

A Massachusetts women's shelter's innovative program may help prevent murder. Now they hope to take it nationwide


Amanda Marcotte
February 14, 2018 9:58AM (UTC)

While Donald Trump, who has his own history of credible allegations of violence towards women, is whining about how it's unfair to hold men accountable for domestic abuse,  a group of women in Massachusetts are fighting to save women's lives, one community at a time. In the early 2000s, the Jeanne Geiger Crisis Center, a domestic violence organization that serves a series of small towns in northeastern Massachusetts, developed an innovative program to prevent domestic homicide by targeting situations where abusive men showed signs that they might turn to lethal violence.

The program worked well and now the center is fundraising in hopes of teaching other communities how to use some or all of its program to prevent homicide in their own communities. With this approach, leaders of the Geiger Center also hope to help reshape the public understanding of domestic violence. They advocate for more focus on helping survivors not just escape violent situations but also get their lives back on track, and clearly putting the responsibility on abusers, not victims, to stop the abuse.

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"We all read those stories that happen almost every day in our country about domestic violence homicides," Suzanne Dubus, CEO of the Jeanne Geiger Crisis Center, told Salon, meaning cases "where there’s a ton of history and the police know this guy’s dangerous and he goes and kills his wife and kids" -- and often, as in the Texas church shootings last year, kills innocent bystanders as well. "We’re always jumping up and down on the sidelines going, wait a minute, there is a solution,” she said.

That solution is the Domestic Violence High Risk Team: A coalition of representatives from the shelter, law enforcement, health care providers, prosecutors and courts who meet regularly and share information about ongoing domestic violence situations in the community. As Rachel Louise Snyder detailed in the New Yorker in 2013, the group keeps dibs on abusers and their targets, monitoring the situation for signs that the abuser is escalating towards one of the many explosive acts of violence that leads to the deaths, on average, of three women every day in the United States.

The Violence Against Women Act, first passed in 1994, has led to a dramatic decline in both domestic violence and homicide, and the Obama administration made fighting violence against women a priority. But with a professed sexual assailant in the White House, top-down approaches can't be counted on, which raises the need for local and state governments to do more to protect women in high-risk domestic violence situations.

New York City offers one example of the increased local focus on fighting domestic violence. In 2016, Mayor Bill de Blasio started a Domestic Violence Task Force, co-chaired by his wife, Chirlane McCray. Last week, the city unveiled NYC Hope, a website that centralizes information about preventing domestic violence and getting help for abuse.

"As public servants, it is our shared responsibility to be informed about the complexities of intimate partner violence, and know how to get survivors the help and services they need to find safety and healing," McCray said in a statement emailed to Salon. "And we know that survivors of domestic violence often have other challenges that contribute to them feeling trapped and isolated in an abusive relationship."

One of the biggest obstacles, as Dubus and Lori Day, a board member at the Geiger Center, both emphasized, is the way that domestic violence victims are expected to upend their own lives in order to get to safety. Victims are often told to hide in shelters or move out of town to get safe, putting them in danger of losing jobs or becoming uprooted from family and community.

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"We feel it’s very important for victims and their children and their pets to be able to remain in their homes, in their communities, keep their kids in school, and not be running from shelter to shelter," Day said. "Because they haven’t done anything wrong. It’s the abuser who should be held accountable and removed from the home and the community, not the victim.”

The folks at the Geiger Center came by this understanding by way of a tragedy. In 2002, a client of the organization, Dorothy Giunta-Cotter, was murdered by her husband after, as Dubus recounted, she "got tired of running" and decided to return to her home and her life. Her killer, William Cotter, had been released days before by a judge who, Dubus said, "didn’t understand how long the abuse had been happening, nor did he understand how dangerous it was."

She and her team vowed not to let that happen again. The high-risk team they have developed creates a risk assessment profile, based on research compiled by public health scholars at Johns Hopkins University, to figure out which men are in serious danger of lashing out violently. They use that information to create legal ways to intervene, such as terminating child visitations, committing abusers to psychiatric wards or, in the worst scenarios, holding abusers in jail until they cool off.

“In most cases, domestic violence is predictable. And if it’s predictable, it’s preventable," Dubus said, calling that her team's "mantra." 

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In the 10 years before the Geiger Center started this homicide team, Dubus said, "we had eight homicides" resulting from cases of domestic violence. Since this approach was rolled out, the Geiger Center has not seen any of its clients die at the hands of an abuser. In addition, center personnel have been able to help many women stay in their homes who, in other jurisdictions, would likely have been pushed into shelters. 

Day and Dubus are clear about the fact that developing a high-risk team is a tall order, and that not every community is prepared to adopt to the full Geiger Center program. With this fundraising project, which is going through the feminist program Women You Should Fund, they hope to raise money for scholarships that allow local police departments to train officers in how to use the Danger Assessment for Law Enforcement (DALE). That's a tool that helps police run their own risk assessments of domestic violence situations, and determine what kind of help and resources a victim might need. 

"The most dangerous cases of domestic violence tend to come to the attention of law enforcement before they come to our attention," Dubus said. In many places all police officers can do is hand the victim a card with a domestic violence hotline number on it, she explained. This training can help police "to identify those cases at the highest risk," and also educate them about "how to speak to victims who are so frightened and so traumatized, and so often have been threatened to the point of long-term silence."

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Day and Dubus also hope to raise awareness of the benefits of a high-risk assessment team like the one they have pioneered, in the hope that city councils and mayors across the country will invest money and effort into building such teams in their own communities. Obama's administration did a lot of work to raise that awareness, including honoring Dubus with a "Champions of Change" award. That level of support is gone now, but there's new hope that local governments, working with activists, can continue to push for reforms that can save women's lives.


Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte is a politics writer for Salon. Her new book, "Troll Nation: How The Right Became Trump-Worshipping Monsters Set On Rat-F*cking Liberals, America, and Truth Itself," is out now. She's on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte

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