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Beyond PFA: Ways to prevent domestic violence

Written by Daniel Walmer/Lebanon Daily News | Feb 9, 2016 10:34 AM
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Jennifer Oh, legal advocate for Domestic Violence Intervention of Lebanon County, poses for a picture inside her office at the Lebanon Municipal Building on Wednesday, Feb. 3, 2016.(Photo: Jeremy Long, Lebanon Daily News)

(Lebanon) -- Stacey Pennington was a successful businesswoman, but she also had a problem -- her boyfriend, Patrick Derr, had a history of violence against women.

In January 2015, after a physical altercation that landed Derr in prison, Pennington decided to take action. She obtained a permanent protection from abuse order that forbade Derr from attempting to contact her. When he attempted to reach her through her pastor, she refused the contact and reported it to police. She even found a new boyfriend in Richard Cheri.

"I firmly believe Stacey did everything right," said Jennifer Snyder, executive director of Domestic Violence Intervention of Lebanon County.

On Sept. 7, Derr fatally shot Pennington in front of her Mt. Gretna Emporium with witnesses watching. It left a grief-stricken Cheri wondering what more could be done to prevent domestic violence.

Domestic violence experts made clear that protection from abuse orders can help -- many abusers do respect the law and will stop when a PFA order is issued, and the orders can provide peace of mind to a victim in that they feel they have been heard and the judicial system won't tolerate abuse, according to Ellen Kramer, legal director for the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence (PCADV).

Still, they are only one tool in a toolbox that could also include changes to the criminal justice system, victim safety planning and better cultural awareness of domestic violence.

Lethality assessment

One tool for police that Cheri believes should be considered is the Lethality Assessment Program, a strategy recently made popular in Maryland.

In Maryland's model, a trained officer who arrives at a domestic violence scene and believes a victim of abuse may be in danger asks a series of 11 questions designed to assess whether the victim may be at increased risk for homicide, according to the Maryland Network Against Domestic Violence's website. If the victim's answers indicate high risk levels, the officer will contact a domestic violence hotline and encourage the victim to speak with an advocate.

The PCADV has been leading the charge to similarly train police departments in Pennsylvania because Maryland has seen a 34 percent decrease in domestic violence fatalities in the last five years, according to the PCADV website.

Snyder said DVI recently met with police chiefs in Lebanon County about lethality assessments.

"The numbers and statistics show that it works, so I hope it's something that starts to come on board," she said.

Lebanon police Chief Daniel Wright said use of the assessment is under discussion within the Lebanon County law enforcement community.

Lebanon police officers call DVI anytime they make a domestic violence arrest, and even in situations that don't warrant an arrest, they provide information to potential victims about domestic violence organizations that can help them, Wright said.

Strangulation bill

Another good indicator of homicide risk is strangulation -- in fact, people who have been strangled are 800 times more likely to become a homicide victim than those who haven't been, Kramer said.

Jennifer Oh, legal advocate for Domestic Violence Intervention of Lebanon County, said stopping someone from breathing represents a serious intent to harm.

"People seem to take that lightly in regards to domestic violence, because they say, 'He only choked her.' No, he strangled her," she said.

That's why PCADV is sponsoring a bill to make strangulation an automatic felony. Currently, strangulation falls under the category of misdemeanor or felony aggravated assault, and is often pled down to regular assault, Kramer said.

GPS monitoring

Another increasingly common technique is requiring a domestic violence offender to wear a GPS monitoring device that would allow a monitor to know when an offender is in the same area as the victim.

While such devices can be effective, there are both privacy and safety issues associated with them, local and national domestic violence prevention advocates said.

For such devices to work, the victim must be monitored as well as the offender, creating "serious" privacy concerns, according to a publication from the National Network to End Domestic Violence.

Kramer said there are more practical problems, including cost and staffing to monitor the cameras around the clock.

In the end, such devices likely suffer from the same problems as the PFA, Oh said. A truly murderous abuser that has no respect for the law won't keep wearing them anyway.

In fact, if someone is determined to hurt you, no law can completely prevent it, experts said, but better cultural awareness might help.

Third party assistance

Kramer encouraged friends to be alert for sudden changes in behavior -- for example, if they suddenly stop being outgoing and gregarious or meticulous about their dress, seem nervous around their partner or start isolating. If something seems off, follow your gut instincts, reach out to your friend and let them know you care about them, she said.

Even if you notice suspicious sound or behavior patterns at a nearby residence, Snyder encouraged witnesses to call police and risk appearing like a nosy neighbor.

"Personally, I'd rather do something than learn later that, because I didn't do something or make that call, that person is seriously injured," Snyder said

Men for Equality, a Berks County organization focused on preventing domestic violence, emphasizes the role men can play in bystander intervention:  calling the cops if you witness domestic violence, offering support for victims and confronting people you know are perpetrators.

Movies, music and other entertainment emphasize the man's role as provider but not as caretaker of their children, said Matthew Bailey of Men for Equality. The organization works to combat attitudes in American culture that suggest that men should not feel emotions like shame, embarrassment, or sadness, encouraging them to use anger as their primary way of dealing with difficulties.

Men and transgender individuals can also themselves be victims of domestic violence, experts said. Currently about 1 in 10 PFA applicants in Lebanon County are men, Oh said.

Helping yourself

With help available at the county and state level, experts emphasized, victims of domestic violence do not have to attempt to handle their challenging situation on their own.

"There are safe ways to get help, and you don't have to live like this," Kramer said.

A victim need not be committed to leaving or confronting their partner, or even be willing to provide their name, to receive help from organizations like DVI, Snyder said. They frequently work with victims on safety planning -- actions like making sure emergency telephone numbers are easily available, having belongings packed in case you have to leave the house suddenly, and staying close to a door anytime you are in the same room as the perpetrator.

"We don't judge," she said. "We're there to listen and we're there to help."

Domestic Violence Intervention of Lebanon County can be reached at 717-273-7190. The national domestic violence hotline can be reached at 1-800-799-SAFE.

Published in Lebanon, News

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