How Massachusetts Is Trying to Prevent Domestic Homicides

A novel method of identifying risk receives attention in The New Yorker this week.

The 2002 murder of Dorothy Giunta-Cotter by her estranged husband, William Cotter in Amesbury, Mass. enraged a lot of people because it seemed so preventable. Long the victim of domestic abuse, Giunta-Cotter had worked with counselors, police, and the court system. She talked as if she knew Cotter would kill her someday. Days before he killed her and then himself, he’d been charged with assaulting her and released on bail. So the death rightfully had Suzanne Dubus and Kelly Dunne of the Jeanne Geiger Crisis Center, which had worked with Giunta-Cotter, asking how the system still failed to prevent the domestic homicide.

In a long essay in the New Yorker magazine, (sorry, it’s behind a paywall) journalist Rachel Louise Snyder highlights the novel method they’ve taking here in Massachusetts in the wake of that murder to identify high-risk cases of abuse and prevent them from ending in death. (It’s a method that’s already received press, and even accolades from the White House, but the New Yorker, if you can get a copy, makes for a very readable narrative for those who haven’t followed it closely.) In 2005, Dunne started the Greater Newburyport High-Risk Response Team and assembled representatives from organizations, including the crisis center, police departments, hospitals, and batterers’ intervention groups to share the disparate information they assembled and identify the most dangerous cases. Dunne applied the research of domestic violence specialist Jacquelyn Campbell to create an almost data-driven method for sorting out cases:

Campbell identified twenty risk factors for homicide, which she used to develop what she called a Danger Assessment tool. Some risk factors were obvious: substance abuse, gun ownership, a record of violence. Others were more specific: forced sex, threats to kill, choking. The sole demographic factor Campbell identified was chronic unemployment; poverty alone is not a risk factor. Campbell then devised a weighted scale based on the risk indicators. A score of eighteen or more represented extreme danger; fourteen to seventeen was severe; eight to thirteen indicated increased danger; and anything less than eight signified variable danger. In San Diego, as Dunne listened to Campbell speak she realized that Dorothy Giunta-Cotter would have scored an eighteen.

Once the High-Risk Response Team adopted that model, men identified as high-risk were then subjected to more monitoring from law enforcement. In some cases, their child visitation rights were restricted or they were required to wear GPS trackers that generated an arrest warrant when they came within a certain range of their victims. Upon arrest, dangerousness hearings were used to keep an abuser in jail while he awaits trial even when a standard bail hearing that evaluates only flight risk and previous criminal record might have allowed him to walk free. (Giunta-Cotter’s husband had been released on $500 bail shortly before he shot his estranged wife and then killed himself.)

The results, according to The New Yorker, have been heartening. None of the high risk cases the team identified since 2005 have ended in murder. Many women who would have taken refuge in shelters, which can help keep women safe but don’t give them much sense of normalcy, have instead remained outside them. All this, Slate’s Amanda Marcotte notes, makes for a nice flip of the typical script.

The abuser works by making the victim feel like she will never be free of him, his violence, and his surveillance. If she tries to leave, he escalates…The high-risk teams shift the burden of being surveilled from the victim to the abuser. Now, if he makes a threat, Massachusetts has the power to escalate.

With those results, it’s no wonder that the team has trained more than 5,000 people from over 30 states. Combine that with the national media attention the program continues to get in places like The New Yorker, and you shouldn’t be surprised to see the model started in Massachusetts imitated even more widely in the future.