How a collaborative approach benefits domestic violence investigations

The complexity of domestic violence means that no single discipline can tackle this crime alone


Domestic violence is a complex crime. Most of the abusers and victims I have counseled over the years experienced abuse, trauma and neglect as children. Such exposure predisposes children to polyvictimization, which may cause them to become abusers or victims as adults. [1] Other mental health consequences of exposure to domestic violence include attachment disorders, hypervigilance and maladaptive social behaviors, which follow child victims into adulthood. [2,3]

Abusers and victims are typically intimate partners, not strangers. They may have children together. One or both often hold out hope that the abuse will stop. Recovery from a life of trauma and abuse means learning new coping skills and redefining a vulnerable definition of one’s self to one of strength and confidence. Surviving an environment of domestic violence is a process.

The complexity of these variables requires a collaborative approach when responding to this unique crime. Law enforcement needs to work with professionals who have a trauma-informed understanding of the complexity inherent in domestic violence cases. This includes child protection workers, mental health professionals, advocates, housing, legal experts and healthcare. No single discipline can tackle this crime alone.        

Grant monies helped facilitate trauma-informed training on the implications of children exposed to domestic violence. (Photo/Pixabay)
Grant monies helped facilitate trauma-informed training on the implications of children exposed to domestic violence. (Photo/Pixabay)

In 2012, I wrote about one such collaboration – The Sacramento Domestic Violence Collaborative (DVPC) – which brought professionals together, improved services and saved lives. This initiative improved countywide communications among various disciplines and saved lives. It improved our response, investigations, prosecution and delivery of crucial resources.

I am happy to report on another collaboration that has also experienced tremendous results.

Grant funds collaboration

In 2013, the Citrus Heights Police Department (CHPD) was awarded a grant to address the implications of Children Exposed to Domestic Violence (CEDV). The grant was made possible by the California Children’s Justice Act Task Force and Cal OES.

The main goal of the grant was to establish a collaborative working relationship between law enforcement, child protection services and advocates that would:

  • Improve knowledge of the implications of domestic violence and its impact of children;
  • Improve response and investigations;
  • Improve the delivery of services.

CHPD already had a template for collaboration based on its Domestic Violence Response Team (DVRT), which pairs trained advocates with patrol officers during in-field response to domestic violence calls for service. The DVRT concept was the brainchild of Elaine Whitefeather, executive director of a local crisis center, A Community for Peace (ACFP).    

For this CEDV grant, CHPD integrated DVRT services with the Sacramento County Child Protective Services (CPS) to facilitate trauma-informed training for personnel within CHPD, PS and ACFP on the effects of domestic violence exposure on children. Each agency had its own focus – advocacy, child welfare and law enforcement – and by working together, could tap into an array of countywide resources.

Officers learned to conduct trauma-informed interviews and write better reports. A crime report may be all a prosecutor has when deciding to file charges. Reports that go beyond the simple elements of the crime – those that document the abusive “environment” versus the “incident,” including documentation of dominant-aggressor behavior, coercive control, emotional abuse and threats – help prosecutors make more informed decision when deciding to file charges.   

Advocates and CPS workers opened a more effective dialog to improve the delivery of services and assess the child’s attachment with the non-offending parent. The enhanced knowledge improved the quality of services from callouts to follow-ups.

The grant concluded at the end of 2017. Statistics gathered from the five-year experience were impressive. Overall, domestic violence-related calls for service in Citrus Heights fell an average of 23% from 2013-2017. Misdemeanor calls for service fell by 30%, while felony calls dropped by 22%. The number of charges for child abuse rose substantially during this time, and officers became more aware of the impact of domestic violence on children.

Reducing recurring domestic violence calls for service

One of the chief complaints we heard from officers at the beginning of the grant centered on the many recurring domestic violence calls for service. We built their concerns into our training outline and talked about ways to minimize return calls for service while holding abusers accountable. Using services more effectively to support victims and families was a key component. Reports were comprehensive and detailed, which allowed prosecutors to make better assessments at intake and ultimately file more cases. These numbers reflect a system-wide effort to make a difference in the lives of victims, families and children experiencing domestic violence.

While we may not be able to demonstrate cause and effect, it seems likely that this dedicated collaborative effort to improve cross-disciplinary, trauma-informed awareness of domestic violence and its impact on children, resulted in holding abusers accountable while helping victims and children escape the environment of abuse. Perhaps it sent a message throughout our small city, that domestic violence is a crime and would be taken seriously – no exceptions. 

As a side note, these numbers were equivalent to 5.5 fewer domestic violence-related calls for service each week within the City of Citrus Heights. Five fewer calls for service each week sent a message to officers that they were making a difference. It was good for morale.

Increase in calls for restraining order violations

The last statistic to consider is that of restraining order violations. The number of calls for service relating to restraining order violations increased by 27% from 2016 to 2017.

Many people fail to get restraining orders because they do not feel law enforcement will do anything. Officers may consider minor violations not worth their time or may display a lack of empathy to victims. However, minor violations may be seriously traumatic for victims. Abusers may intentionally commit minor violations to harass or terrify victims knowing that law enforcement will not do anything – causing victims to give up and simply endure continued harassment. This also makes victims less cooperative with law enforcement. 

We believe that the increase in calls for service relating to restraining order violations was a sign that victims had faith in our officers. These numbers reflect a trust that our officers would take these calls seriously as a result of their trauma-informed knowledge and professionalism.

All of these numbers support our intuitive appreciation for community collaborations.

How training changes minds

Implicit bias about domestic violence permeates society and has a devastating effect on victims and families. These biases infiltrate law enforcement and other professions. Officers have the unique ability to save lives, or ruin them. The quality of an officer’s response to domestic violence may be less than adequate based on preexisting implicit bias coupled with the lack of effective trauma-informed training and interview skills. A dismissive look and sloppy interview may cause a victim to shut down in mistrust. The likelihood of that victim calling the police again may be slim or none. However, in Citrus Heights, the officers embraced a trauma-informed, collaborative perspective and the results speak for themselves.

References

1. Finkelhor D, Turner H, Hambly S, Ormrod R. Polyvictimization: Children’s exposure to multiple types of violence, crime and abuse. Juvenile Justice Clearinghouse, Office of Juvenile Justice Delinquency Programs, US DOJ – October, 2011.

2. Jaffe P, Crooks C, Poisson S. Common misconceptions in addressing domestic violence in child custody disputes. Juvenile and Family Court Journal. 54(4):57 - 67, September 2003.

3. Siegel D. The Developing Mind: How Relationships and the Brain Interact to Shape Who We Are. Guilford Publishing, NY, 2012.

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