Program looks to stem domestic violence - WCAX.COM Local Vermont News, Weather and Sports-

Program looks to stem domestic violence

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Confessed murderer Ben Berwick is serving an 18-year-jail sentence for the brutal 2009 killing of his estranged wife in St. Johnsbury. Family of Anna Berwick said her husband was physically abusive and murdered her when she decided to leave. It's a violent trend that's got domestic violence advocates and police in some parts of the state partnering to change.

Domestics are always volatile, they're always unpredictable," said Brandon Police Chief Christopher Brickell.

Police in five Rutland County communities are testing a tool called the Lethality Assessment Program. It's an eleven question survey that helps police to quickly assess a victim's level of danger. If he or she meets the high risk criteria, police can immediately put them in contact with an advocate.

"This screening tool is really an evidence-based tool which is a lot better than leaving it up to each officer's discretion. Now we go through the checklist if they meet the criteria we connect them with services right away," Chief Brickell said.

Only 4 percent of domestic violence homicide victims will have contact with an advocate before they're killed. Yet more than 50 percent will have had contact with police.

"So they're really in the best position to make the connection between our services and the victims before something terrible happens," said Jennifer Firpo with Rutland County Women's Network and Shelter.

Police said the survey brings consistency to domestic violence calls. The three most telling questions a victim will be asked -- Do you think your abuser might try to kill you? Has your abuser ever used a weapon against you or threatened to kill you or your children? A "yes" response triggers a three-way conversation on the scene between the victim, police and an advocate. Experts said this type of intervention is far more effective than leaving a victim with a crisis hotline number.

"And really allows the victim to understand the seriousness of their situation and their need for immediate help and a safety plan," said Marianne Kennedy with Rutland County Women's Network and Shelter.

Police in Rutland, Brandon, Fairhaven and Castleton will test the program for the next three months. Advocates hope state police will eventually adopt the program. Barre City has been using the same assessment system for about a year and police said many more victims are taking advantage of services because of the program.

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