Domestic-related homicides have been on the rise in Loudoun County in recent years. Now, local law enforcement and domestic abuse prevention groups are introducing a new strategy to prevent them.
Less than a week after an ex-boyfriend was charged with fatally shooting a Leesburg mother of three, the county government announced today a program aimed at helping victims of abuse who are in danger of being murdered before it’s too late.
Under the new model, called the Lethality Assessment Program, law enforcement officers will ask domestic assault victims an 11-question survey to assess the level of risk they may be in. If the victim is considered in serious danger, he or she is immediately connected with Loudoun Abused Women’s Shelter. LAWS provides 24-hour support for victims, including counseling, legal representation and, if needed, shelter.
Leesburg Police started screening domestic abuse victims with the program Feb. 22, and Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office started March 21.
Already, Nicole Acosta, executive director of the Loudoun Abused Women’s Shelter, said her organization has been able to connect with more victims which could mean saving a life.
“A proven strategy in reducing homicide is the victim engaging with domestic violence services. Now, the most at-risk victims are reaching us much faster,” she said. The survey is designed to highlight the individuals, most often women, who are in the most danger, Acosta added. “This particular program isn’t screening for whether she’s going to be assaulted again. It’s really to screen whether the victim is at risk of being murdered.”
In the past week, there’s been a call for community leaders to do more to prevent domestic abuse and specifically homicides. The most recent push comes after 34-year-old Christina Fisher was gunned down in her home on Nansemond Street in Leesburg on April 2. Fisher’s former boyfriend, Darrick Lee Lewis, is being charged with the murder. She had obtained a restraining order against him last month.
Fisher’s death is just the most recent domestic homicide. But both Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office and Leesburg Police Department have seen an uptick in the number of murders committed by people who have had or are in close relationships with the victim.
Combined, the county sheriff’s office and Leesburg Police Department reported between zero and two domestic-related homicides in years 2011, 2012 and 2013. That number jumped to five in 2014. Combined, the two departments investigated two last year and three so far this year.
The first this year was in January in Lansdowne. Investigators believe Andre T. Howell, 40, shot and killed his wife Naomi, 39, and then took his own life. Three weeks later, on Plaza Street in Leesburg, police say Sergio Ramon Zuniga Robles, 34, stabbed his 27-year-old half brother to death. The third was Fisher’s murder.
Acosta said members of Loudoun’s Domestic Abuse Response Team noticed more people were being killed at the hands of family members or people they knew. When they heard about the LAP strategy, they applied to be a part of it.
The county’s DART team is a partnership among several organizations, including the sheriff’s office, Leesburg Police Department, commonwealth attorney’s office, Department of Community Corrections, Juvenile Court Services Unit, and the Department of Family Services.
Representatives from DART, including every Leesburg officer and Loudoun deputy, underwent an intense two-day training in the LAP program last October. The 11-question survey, and the training, was developed based on research from the nation’s leading experts on domestic-related homicides.
The questions officers are now asking victims of abuse are blunt. One asks whether their abuser has threatened to kill or tried to strangle them.
Being straight forward with the victims is key, according to Kaye Wallace, Project Manager of the Loudoun Domestic Abuse Response Team.
“We’re learning more about how to possibly save lives by identifying victims who may be in danger of being killed by their partners,” she said in the county’s press release announcing the new program. “Attempted strangulation, threats with weapons, stalking, sexual assault, and obsessively jealous and controlling behavior are some indicators of lethal abusers.”
The new screening protocol will, hopefully, save lives and help county leaders understand why domestic homicides have increased in Loudoun, according to Acosta.
She said, at this point, it’s hard to answer that.
“We’re working as a team to try to figure that out,” she said. “I think population growth is part of it, but that’s not the whole story.”