Tool helps first responders determine if domestic violence survivor may be victim of another attack

WAYNE COUNTY, Mich. – The Lethality Assessment Program tool, which is used by first responders to help determine if a survivor of domestic violence could be a victim of another, more serious attack, is helping adults and children get help.

LAP is used when officers respond to calls of violence in intimate partner relationships.

With the evidence-based tool, officers ask a series of questions that helps them evaluate the relationship, its history and the possibility of it turning lethal in the near future. Depending how the victim answers the questions, officers connect them with First Step, a nonprofit agency that helps victims of domestic and sexual violence in Wayne County.

In Wayne County, the LAP tool is used by police departments in Canton, Dearborn and Taylor.

"Statistics show that women are assaulted at least seven times before they ever make a police report," said Trisha Gerard, the Wayne County prosecutor and principal attorney in charge of domestic violence and elder abuse cases. "By the time they get to that first police report, maybe they aren't ready to go forward, maybe they aren't ready to prosecute and cooperate with this process, but they've taken that next step. They had six times where they didn't call the police, now they're to the point where they are calling. That's our chance, law enforcement's chance, prosecutor's chance, the whole system's chance to earn their trust and keep them calling, so even if they're not ready this time, next time they will be."

Gerard said the Wayne County Prosecutor's Office handles about 7,000 domestic violence warrants a year. 

"This tool allows prosecutors, law enforcement officers, investigators to identify those cases where lethality is high and where a homicide may be imminent," Gerard said.

If a survivor's answers to the LAP tool questions categorize her as high risk, the officer calls First Step's 24-hour hotline to connect the survivor with experts from the agency who can help. 

"The most dangerous time for a woman is when she's leaving that relationship," said Jill Popovich, program coordinator and survivor advocate at First Step.

In fact, 75 percent of all homicides or serious injuries happen when a woman tries to leave an abusive relationship. That's one reason why after the initial call, First Step connects with the victim again within 24 hours. 

"It really is about helping them see the situation that they are in and the dangerousness of that situation," said Popovich. "A lot of times victims don't realize or tend to minimize how dangerous the situation that they are in."

Police officers, firefighters and paramedics in Canton began using the LAP tool in June 2016, and police officers in Dearborn and Taylor started a few months later. First Step told Local 4 over 1,000 LAP assessments have been done as of November 2017 and more than 600 of them were determined as high danger.  

Popovich said as a result of the LAP Tool, First Step is seeing a lot more adults and children coming in for services, especially counseling. She said offenders are being held more accountable with more of them arrested, and there are more no-contact orders and bonds set so clients are able to stay in their homes. 

Popovich said if they can help educate victims and support them through the process, then they have a better chance of leaving the abusive relationships and having the necessary support to safely stay away. She said the LAP tool has also helped let people know that First Step exists and that the services the nonprofit offers are free, and that's another reason why more are using the services First Step provides.

In addition to the 24-hour hotline and counseling, First Step offers emergency shelter, transitional housing, children's advocacy programs, food, toys, clothing and other basic needs survivors who are in transition might need. For more information on services, click here.

Because of the LAP tool, victims' views of the three police departments have improved because they feel that officers really care about their situations. 

"If we can at least get that victim talking and we can at least get them to recognize and agree with us that there is a problem here, and you are in danger and you need to do something, whether that's prosecution, whether it's going to a shelter, or whether it's something else, something has to change," Gerard said.

Gerard said the LAP tool is working and would like to see it used in every city and municipality in Wayne County. 

The 24-hour First Stop hotline is 734 722 6800.

For more information about First Step, click here.

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