Domestic abuse homicide panel calls for police to improve welfare checks

1 month ago

If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic violence and would like to talk with an advocate, call 866-834-4357, TTY 1-800-437-1220. This free, confidential service is available 24/7 and is accessible from anywhere in Maine. 

A state panel that has been monitoring domestic abuse homicides for more than two decades found that when police conduct a welfare check a victim may be left at risk if the officer does not take stock of all individuals present in the home. 

The panel recommends in its biennial report released this week that police identify all residents present and visually confirm their welfare.

The recommendation was one element of the 14th Biennial Report of the State Domestic Abuse Homicide Panel, a multidisciplinary team of experts in law enforcement, prosecution, advocacy, and prevention. Since 1997, the panel has been using detailed information gathered from prosecutors and detectives about each of the state’s domestic abuse homicide cases to identify what could have been done to prevent the killings.

Based on its most recent findings, the report contains recommendations aimed at strengthening Maine’s response to domestic abuse homicides by highlighting strengths and weaknesses in criminal justice, legal, health care and public responses to violence based on the cases.

Of the state’s 67 murders in the three-year period studied — from 2020 to 2022 – 31 were domestic abuse related, according to state police numbers.

The panel reports studying 28 of those homicides.

Of the cases reviewed, perpetrators killed family members including wives, ex-wives, grandmothers, fathers, infants, friends and lovers. And a majority of the time, other people in the victim’s circle were aware of prior abuse.

In 23 of the cases reviewed by the panel, friends and family of the victims had tried to help and intervene by telling victims about protection from abuse orders, calling law enforcement, encouraging or helping them move out, assisting victims with retrieving belongings, and following up with victims after witnessing abuse, the report said.

The majority of the victims, ranging in age from six weeks to 89, were women killed by men with firearms, the report said.

Eighteen of the 28 homicides analyzed by the panel were related to intimate partner violence, meaning they were committed by a past or present partner — a boyfriend, girlfriend, lover or spouse. 

The COVID-19 pandemic was raging for a portion of the time studied by the panel. And while it cannot definitively point to it as a cause, the report indicated that domestic abuse victims reported feeling less safe during that time. 

Additionally, the panel said that 79 percent of people served by domestic violence resource centers reported that the pandemic affected their safety. Helpline call volumes increased by 13 percent and electronic connections through chat, text, video, and email increased by 67 percent, according to the resource centers. 

Following the reviews of domestic abuse homicides, the panel observed that the Maine Criminal Justice Academy Board of Trustees Domestic Violence Policy has not been followed consistently by law enforcement agencies. According to the policy, a review and report of all domestic violence killings or serious injuries must be conducted with a domestic violence advocate and forwarded to the panel. 

Additionally, the panel found that non-fatal strangulation can signal future homicides. 

Attorney General Aaron Frey points out in the report that while progress has been made, work remains to be done to more fully educate members of the criminal justice system and the public generally on the serious risks of strangulation in domestic abuse cases. 

While the recommendation is not new from the panel, it emphasizes the continued importance of training related to strangulation and its relationship to domestic abuse homicides, Frey said. 

When people who commit domestic abuse and violence use non-fatal strangulation, they practice and desensitize murder,” the report said. “Victims of prior non-fatal strangulation are 750 percent more likely to become homicide victims.”

Among a long list of recommendations made by the panel, some include: 

  • Public awareness campaigns and other efforts continue to emphasize and clarify that professionals across many disciplines, along with anyone who is concerned about someone affected by domestic abuse, may reach out to community-based advocacy organizations such as The Maine Coalition to End Domestic Violence statewide helpline, 1-866-834-HELP, that connects callers with advocates at the regional Domestic Violence Resource Centers. Emphasis should be placed on encouraging employers and co-workers, who are aware of abuse, to connect with trained advocates. 
  • Expanded capacity of community-based advocacy organizations to offer shelter both to women affected by substance use disorder and their young children.
  • The Maine Criminal Justice Academy Board of Trustees Domestic Violence Policy requires that  all domestic violence killings or serious injuries must be reviewed with a domestic violence advocate and a report be forwarded to the panel. It is recommended that this be added to the Attorney General’s Death Investigation Protocol.
  • When a law enforcement agency conducts a welfare check on an individual, the officers should identify all residents present and visually confirm their welfare. A December Maine Monitor investigation found that law enforcement agencies in the state do not have consistent welfare check policies. 
  • Continued work by the Maine Commission on Domestic and Sexual Abuse’s Firearms Relinquishment Subcommittee to include attention to firearms relinquishment by people who are prohibited from possessing firearms due to qualifying criminal convictions.