June 22, 2018
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More questions can avert risk in domestic abuse

By Anne Perschon, Special to the BDN

According to the Maine Attorney General’s Office, some 30,000 adults may be victims of domestic violence in Maine each year. Half of the murders in Maine are from domestic violence. While Maine’s murder rate is around 20 per year, thousands of domestic violence victims live in anticipation that they might be next.

Julia Colpitts, executive director of the Maine Coalition to End Domestic Violence, says, “We do not need to feel hopeless. While there’s no perfect cure or one thing that will end domestic violence, there are important incremental improvements that change outcomes substantially for the better and literally save lives.”

One possible incremental improvement has been proposed by Rep. Emily Cain in LD 1711 which would mandate a risk assessment of domestic violence perpetrators. Which assessment tool to use is the question currently being discussed in the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee. One option is the Ontario Domestic Assault and Risk Assessment, or ODARA; with some revised language to modify its use in Maine, we could have a tool that is reported by research to be an accurate assessment of future risk.

In the interest of advocating for ODARA, I interviewed the police chief in my community about how such an assessment tool might be administered. After some review of the ODARA questions, we agreed that this would be a good assessment tool.

We also concluded that in the interest of reducing paperwork, the safekeeping sheet that officers must complete before they turn over a detainee might have ODARA printed on the backside, which is currently blank. The officer would complete seven or eight of the questions that pertain to items which he would likely witness firsthand or could get answered with a few additional questions directed towards the victim, witnesses or the perpetrator.

The officer would then release the prisoner to the jail, where the staff there would have access to the information necessary to complete the rest of the questions. After the safekeeping sheet is complete, it would then be handed over to the bail personnel as is the current procedure, but it would contain a great deal more information that would help the bail officer set bail terms more appropriately.

One final step would need to be completed by the bail staff or someone appointed by them. When a perpetrator scores above some designated risk, someone must be assigned to contact the victim in order to make sure they know exactly what their risk level is. Currently victims may be living in increasingly risky situations, but unable to correctly assess the amount of risk they are actually in.

Adopting an assessment tool for domestic violence calls might give everyone a better idea about what to anticipate from perpetrators when they are released and to support them with better management of their behavior, which is in everyone’s best interest. Using ODARA might mean less pain and suffering for Maine citizens and less cost for incarcerations for the state.

Sometimes a simple tool can be very powerful.

One final point — currently there is a great deal of liability on individual officers. Often they are called upon to assess how much danger a victim is in, based upon experience and what we might call a “gut feeling.” The use of an assessment tool such as ODARA would distribute liability between dispatch, the officer, the jail and the bail staff and ultimately on to the assessment tool itself.

In my opinion, officers have enough to do without having to worry about having sole liability for domestic violence calls.

On March 8, the Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee elected to allow the police academy and those slated with providing training for current officers to come up with an assessment tool. While I believe in their ability to find an appropriate tool, it seems that this may be an additional burden for corrections.

I am advocating for ODARA as the assessment tool of choice and am requesting that Ontario Domestic Assault and Risk Assessment be specifically named in LD 1711 as it goes forward in the Legislature.

Anne Perschon lives in Rockport.

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