Westchester County Domestic Violence High Risk Team

by Stacey Neumann, Co-Chair of WWBA Domestic Violence Sub-Committee

Reprinted with permission from the Westchester Women’s Bar Association News, October 2020 edition

October is Domestic Violence Awareness month and we want to alert you to a new County innovation that WWBA members are involved with to combat domestic violence.

In September 2020, County Executive, George Latimer, announced the expansion of the Westchester County Domestic Violence High Risk Team.   This innovative program is a multi-agency collaborative approach to preventing lethal domestic violence, identifying families at highest risk and intervening to save lives by providing immediate support and services.

Prior to last month, a high-risk team was already in place in five Northern Westchester towns: Pound Ridge, Lewisboro, Bedford, North Salem and Somers.  The impetus for the creation of the Northern Westchester Team was the horrific murder-suicide case that occurred in 2017 in Pound Ridge.  In that case, Steven Dym shot and killed his wife Loretta and their daughter Caroline with a shotgun before turning the gun on himself.  This type of crime is called familicide and while it is very rare, Westchester County has had three such cases in the last nine years.

The Dym case spurred the County Office for Women, led by Director Robi Schlaff, Chief David Ryan from Pound Ridge Police, CarlLa Horton from Hope’s Door and others, to look deeper into these cases to figure out ways to provide enhanced safety to victims and minimize risks of lethality. “You can never predict catastrophe but that doesn’t mean you can’t take steps to mitigate the risks”, said Robi Schlaff, Director of the County Office for Women.

Funded by the New York State Office for the Prevention of Domestic Violence, in 2017, the Northern Westchester Risk Reduction Team (NWRRT) was created and became the model for the expanded countywide team.   Partner agencies reported positive results and attributed this to the regular communication and collaboration between agencies.  According to CarlLa Horton, Executive Director of Hope’s Door, “It takes tremendous courage for victims of abuse to take the painful and dangerous steps to safety and independence. Most feel incredibly alone, believing that no one is there to believe, to understand, and to offer the myriad forms of support that is so deeply needed. We have learned that no single agency or system can do the whole job by themselves.  We and our partners, are working collectively, strengthening all of us in support of victims making their personal journey from victim to survivor.”

Who makes up the Westchester County Domestic Violence High Risk Team?

Partners in the team include Westchester County Office for Women, Hope’s Door, Pace Women’s Justice Center, Westchester County Department of Public Safety, Westchester County Probation Department, Westchester County District Attorney’s Office, Westchester Medical Center, My Sisters’ Place, Putnam/Northern Westchester Women’s Resource Center, Westchester Community Opportunity Program/Victims Assistance Services and Legal Services of Hudson Valley.   Additionally, county agencies such as the Department of Social Services and Community Mental Health are resources for the team.

Each of these agencies brings a level of expertise in the area of Domestic Violence  from a variety of different vantage points which, combined together, provides the best chance of helping victims.

How does the Westchester County Domestic Violence High Risk Team work?

At the center of the team’s approach is a Lethality Assessment Program (LAP). The LAP is a set of 12 questions that officers can use to assess the level of risk when they respond to a domestic violence incident.   It is predicated on the work of Dr. Jaqueline Campbell from Johns Hopkins University School of Nursing.   Dr. Campbell interviewed abused women, shelter workers, law enforcement officials, and other clinical experts on battering and from that research, identified key risk factors that were incorporated into a series of questions that became known as the Danger Assessment.

Representatives from the County Office for Women, White Plains Police Department, Pound Ridge Police Department, the Westchester District Attorney’s Office, the Westchester Medical Center and Pace Women’s Justice Center are training police officers throughout the county on how the LAP works and how to use the danger assessment tool.  Darlene Reda, Program Administrator from the County Office for Women explained, “The trauma-informed training is crucial in helping responding officers understand the effects of trauma on victims of domestic violence and how that trauma affects a victim’s memory, demeanor and the way they respond to the situation. The officers are trained on the importance of making eye contact and really listening to and following up on a victim’s answers to the Danger Assessment questions.  We know that it is often frustrating for officers to go out again and again to the same residence for DV calls; this training helps the officers to understand the dynamics of domestic violence and why, for example, a victim continues to stay with the abuser.  We want the officers to know that their demeanor can make all the difference in the world to a victim.”

Once a victim is evaluated as high risk after the LAP screening, the police officer doing the screening will call a 24 -hour hotline and connect the victim with a trained advocate.   The hotline is staffed by advocates from Westchester Medical Center who will provide crisis intervention, safety planning and referrals for emergency housing along with other critical services.  The service providers on the high risk team will then follow up with high risk victims within 24 hours and obtain victims’ consent to coordinate critical services for them.

The underlying theory behind this program is that if a victim is given the opportunity to connect with a domestic violence advocate while a police officer is present, the victim is more likely to obtain services than if they were simply given a phone number to call at some later time, thereby reducing the likelihood of being killed.

Legal service providers on the team will then assist victims in a range of civil family law matters including child custody and support, immigration assistance and obtaining orders of protection, while the District Attorney’s Office and Probation will work with victims to ensure offender accountability.

What does the Westchester County Domestic Violence High Risk Team hope to accomplish?

Through a coordinated response and trauma informed intervention, the Westchester County Domestic Violence High Risk team is hopeful that their multi- agency approach will save lives.  The goal is that this model will ultimately expand statewide and by doing so, will honor those lives lost as a result of domestic violence.