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Continued: Washington County project gives high-risk victims high-speed help

  • Article by: JOY POWELL , Star Tribune
  • Last update: January 21, 2012 - 9:50 AM

Amy Christiansen's drunken husband pointed the revolver at her face and cocked the hammer. She closed her eyes, turned away and wondered: "Will it hurt? Who will be there for my kids?"

Eventually, Christiansen's 16-year-old daughter persuaded her dad to put down the gun.

Even after such a close call, Christiansen said she second-guessed whether her ex-husband really meant to hurt anyone, whether she was overreacting.

But a questionnaire, administered by a Cottage Grove police sergeant soon after the incident, showed her that she was at an extremely high risk of being killed.

Christiansen took the results seriously, followed the advice of police and domestic violence advocates, and moved.

"To see it put on a rating scale and to have somebody who sees this all the time say, 'No, this is where you're at. This is what you need to do to protect yourself and your family,' is key," she said.

In a novel approach, Washington County probation officers have teamed with police and advocates for victims of domestic violence to get services to high-risk women such as Christiansen right away, while expediting information to judges who set bail and restrictions on the release of suspects.

National experts said Washington County's program stands out in that regard. "There's no other jurisdiction that I'm aware of that has this coordination of the Lethality Assessment Program being guided by parole and probation," said Dave Sargent, who helped develop the protocol for LAP in Maryland.

One of the first women to be involved, Christiansen, and the officer who helped her, Cottage Grove Sgt. Randy McAlister, said they are so convinced of the effectiveness of LAP that they're urging other agencies to adopt it.

"This is definitely something that could be so key in turning things around," Christiansen said.

The protocol tallies "yes" answers to certain questions to rate the likelihood that a victim will be reassaulted or killed by an intimate partner. Developed by Dr. Jacquelyn Campbell of Johns Hopkins School of Nursing, it's used widely in Maryland and is spreading west.

From Washington County Sheriff Bill Hutton to County Attorney Pete Orput and corrections head Tom Adkins, officials say the tool is strengthening communication within the system and getting victims help fast.

McAlister said he and others had been searching for such a tool after the 2006 slaying of Teri Lee, a West Lakeland Township woman who was stalked and shot to death in her bedroom, along with her boyfriend, by a jealous ex. McAlister serves on the county's special response team and was at the Lee home that night.

He was the first in his department to embrace LAP and helps train others to use it. He said the program gives officers the printed evidence that can persuade reluctant victims to leave, to pull kids out of school, to go to a shelter and to testify.

Harrowing experience

In autumn 2010, Christiansen left her husband, taking her children to a new home. A month later, he broke in.

"He came into the kitchen, backed me into a corner and said, 'I'm going to kill you, and then I'm going to kill myself,'" she recalled.

Their dog ran upstairs, waking their 16-year-old daughter and 14-year-old son.

"My daughter came downstairs and she was actually able to talk the gun out of his hands," Christiansen said.

"This was all very progressive over 20 years. The man I married was not the man who held me at gunpoint."

After the incident, Christiansen said the help from Tubman domestic violence workers and the Washington County attorney's victim-witness program were key.

First responders ask victims screening questions, including whether the abuser has a gun or has threatened to kill or commit suicide. If the risk score is high, the information is sped to specific probation officers, who get it to judges in time for arraignments, often the next morning.

As a result, women are getting help fast and abusers are locked up quicker and longer.

"This tool was very key in making sure he got prison time," Christiansen said of her former husband, who was sentenced to two years in prison and a year on supervised release.

Spreading the word

At roll call at the Washington County Sheriff's Office in Stillwater, Cmdr. Cheri Dexter tells deputies the virtues of LAP.

"It's a pretty easy form for the deputies to fill out," she said. If the victim scores high enough, a copy is faxed to corrections officials and the shelter is contacted, Dexter said.

"We talk to the deputies, saying this program is working, we are seeing higher bails, the judges are following through with this, and they also get direct contact on their cases via the e-mails from corrections."

The Washington County Sheriff's Office and Oakdale police were the first in Minnesota to use LAP.

The county's last police agency is soon to be trained, said Sandy Hahn, Washington County's deputy community corrections director, who introduced LAP locally in 2010.

"We were the first probation agency in the country to look at using this tool," she said. Anoka County sent deputies to Washington County for training and later began a similar program with its probation officers.

Officers call Tubman, the 24-hour contact for LAP, right from the victim's home after responding to a domestic incident. Victims can set up services immediately, if they choose.

"Truly it's a way to connect -- very, very close to the actual time of the incident -- services for them and their kids," Hahn said. "To me, that just makes really good sense."

Joy Powell • 651-925-5038

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