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Another Voice: Use of High Risk Team can curb domestic homicides

By Judith Olin

The Buffalo News has reported that 12 intimate partner homicides occurred in 2019. Experienced domestic violence advocates say it’s more like 14. This is a disturbing development.

In 2017, the most recent year for which state statistics are available, there were only two intimate partner homicides and three homicides involving other family members, while the rate of intimate partner homicide decreased statewide by 24%.

The surge in intimate partner homicide here is surprising because Erie County is known statewide for adopting cutting-edge and innovative initiatives in domestic violence response.

For example, in 1997, Buffalo opened the second specialized domestic violence court in the state.

The Erie County Coalition Against Family Violence has been fighting this problem since 1978. In 2006, Erie County was one of a handful of programs awarded federal funding to open a Family Justice Center, a “one-stop shop for domestic violence victims.”

Given all of these resources, why did our community experience this increase in intimate partner homicides? A possible answer lies in failure to access the rich panoply of existing services.

One valuable but underutilized resource is the Erie County High Risk Team, or HRT, funded by a federal grant since 2016. The HRT is based upon a model developed in greater Newburyport, Mass., which uses evidence-based risk and lethality assessments, tailored safety planning, regular collaborative meetings and tools to keep particularly dangerous offenders incarcerated during a crucial interval that victims need in order to escape abusive relationships before it is too late.

The Erie County HRT is a multidisciplinary team that regularly meets to review domestic violence cases across Erie County that exhibit risk factors associated with intimate partner homicide.

Participating law enforcement agencies, the Erie County District Attorney’s Office, and key nonprofit and governmental agencies regularly meet to share case specific information and create specific, tailored safety plans to aid victims at high risk.

This approach worked in Newburyport, where domestic homicides fell to zero after it was implemented.

And it appears to be working in Erie County, where not a single victim referred to the High Risk Team was killed last year. This is one piece of positive information to build upon.

While many law enforcement agencies are very aware of the HRT and make regular referrals, some do not. Let’s hope that in the new year we will see more referrals to the HRT, and fewer intimate partner homicides.

Judith Olin is director of the Family Violence and Women’s Rights Clinic at the University at Buffalo School of Law.

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