Domestic violence often occurs in the darkness – in a home, in someone’s car, in the middle of the night.
This week’s murder-suicide on the Deaconess Hospital campus and the strangulation of a woman and her young daughter in Post Falls has brought the issue of domestic violence back into the spotlight.
In both cases, police say the women were killed by their husbands. Angel Albertico Morales-Larranaga, 24, is in the Kootenai County Jail accused of killing his wife, Facunda Velenzuelaleon, 24, and her daughter, Dayana M. Valencia, 6, in their Post Falls apartment. Christopher P. Henderson, 37, is accused of shooting his wife, 30-year-old Sheena M. Henderson, at the Deaconess office where she worked before turning the gun on himself. About 75 percent of local homicides are domestic violence-related, said Spokane County sheriff’s Detective Andrew Stockman. The Spokane Police Department averages 8,000 domestic violence calls a year and responded to 4,700 between January and mid-June of this year.
In recent years, local law enforcement agencies have launched a new program designed to identify the domestic violence victims most at risk to get them immediate services. The Spokane County Sheriff’s Office used a grant to launch the Lethality Assessment Program in late 2012. At the time, they were joined by the Spokane Valley Police Department, the Airway Heights Police Department and the Liberty Lake Police Department.
The program is based on 25 years of research by Johns Hopkins University, Stockman said. The research determined that 50 percent of people killed by an intimate partner had prior contact with police. The study also found that the number of domestic violence victims who were assaulted a second time dropped by 60 percent if domestic violence victims were able to get into a shelter immediately.
“We don’t have the shelters, but the YWCA does,” Stockman said.
The participating law enforcement agencies, which include the Spokane Police Department as of January, collaborate with the YWCA to get access to an array of victim services.
When a deputy or police officer responds to a domestic violence incident, they carry a small blue card with a list of 11 yes or no questions. A yes answer to any of three questions dealing with death threats triggers an automatic referral to a victim’s advocate. A yes to any four of the remaining eight questions also results in a referral.
The officer will call a YWCA victim’s advocate on the spot and then hand the phone to the victim. The advocate can help find them a safe place to stay or arrange a taxi ride to an emergency shelter or a friend’s house.
“Hopefully they can help the victim with whatever they need,” Spokane police Lt. Mark Griffiths said. “They’re in pretty bad shape. At 3 a.m. with three kids, they don’t have a lot of options.”
Officers also have the option to call a victim’s advocate if they think there is a threat no matter what the answers to the 11 questions are. Stockman said it’s possible that a victim could lie in their responses because they are afraid.
“If this is the third time she’s tripped over the cat and fallen into the door knob and gotten a black eye, that’s not going to add up,” he said.
One of the assessment questions asks if the abuser is unemployed. Stockman said research has shown that to be a stressor that can lead to domestic violence. An abuser not occupied with a job is more likely to focus all of his or her attention on the victim. The victim can also be the abuser’s only source of power and control in that case, Stockman said.
An advocate always will follow up with the victim the next day, and Stockman said if there are additional police interviews an advocate will come along.
“It seems to work a lot better when it’s not just law enforcement showing up,” he said.
The Post Falls Police Department does not use the Lethality Assessment Program but does something similar. It employs victim’s advocates who visit domestic violence scenes if requested by the victim or the officer. The department has an agreement with some local hotels to provide overnight or short-term housing for victims.
But last week’s three homicide victims weren’t helped by these domestic violence programs, police say, because officers had never been warned that the men were a threat to others.
“There was no domestic violence history,” Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich said of the Henderson murder-suicide. “That only works if there’s a history, if we know what’s going on.”
Post Falls police Chief Scot Haug said his officers had never been called to Morales-Larranaga’s apartment for a domestic violence issue.
“We have talked to witnesses in the area that reported that some domestics had gone on, but police had not been called,” Haug said.
The YWCA of Spokane offers a variety of programs for domestic violence victims. A telephone hotline (326-CALL) is answered by advocates 24 hours a day, seven days a week. There are two emergency safe shelters in secret locations. Victim’s advocates offer safety planning and crisis intervention. They can also help victims apply for assistance from the Department of Social and Health Services for housing, food and medical insurance. Attorneys are on staff to help file for protection orders or divorce.
They also have a clothing bank of professional attire for job interviews. Once a victim is further along in the process, transitional housing is available.
“It’s all free and it’s all confidential,” said Chauntelle Lieske, associate director of legal services for the YWCA’s Alternatives to Domestic Violence program.
Most services are available only by appointment, but every Wednesday the YWCA opens its doors at 930 N. Monroe St. for walk-ins. Victims can meet with advocates, counselors and attorneys. Between 10 and 20 people usually show up every week, Lieske said.
“Any need they can think of, we’re hoping to have them represented,” she said. “It goes until they’re done.”
The new Lethality Assessment Program is a far cry from previous practice, when police would hand victims a preprinted card with phone numbers of where they could ask for help. Many never followed through. But it’s too early to know just how effective the program has been.
“The quicker they get hooked up with advocates, the quicker they can break the cycle,” Griffiths said. “How can it not be making a difference?”