Va. county steps up police intervention for domestic violence

A 2005 report shows that breakups were a factor in 40 percent of homicides that occurred in domestic violence incidents

By Chris L. Jenkins
Washington Post
Related: The many different faces of domestic violence

FAIRFAX COUNTY, Va. — Fairfax County is developing Northern Virginia's first Domestic Violence Fatality Review Team, designed to analyze and review homicides and murder-suicides that are a product of abuse between family members or intimate partners.

The focus of the team will not be to hold accountable county agencies, police authorities or individuals for fatal domestic violence incidents. Instead, the team will review circumstances that led to deaths and attempt to train caseworkers, police officials and others on how to detect signs that could lead to similar fatalities and to develop interventions.

County officials said they hope the program will help authorities to better coordinate preventative services and interventions and improve communication among all government departments that are involved with domestic violence issues.

Several fatal domestic violence incidents have occurred in Fairfax in recent years.

"What we're hoping to do is identify what kind of additional outreach we should be doing and improve safety" for potential domestic violence victims, said Seema Zeya, the county's domestic violence coordinator.

A 2005 report commissioned by the Virginia Department of Health found several indicators that will inform the group's initial work. For instance, the report found that breakups were a factor in 40 percent of homicides that occurred in domestic violence incidents, and in 31 percent of the cases, the abuse victim had begun a relationship with a new person. In addition, a 911 call had been made previously for domestic violence in nearly 19 percent of the cases. Protective orders were obtained before the homicide in 7 percent of the cases.

The team will include officials from the police department, medical examiner's office, Fairfax family services and community advocates, among others. The Board of Supervisors gave final approval to the creation of the team at a meeting last month. Officials said they hope to get the group up and running by early next year.

"One of the things we're trying very hard to do on a number of fronts is to be preventative," said Verdia L. Haywood, deputy county executive. He added: "That's been one of the holes in this issue for us, and we're strategically trying to address it."

Virginia became one of several states that have started similar programs when the General Assembly passed enabling legislation in 1999. Virginia has 10 such teams in communities including Chesterfield County, Hampton and Richmond, said Virginia Powell, manager of the fatality review and surveillance program in the state's Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, which helps monitor the programs. She added that the review teams in some places have led to policy changes, such as increasing beds in domestic violence shelters and quickening the dockets for certain family court cases.

The program is a product of the county's Domestic Violence Prevention, Policy and Coordinating Council, an advisory group of county officials and community leaders that has met for several years.

"What these programs do is strengthen the nets in the community and try to figure out how and where the nets may have failed," Powell said. "Family violence is patterned. . . . What the teams try to do is figure out what were the patterns and how we can prevent them."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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