A list of 20 questions could mean the difference between safety and injury or death for survivors of domestic violence.
Area law enforcement agencies have been talking to the Willow Domestic Violence Center about a questionnaire that can be used by those who respond to domestic violence, be it police, the district attorney’s office or area counselors.
Willow, which serves Douglas, Franklin and Jefferson counties, recently floated the idea of law enforcement using the Lethality Assessment Tool after Johnson County’s district attorney’s office saw the number of women and children who found counseling triple since the tool’s rollout there in 2011.
“For (survivors) to see we are concerned about their safety really validates their experience as opposed to them choosing to sweep it under the rug,” said Becca Burns, Willow’s director of volunteer services.
The questionnaire is divided into two sections, with a top section of three questions that are indicators of a high risk of homicide. A yes answer to any one of those three produces a score of six points, enough to require an officer to make a follow-up phone call to a Willow advocate. The second section, which includes 17 one-point questions, also counts toward that six-point threshold.
Douglas County District Attorney Charles Branson said he will meet with Lawrence Police Department Chief Tarik Khatib and Douglas County Sheriff Ken McGovern this month to discuss the tool and any potential hurdles that stand in the way of using it.
“It gives law enforcement and prosecutors the opportunity to ferret out that information that may not be readily available,” Branson said.
In Franklin County, Willow advocates give survivors copies of the questionnaire after they're completed. Beside most questions on the sheet are additional statistics that add weight to the story each checkbox tells. For example, a partner having previously used or threatened to use a weapon increases the risk of a homicide by a factor of 20.
Megan Weingart, Johnson County's assistant district attorney, said the county began using the tool in July 2011. Since then, the number of women and children who have accessed counseling has more than tripled. Also during that time, Weingart said, there was an 80 percent success rate with getting women into some type of counseling.
Joan Schultz, Willow’s executive director, said that while for many survivors there is a tendency to minimize the abuse they have experienced, the tool can help deliver a blunt assessment of just how dangerous a situation they face.
“When a woman sees her lethality, she thinks about her situation a little bit differently,” Schultz said. “And then when police officers and district attorneys see that assessment, then they really see the severity of the situation. So it’s a whole process. We’re all a team.”