Over the course of 20 years, Dorothy Giunta-Cotter’s husband, William, kidnapped her, beat her and strangled her with a telephone cord. He pushed her down a flight of stairs when she was pregnant. The day he hit one of their daughters repeatedly in the head, because he didn’t like what she was wearing, Dorothy took her and drove to a shelter in Maine. She feared William knew the network of shelters near their home in Amesbury, Mass., and thought she would be safer here.
Her story from 2002, detailed by Rachel Louise Snyder in the June 22 edition of The New Yorker, ends in the worst way. She filed a restraining order in Maine, telling the judge that her husband would kill her if he found her. The judge cited lack of jurisdiction, and Dorothy returned with her daughter to Massachusetts. A domestic violence agency, the Jeanne Geiger Crisis Center, helped her file a restraining order and offered her a room at a shelter. But Dorothy didn’t want to live in a shelter.
“If I’m going to die, I want to do it in my own house,” she said.
It didn’t matter that she changed the locks on her home. He hid in the garage until she came in and then grabbed her, threatening to shoot her. She filed a police report the next day, and he turned himself in at court. The judge released him on $500 bail. Five days later he went to the house and shot her dead.
No one performed their individual jobs wrong. The system was flawed. Dorothy’s only option was to return to a shelter, and it wasn’t enough. Shelters have saved lives, but they have also disrupted support networks, jobs and children’s schooling. Why, anyway, is the burden placed on the victim to flee when the perpetrator is causing the harm? Why not have a better, more coordinated way of determining an offender’s danger and really remove the offender?
So the crisis center developed a methodology and a Domestic Violence High Risk Team to better predict the likelihood that a domestic violence case will end in homicide. Research shows that prior abuse is the single biggest indicator. Risk increases when a victim tries to leave or when there is a significant change, such as a new job or pregnancy. Additional risk factors include substance abuse, gun ownership, forced sex and chronic unemployment. The center gathered together police, hospital staff, district attorneys, victim advocates and others to develop a program to better use these risk factors to determine which cases were potentially lethal and how the team could intervene.
There was a domestic violence homicide nearly every year in Amesbury in the decade before Dorothy’s death. Since the team formed in 2005, there hasn’t been one.
By coordinating their knowledge and effort, members can determine whether police should conduct extra drive-bys to look for suspicious behavior. They can discuss whether electronic monitoring of certain offenders would be effective, whether child visitation rights should be revoked or whether additional time on a prison sentence should be requested. The team can also help victims craft safety plans in case of an emergency, erase their social media profiles or help them change their routines, such as the way they drive to work or where they shop for groceries.
You might think Maine should have similar teams. In fact, some counties already do.
In 2012, the Maine Legislature passed a bill, LD 1711, sponsored by then-Rep. Emily Cain, D-Orono, requiring that all police use and be trained by Jan. 1, 2015, in how to administer a validated, evidence-based domestic violence risk assessment in cases of suspected or alleged domestic violence. The 13-question evaluation, called the Ontario Domestic Abuse Risk Assessment, was developed specifically for police in the field and takes 10 minutes to complete. The information it collects — about the offender’s criminal history, circumstances of the offense and any barriers preventing the victim from getting help — assists bail commissioners, prosecutors and judges in determining bail, conditions of release and sentences.
The tool can be used by teams similar to the one in Amesbury — such as the High Risk Case Review Team in Cumberland County — to help determine the level of risk that an offender will assault a partner again and chart the most effective intervention.
The legislation didn’t mandate how information gleaned from the assessments be used, only that police administer them. That means it will be up to more counties to start, or continue, developing multi-agency teams to examine the gaps in the response system, and for decision makers to support their efforts. Maine can stop the abuse in the early stages, and place the burden of change on the perpetrator, before the violence escalates or, as in Dorothy’s case, someone is killed.