By Staley Heatly
46th Judicial District Attorney
In 2019, Maria (not her real name), was beaten and strangled by her boyfriend, Robert. The day after the assault, Maria received services from an advocate from Texoma Alliance to Stop Abuse, our local family violence nonprofit. Maria told the advocate that she was scared of Robert and that she wanted to get away from him, but she didn’t know how. Maria agreed to let her case be a part of our recently formed Domestic Violence High Risk Team (DVHRT), which meant that members of the DVHRT would review her case with an eye toward ensuring her safety throughout the pendency of the criminal case and beyond.
Two days later, Robert bonded out of jail. When the advocate attempted to contact Maria, Robert answered the phone and told her not to call back. The advocate was deeply concerned for Maria’s safety. The lethality screen, which police conducted at the scene of the original assault, indicated that this was a high-risk case, as Robert had previously threatened Maria with a gun. The day after Robert bonded out, the advocate received a text from Maria simply stating, “I want to get out.” Police went by Robert’s house to check on her, but no one would come to the door and she would not answer the phone. The advocate brought the case to the attention of the agencies in our DVHRT. Maria was at risk. How could we get her out of that house and to a safe place?
The situation described above is just what our Domestic Violence High Risk Team was designed to handle. Through our DVHRT, multiple agencies worked together quickly and efficiently to get Maria and her children out of harm’s way and to a shelter in another town. (Stay tuned to learn how we did this in such a difficult situation.) In this article, you will also learn how you can successfully set up a DVHRT in your jurisdiction to provide an additional layer of protection for high-risk domestic violence victims in your community.
Domestic violence is a killer. In 2021, more than 200 Texans were murdered at the hands of a current or past intimate partner. In 2020, the number was 228. The vast majority of these victims were women.
Intimate partner violence (IPV) affects hundreds of thousands of Texans every year. Studies show that about 41 percent of women and 26 percent of men have experienced sexual violence, physical violence, and/or stalking by an intimate partner during their lifetime. In 2021, more than 50,000 family violence cases were filed by prosecutors in our state. About 30 percent of these were felonies. The unfortunate reality is that some of those defendants may ultimately murder an intimate partner in the future.
As prosecutors, what can we do to help prevent these future tragedies from occurring? Acting alone, our options are limited to solely what we can do inside a courtroom. To truly tackle the problem of domestic violence in our communities, however, we must step outside of our traditional prosecutorial role and work to create a strong community-coordinated response to domestic violence.
A coordinated response involves collaboration among different sectors and agencies, such as law enforcement, social services, healthcare providers, and community-based nonprofits. One of the most effective ways to bring these people together is through the creation of a Domestic Violence High Risk Team (DVHRT).
What is a DVHRT?
A DVHRT is a multidisciplinary group of professionals who work together to assess and manage the risk of harm for people experiencing domestic violence. The DVHRT meets regularly to review cases and to execute individual safety plans with the goals of protecting victims from further violence and holding offenders accountable.
In 2018, my office spearheaded the formation of a DVHRT to operate in the three counties in my judicial district. Our DVHRT was initially funded by a grant from the Texas Council on Family Violence. While our grant funding ran out years ago, our DVHRT has remained active and requires no additional financial support from the involved entities. There is no one better positioned to lead the formation of a DVHRT than a prosecutor’s office. As prosecutors, we are in a unique leadership position, and we can bring various groups to the table to tackle tough problems.
I started my campaign for a DVHRT by paying a visit to all three of my county sheriffs and telling them about the benefits of putting a team together. I did the same with the head of probation and the various chiefs of police in my district. Initially, I received the usual pushback that comes when proposing something different from “the way it’s always been done.” There were concerns about resources, personnel, and capacity. It took a little convincing, but law enforcement agencies bought into the plan with an agreement that we would revisit the arrangement from time to time. The idea of a DVHRT was quickly embraced by my local community-based domestic violence (DV) program and the nearest family violence shelter, who were eager to provide critical services to high-risk victims in need. Now in its sixth year, our DVHRT continues to be strong.
Once the stakeholders were on board, we set an initial meeting to discuss the team’s goals and objectives, as well as to begin outlining the duties and responsibilities of the team members. This eventually took the form of a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) that was signed by all the DVHRT members and is reviewed and renewed every year. The MOU outlines the purpose of the DVHRT, describes its operation, includes the roles and responsibilities of all team members, and sets forth the lethality assessment tool that will be used by all agencies to determine which cases meet the high-risk criteria.
Starting your DVHRT
1) Identify stakeholders specific to your community and bring them to the table.
2) Develop protocols and procedures for assessing and responding to high-risk cases, including risk assessment tools and safety planning strategies.
3) Establish regular communication and coordination among team members to ensure a seamless and effective response to high-risk IPV cases.
DVHRTs are designed to make the most of scarce resources by targeting the highest-risk cases of intimate partner violence. To do so, law enforcement must utilize a risk assessment tool during its initial investigation. There are several different validated risk assessments available. Our DVHRT uses the Domestic Violence Lethality Screen for First Responders (DVLS-FR). This one-page document has only 11 questions, so it does not take much time for first responders to gather the necessary information from the victim.
An affirmative answer to any one of the first three questions on the DVLS-FR is a significant indicator of high risk for lethality. If the victim answers no to the first three questions, she may still be deemed high risk if she answers affirmatively on four of the next eight questions. Finally, if a victim does not answer enough questions to place her in the high-risk category, an officer may still determine that the case should be flagged as high risk if the officer believes the victim is in a potentially lethal situation. There is a box for the officer to write exactly what makes him concerned for the safety of the victim. A copy of it is below.
Once a victim is deemed high risk, the officer will attempt, at an appropriate time, to put the victim on the phone with an advocate from our local domestic violence program. The advocate will inform the victim of the wide array of available services and discuss safety planning strategies. These strategies could include transportation to a shelter, staying the night in a hotel, going to a relative’s house, requesting a magistrate’s order of emergency protection, or any number of options. The advocate’s role is to work with the victim to problem-solve and safety plan.
If the victim is unwilling to talk with an advocate from the scene, the officer will provide what appears to be a hair stylist’s business card (but really includes the phone number of our local domestic violence program) and encourage her to call later. The disguised card allows the victim to keep the phone number without tipping off the offender that she is considering reaching out for help. A copy of this business card is below in case you want to create something similar in your own jurisdiction.
Our goal is to get an advocate in touch with the victim as soon after the incident as possible. That could be an in-person meeting at the emergency room or police station or a phone conversation from the scene. If the victim is not connected to services at the time of the incident, the investigating law enforcement agency will send my office the victim’s contact information, along with the DVLS-FR, by the next day. This doesn’t always happen, but we usually do get the victim’s name and contact information soon after the incident. If the victim has not talked to an advocate, our office will reach out to let her know about the available services.
Why do we work so hard to make services as easily accessible as possible for these victims? Because studies show that victims of domestic violence who receive early intervention services are more likely to be satisfied with the services provided, less likely to experience physical violence, and more likely to report feeling safe during the pendency of the case. It is how we can prevent homicides.
Contrast our strategy of pushing services to the usual response in a domestic violence case. In the typical case, an officer will arrive at the scene, take a report, provide the victim with information about the local DV program, then leave the scene after the investigation is complete. At that point, the victim is solely responsible for connecting herself to services. At a time when the victim has just been physically abused and is likely feeling scared and confused, we put the burden on her to figure out what she needs to do. That is a terrible way to keep victims safe.
If a victim agrees to accept services and have her case monitored by the DVHRT, then that case will be considered and discussed by team members. My jurisdiction is small enough that every case referred to the DVHRT is accepted. However, in larger jurisdictions, DVHRT members may vote on which cases to accept in recognition of the limited resources available.
Our DVHRT meets on the last Friday of every month at the local police department. As an enticement to the team members, we provide lunch. Our meetings usually include county sheriffs, representatives from local police departments, a DA investigator, employees of the probation department, county attorneys, a representative from the closest domestic violence shelter (50 miles away), victim advocates from our local DV program, a counselor, and the DVHRT coordinator. Prior to the meeting, the DVHRT coordinator will send a list of the cases to be discussed so that all team members can be prepared with updates.
At the meetings, the team will consider the facts of the underlying cases, the lethality screens, the defendants’ known criminal history, and the victims’ needs and concerns. The team will work collaboratively to implement a safety plan for each victim, with each team member discussing his or her role. The meetings offer an excellent opportunity for team members to provide updates on exactly what is going on in each case. This could be discussing potential violations of bond conditions, or the fact that a final protective order is scheduled and the victim would like an escort from the parking lot to the courtroom. The specifics will vary from case to case, but the solutions will always be based on the specific needs of the victim. While the number of cases on the DVHRT can vary widely, we will usually review somewhere between 20 and 40 cases in a month. Some of these will have been on the list for months while others will be more recent.
The DVHRT meetings also provide an opportunity for all stakeholders to come together with an eye toward improving response. We devote a short portion of each DVHRT meeting to training on issues such as trauma-informed response, signs and symptoms of strangulation, stalking, and determining the predominant aggressor. As team members, we hold each other accountable and work to improve our response from scene investigation through prosecution.
The coordinator plays a key role on the DVHRT. This position can be filled by a victim assistant from a prosecutor’s office or law enforcement agency, or by an advocate from a local DV agency. The coordinator will keep the list of all DVHRT cases and run the meetings. She also has the contact information of all DVHRT members so that when an incident occurs in a high-risk case, she doesn’t have to wait for a meeting to start problem-solving. The coordinator has immediate access to the appropriate personnel for all the DVHRT members. Her calls receive top priority.
Informed investigation and prosecution
During the initial formation of our DVHRT, we all agreed that it would be beneficial to have the various law enforcement agencies in the three counties use the same protocols and paperwork when investigating IPV cases. Each law enforcement agency has a family violence packet composed of the Domestic Violence Lethality Screen for First Responders (DVLS-FR), a documentation chart for strangulation, the Notice to Adult Victims of Family Violence required by the Code of Criminal Procedure, an application for a Magistrate’s Order of Emergency Protection, the “hair stylist’s card” referenced previously, and a simple checklist to make sure that officers have followed the protocol in each case.
These family violence packets ensure uniformity in law enforcement response across the three counties. The lethality checklist helps officers gather the kind of information that puts the domestic violence incident into the appropriate context. While law enforcement agencies are responding to a discrete incident, we know that the incident is likely part of a pattern of abuse. Going through the form requires officers to ask questions about past abuse to gain a better, fuller understanding of the dynamics of the relationship between the suspect and the victim. An officer may consider the information he gathers on the form when making an arrest decision or when deciding whether he should request a magistrate’s order of emergency protection on behalf of the victim.
The information gathered in the DVLS-FR can also inform important decisions we make as prosecutors related to bond, bond conditions, and ultimately, the appropriate charge and resolution of a given case. For example, a prosecutor will want to give extra time and attention to even a first-offense family violence misdemeanor assault case if the victim indicates in the DVLS-FR that the defendant has previously threatened to kill her with a deadly weapon. That is a huge red flag. Contrast that with a similar first offense assault where the victim answers “no” to all the questions on the lethality assessment. Between those two defendants, one case should obviously take priority over the other. That same information is also useful for a prosecutor in deciding whether to oppose the lifting of a magistrate’s order of emergency protection or a no-contact bond condition.
Back to Maria
The way that Maria and her children were removed to safety is something that could come about only through the kind of close collaboration that occurs in a DVHRT. The plan to remove her from Robert’s home was actually hatched by Clay Conley, our director of probation. Maria was on misdemeanor probation that was set to expire around the time of Robert’s assault. Maria had not completed all her community service, which would not usually be a sufficient ground for revocation. However, working with the county attorney, Clay obtained a motion to revoke warrant for Maria, along with a PR bond from the local magistrate. He went to Robert’s house with police and was able to get him to open the door by explaining that Maria needed to be taken into custody. Robert opened the door and appeared to enjoy seeing Maria arrested. The police took her directly to the jail where she was quickly processed and released to a victim advocate, who drove Maria to a local childcare facility to pick up her two children. From there, at Maria’s request, they were driven to safety at a family violence shelter 50 miles away.
This is the kind of outside-the-box solution that results when barriers to communication and cooperation between agencies are broken down.
As leaders in the criminal justice system, prosecutors are well-positioned to bring people together to tackle big problems. One could argue there is no bigger problem than the epidemic of domestic violence in our country. Domestic Violence High Risk Teams are an easily replicable, proven model, that could help us save countless lives across our state.
 The Danger Assessment for Law Enforcement (DA-LE) and Ontario Domestic Assault Risk Assessment (ODARA) are both popular but longer than the Domestic Violence Lethality Screen for First Responders.
 A PDF of this assessment is also available at https://nij.ojp.gov/sites/g/files/xyckuh171/files/media/ document/domestic-violence-screening.pdf.
 There are some wonderful short, online trainings available on a variety of relevant topics on the website of the Institute for Community Coordinated Response. https://instituteccr.org/on-demand-trainings.
 There are numerous quality documentation charts available online.