In 2009, Philadelphia witnessed an alarming 67 percent increase in domestic violence murders over the previous year. Under the leadership of Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey and then-Deputy Police Commissioner Patricia Giorgio-Fox, the Philadelphia Police Department and the domestic violence advocacy community convened a series of meetings to determine how to better serve victims of domestic violence and how to prevent homicides.
It soon became clear that the majority of the 37 victims killed in 2009 had previously called 911 — many on multiple occasions — but very few had ever contacted a domestic violence service provider. Upon learning that many of the homicide victims had not had contact with victim service agencies, the committee, which consisted of the police department, the Office of the District Attorney and advocacy agencies including Women's Law Project and Women Against Abuse, devised a plan for more thorough investigation of domestic violence 911 calls and earlier intervention.
Prior to this initiative, police reports captured only very basic information and had limited space for a narrative describing the incident. With input from the committee, the police department designed a new form specifically for use with domestic violence calls. This report captures much greater detail about the incident — it prompts the police to ask about past abuse and to note critical evidence, such as whether the victim's clothing is torn or if there is overturned furniture, signs of abuse that were often left out of prior reports. This information aids the police in more effective investigations and facilitates the prosecution of domestic violence cases.
The committee also recognized the need for consistent and appropriate follow-up regarding each incident. Thus, a new system was created in which if there is a second report of domestic violence at the same residence, a victim-assistance officer contacts the victim and if there is a third call, a domestic violence detective investigates, even if the allegations would not typically warrant the involvement of a detective. Additionally, the committee strongly believed that follow-up from domestic violence agencies was necessary.
Given the more than 100,000 domestic violence calls made to 911 in Philadelphia each year, it was clear that domestic violence agencies could not reach out to every victim. To identify high-risk victims, the committee researched early warning signs of domestic violence homicide and identified five critical indicators: strangulation, stalking, use of a firearm by the abuser, repeat calls to the police by the victim and a protection from abuse order violation by the abuser that did not lead to an arrest. These warning signs were also captured on the police report along with a safe telephone number where the victim could be reached.
Through the support of a grant from the Department of Justice, the Telephone Outreach Project, or TOP, was implemented. Through TOP, the Philadelphia Police Department forwards all domestic violence reports to the Women Against Abuse Legal Center, where Women Against Abuse's police liaison — a former police detective with expertise in the field — assesses all reports and flags high-risk cases for TOP outreach. Reports in which the victims are senior citizens are forwarded to the SeniorLAW Center and reports in which the victim primarily speaks Spanish are forwarded to the Congreso de Latinos Unidos. All other reports are given to the Women Against Abuse telephone outreach counselor, who contacts victims within days of receiving the report. The counselor makes it clear that she is not part of law enforcement and that any conversation is entirely voluntary and confidential. The counselor is able to provide individualized support for legal issues, safety planning and crisis counseling, as well as referrals for safe housing. The counselor can research upcoming criminal court dates and provide case-specific counseling, as well as immediately connect the victim with shelter, legal services and counseling. For victims who are not ready to use these services, the counselor lets the victim know about the services and makes sure she or he has the information to use in the future. Additionally, with the victim's permission, the counselor completes at least one further follow-up call to assist with any problems that the victim is experiencing.
This intervention represents a radical departure from how domestic violence programs traditionally work. Under a typical model, domestic violence advocates wait for clients to initiate contact rather than directly contacting victims. However, this early intervention empowers victims and helps build a relationship that may not have otherwise existed. Since the project's start in August 2010, victim advocates have successfully contacted over 5,100 high-risk victims. The telephone counselor reports that the majority of victims did not know about all of the services available and are very grateful to have this information. Many more victims are now accessing life-saving services and, for those who do not use the services immediately, they now have the information to access them when they are ready.
Approximately two-and-a-half years after the initiation of the program, we are seeing heartening results. Domestic violence homicides have decreased substantially since TOP implementation. The homicide rate decreased from 37 domestic violence murders in 2009 to 24 deaths last year. In addition, domestic violence injuries have decreased, improving the well-being of victims throughout the city. TOP has also strengthened the relationship between the police and domestic violence agencies in Philadelphia. The Women Against Abuse Legal Center has observed improvements in police response to domestic violence calls since the project's start: For example, offenders who violate a protection from abuse order and are present at the time of police arrival are now consistently arrested.
Domestic violence is one of the most common causes of injury in women and can result in significant long-term physical and mental health consequences, both for the victim and his or her children. TOP was implemented to intervene earlier in the cycle of abuse and to connect victims with resources to escape, thereby improving their safety, health, quality of life and overall well-being. The impact of TOP makes it an important early-intervention model for communities across the country to improve the safety and health of survivors of domestic violence. We know that the TOP program is providing critical support to some of the most isolated, vulnerable victims of abuse. We are currently waiting to see if the funding for this program will be renewed.
For more information about the TOP program, visit http://goo.gl/lSBLJ. •
Molly Callahan is the legal center director of Women Against Abuse. She is a co-chair of the domestic violence subcommittee of the Philadelphia Bar Association. She can be reached at 215-686-7082.