By Dave Rogers
---- — AMESBURY — Since the Greater Newburyport Domestic Violence High Risk Team’s inception eight years ago, team members identified and helped 129 high-risk victims before their cases took a more tragic turn.
In the 10 years before the team was formed in 2005, there were eight domestic violence-related deaths.
That fact and others are part of a detailed report released earlier this week by the Jeanne Geiger Crisis Center in Amesbury, the team’s lead agency, which highlighted their accomplishments. It’s the first report to be released by the Amesbury and Newburyport-based crisis center since Feb. 2012.
Consisting of area police officers, Newburyport District Court probation officers, the Essex County District Attorney’s office, the Massachusetts Parole Board and others, the team has saved victims from dying at the hands of an abusive partner, and protected dozens of children in the process.
Once a month, the team meets inside the Newburyport Police Department and reviews two to four cases, as well as monitoring ongoing cases. By studying the files of victims to identify the most troubling cases, team members are able to brainstorm intervention strategies that prevent situations from escalating to a lethal level.
The team was developed after an in-depth look into the murder of Dorothy Giunta-Cotter, the Amesbury mother killed by her estranged husband in 2002 when he broke into their home, and shot her to death before killing himself.
Jeanne Geiger Crisis Center executive director Suzanne Dubus said law enforcement agencies have told her that without the team, there would have been more Dorothy Giunta-Cotters across the region.
“These are the worst, most violent offenders that live in our neighborhood,” Dubus said. “These are the scariest cases.”
Since its creation, the crisis center has referred 39 percent of victims to the Greater Newburyport Domestic Violence High Risk Team, with a majority of referrals (53 percent) coming from law enforcement agencies. Smaller percentages of referrals have come from the Essex County District Attorney’s office (4 percent) and the Newburyport District Court’s probation or parole offices (5 percent).
Before the team existed, according to crisis center officials, the lack of coordination between area resources left victims vulnerable. But by pooling resources and sharing information, communities, the court system and police departments are better able to identify high-risk victims.
It is that success that led state lawmakers, including Attorney General Martha Coakley, House Speaker Robert DeLeo and others to visit the center last Tuesday to learn more about that team and whether it can be replicated across the state.
Spurred by the shocking murder of a Waltham woman in August, allegedly at the hands of her boyfriend, lawmakers are assessing current domestic violence laws to determine whether they need to be strengthened. Modifications to dangerousness hearings, which allows a judge to hold a defendant without bail if deemed a threat to society or a victim, and restraining orders are among the areas being reviewed.
At the same time, the state Senate unanimously passed a bill aimed at protecting the employment rights of domestic violence victims and increasing penalties for restraining order violations. The bill also makes strangulation a felony, and eliminates a provision that allows courts to dismiss charges if both parties agree in a written statement to drop charges.
Dubus called the bill a potential game-changer in terms of empowering victims and dissuading offenders.
“That is a big change and, of course, increased fines for strangulation is really important,” Dubus said.
According to Dubus, there’s a correlation between the number of high-risk cases and offenders who strangle their victims.
“There’s a lot of control in strangulation. Just the idea of putting your hands around someone’s throat and squeezing until they pass out and then releasing them before death, is a powerful statement for a victim,” Dubus said. “That tells them ‘I will tell you when you will die and when you live.’”
In terms of victim safety, very few victims, — about 9 percent — reported being re-assaulted once identified by the team, while most victims — 91 percent — accessed domestic violence services. Only 6 percent of victims entered shelters for safety, with none doing so during the last three years.
For Dubus, knowing that more than 90 percent of victims are able to access the crisis center for services is a source of pride.
“It’s really gratifying,” Dubus said.
According to statistics compiled over the last eight years, 59 percent of offenders were held without bail awaiting trial, the majority of them through dangerousness hearings. Only 14 percent of all cases were dismissed and 78 percent of offenders were found guilty. Those facts, team leaders contend, point to a successful program that shifts the balance of power to victims and away from their abusers.
Crisis center chief of operations Kelly Dunne said in many dismissals, the victim invokes marital privilege which shields her from giving evidence against the offender. Without the victim’s testimony, prosecutors often don’t have enough evidence to continue with their case.
Still, Dunne said, the 14 percent dismissal rate is relatively low, speaking to the effectiveness of the crisis team and the center in general.
A separate report, based on fiscal 2013 data for the crisis center as a whole, shows that 24 percent of victims live in Amesbury while 12 percent of victims come across the river from Newburyport. Another 11 percent live in Salisbury and farther north, 13 percent come from Haverhill. Residents from West Newbury, Georgetown, Rowley and Groveland also visit the center but in far smaller numbers.
In all, the crisis center assisted 1,296 victims and survivors in fiscal 2013, a 2.9 percent decrease from the previous fiscal year.