For most of her academic career, UNC researcher Rebecca Macy, Ph.D., has focused her work on solutions to prevent domestic violence and to help survivors successfully recover.
Over the next year, the School of Social Work professor will increase those efforts by partnering with law enforcement officers and community advocates in Eastern North Carolina to proactively tackle domestic violence homicides. The goal: to quickly identify women who are in potentially fatal abusive relationships or in households of risk and to connect them to services before it’s too late.
Specifically, the Pitt County Sheriff’s Office has tapped Macy to assist the office and the county’s Center for Family Violence Prevention as part of a national initiative aimed at reducing violent deaths as a result of domestic violence.
Pitt was one of 12 jurisdictions awarded a $200,000 one-year federal grant to participate in the program, which is modeled after successful domestic violence prevention efforts in Maryland and Massachusetts. After the first year of funding, the county could receive an additional $600,000 over three years if selected among up to six communities to move forward with a prevention plan.
Nationally, the rate of domestic violence homicides has been decreasing, but the number of women who are killed by a partner or boyfriend remains “significantly high,” said Macy, the School’s L. Richardson Preyer Distinguished Chair for Strengthening Families and associate dean for academic affairs. In fact, according to the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office on Violence Against Women, intimate partner homicides still account for 14 percent of all homicides in the country, “despite improvements in shelters, protective orders, domestic violence hotlines and other interventions since the passage of the Violence Against Women Act.”
Generally, women are at highest risk for violent death when leaving abusive partners, Macy added. “So if we could figure out a good set of services that could help this individual while she’s working toward safety, and we could help protect her from death, that would really help to advance the field in important ways,” Macy said.
In Pitt County, law enforcement officials have also seen a troubling trend of domestic violence homicides that did not involve a spouse, ex-spouse or partner but another household member or relative. The sheriff’s office reports that more than half of the murders committed from 2008 to 2011 resulted from domestic violence.
Statewide, domestic violence homicides accounted for 63 deaths in 2012 alone, according to the North Carolina Coalition Against Domestic Violence.
To tackle this issue, Pitt County and other communities selected to participate in the national initiative, must first assess existing efforts to respond to domestic violence. Such an evaluation will involve digging deeper into a variety of data, including the total number of 911 calls made, annual arrests, protection orders issued, and current programs targeting domestic violence prevention, Macy explained. She and Pitt officials will also look more closely at public health data, including the number of emergency room patients identified as domestic violence victims.
Having a researcher on board for such an extensive review is critical, said Melissia Larson, grants administrator for the Pitt County Sheriff’s Office.
“The researcher is able to guide us through the community assessment process in a transparent fashion and also serves as someone looking from the outside in, which is what we all need when evaluating our own processes,” Larson said. “We are beyond excited to be able to partner with the University on this project, especially with our selected researcher Rebecca Macy as she brings a wealth of academic knowledge to the project and can hit the ground running on the particular issue at hand.”
The goal, Macy said, is to better understand the community’s strengths, to identify room for improvement, and to develop a plan to enhance the community’s current prevention efforts. That plan would be modeled after programs in Maryland and Massachusetts, states where the percentage of domestic violence homicides has been declining.
“The difference in these states’ models is that there is strong evidence that programs in these communities have worked,” Macy said. “So the question is how do you take their programs and figure out what really makes them tick? How do you retain what really works but make it relevant for Pitt County?”
Maryland’s model focuses on training first responders, especially law enforcement officers, to recognize the signs of domestic violence through the use of a “Lethality Assessment Program.” Using a one-page questionnaire, officers screen for potential domestic violence victims by inquiring about their partners and their activities. Questions include: “Does he own a gun? Is he unemployed? Does he control most or all of your daily activities? Does he threaten to harm your children?”
If a respondent answers positively to a certain number of questions, officers then work to connect the victim to domestic violence services. As a result of the program, Maryland has seen a 41 percent drop in intimate partner homicides over the past three years, according to a state domestic violence coalition.
Massachusetts instituted its nationally acclaimed Domestic Violence High Risk Team Model nearly 10 years ago. Domestic violence victims are referred to an interdisciplinary team of professionals, including law enforcement officers, domestic violence advocates, and workers in mental health, health care, substance abuse, and child protective services.
This team then works closely with identified families to connect them to services and to keep them safe in their own communities, rather than requiring them to move into shelters. During the first six years of operation, the model screened more than 100 high-risk victims—93 percent of whom stayed within their own communities, according to a team model report. Furthermore, 92 percent of survivors reported no subsequent re-assaults.
Macy thinks Pitt County has the ability to replicate similar successes. The sheriff’s department already has a reputation for “being innovative and willing to try new strategies that are promising and that take domestic violence seriously,” she said.
“So if we could ultimately figure out how to prevent homicides, hold perpetrators accountable, keep victims and their children safe, that would be a huge innovation, especially if we could do that across multiple communities here in North Carolina.”