Writing reports that work for victims of DV: Tools for measuring risk for DVH

There were times that at the end of a midnight shift in Westbrook, Maine, outside Portland, and New Braintree PD, in Massachusetts that I had reports to write for incidents I had been assigned during the shift. More than once, I snuck out of the patrol office and went home – too tired to write. And more then once, the sleep I so wanted was disturbed by the day sergeant or court officer looking for my report. Or sometimes, when I did stay, my writing was not my best effort because I was tired. Report writing is an art and is now a large part of both the academy training and field training programs. Law enforcement officers are better trained and more highly educated than ever which is essential in these times where every word is public property. The media, the citizenry, and the police hierarchy are all slicing and dicing every paragraph of today’s reports looking for your mistakes, it seems. The reason I write this is that police reports have consequences and if important statements, or officer observations, or photographs are omitted, cases may be lost. It is essential that report writing be taken seriously because, in the setting of domestic violence, lives depend on it.

Just like any report document that is to be handed out to anyone who might request it, particularly underpaid defense attorneys who swim in circles, like sharks looking to devour a poorly written report and its author. Report writing needs to be concise and laser focused. Particularly important is the reason for the call. Why did this victim call today? We know that the abuse tends to escalate successively. Sometimes, it is only when children become involved that a victim will move to stop the violence. In Vermont, a teen boy shot and killed his father when the man drunkenly waved a pistol threatening the family. And in Maine, a 13 year old boy was found to be hiding a 20 gauge shotgun and ammunition on the day he and his family were murdered by his father Steven Lake.  Our analysis of the Maine case led us to understand that the boy was likely intending to defend his mother and sister against a violent and unpredictable father.  He may have been seeking to load the weapon when his father snuck into the unlocked house and overpowered the family. 20 gauge shells were found in the child’s bed and under his pillow.

Image from Mobile ODT
When conducting assessments or forensic exams with a victim of domestic violence (DV), any reported history of strangulation places the person at a higher risk for more serious violence or homicide by the hands of their intimate partner. By recognizing signs of strangulation, healthcare providers can help to mitigate long-term damage, properly document any evidence of abuse, and provide referrals for seeking safety assistance. Sara Vehling 2019

Risk assessment tools provide quantifiable data that may be used to develop actuarial projections as to degree of risk and dangerousness. Report writing now should include assessment tools that uncover potential risk to victims. Jacqueline Campbell, RN has a valid risk assessment tool for determining whether there is high risk to potential victims that can be living in the home while officers are still on scene. Campbell’s work is readily available in the DV literature and known to most of us. The Ontario group in Canada also has a reliable tool – ODARA used by law enforcement agencies across the country. In my agency we adopted both tools after the research was complete from The Maine homicides. The national leadership includes Lenore Walker, in addition to Campbell, who both have published a good deal over 25 years on DV and its cycle. Walker believes that women and families are exposed to great harm when the abuser is out of jail only hours after terrorizing his family. It rarely mitigated the next beating. 

I propose holding the abuser until his first arraignment perhaps as long as 2 days. This allows for a cooling off period. Minutes are like hours while sitting in a municipal cell block often eating fast food 3 times a day. But the 8th Amendment of the Constitution guarantees that bail shall not be unfairly denied or excessively harsh. In truth, the modification of bail conditions in some instances must be done in real time to account for the severity of individual cases of DV and unique red flags. Experts have said that when a victims says ”I know he is going to kill me” then there is a greater likelihood that she may be correct and a protective, safety plan should be put in place. On the continuum of risk, expecting to be killed is only slightly less dangerous as physical attempt to kill or maim. In these most dangerous cases, there are tactical measures that must be written into protective orders such as GPS monitoring, forfeited bail and remand to custody for violation of protective orders, social media restriction, no contact with victim and children, no contact with victim’s family or friends, and supervised visitation, when only appropriate. It is these cases where the police officer’s report must be first rate and bullet proof.

A period of being held in custody until initial arraignment will enhance public safety and public trust in the short run. If applied to all persons arrested because of domestic abuse, then it would not unfairly impact only the poor or disenfranchised. Abuser’s should not be able to buy their way out of jail nor should they be free to wander their communities stalking their supposed loved ones. Steven Lake who killed his family and himself in Dexter, Maine posted his love for his children nightly and had piteous social media “friends” encouraging him to “fight for his children”. Little did they know he was planning the onerous events that would end the Lake family timeline forever. The Maine Law Review in 2012 reviewed changes in conditions of bail and cited our research over 12 times in its review of conditions for the release of persons in jail for domestic violence. Protective factors include the abuser having full employment and a substance free environment.

As the reader begins to understand report writing requires a visceral response and poignant understanding of this hidden social maelstrom. There are legitimate reasons for seeking “no bail” holds on some people arrested for domestic violence when high acuity and high risk exist together. These have been posted by me in the Human Behavior blog.


Campbell, J. (1995). Assessing dangerousness. Newbury Park: Sage. Nicole R.

Bissonnette, Domestic Violence and Enforcement of Protection from Abuse Orders: Simple Fixes to Help Prevent Intra-Family Homicide, 65 Me. L. Rev. 287 (2012). Available at: https://digitalcommons.mainelaw.maine.edu/mlr/vol65/iss1/12

Ronald Allanach et al. (2011) Psychological Autopsy of June 13, 2011, Dexter, Maine Domestic Violence Homicides and Suicide: Final Report 39 (Nov. 28, 2011), http://pinetreewatchdog.org/files/2011/12/Dexter-DVH-Psychological-Autopsy-Final-Report-112811-111.pdf.

Vehling, S. (2019) Taking your breath away – why strangulation in domestic violence is a huge red flag. Blog post https://www.mobileodt.com/blog/taking-your-breath-away-why-strangulation-in-domestic-violence-is-a-huge-red-flag/ taken March 15, 2022

Mac Walton. (2019) Bail Reform and Intimate Partner Violence in Maine, 71 Me. L. Rev. 139. Available at: https://digitalcommons.mainelaw.maine.edu/mlr/vol71/iss1/62

Domestic Violence Homicide: crafting protective orders with teeth and laws to support victims in fear of being murdered

Domestic violence homicide shares common red flag warnings that are discernible when prosecutors take time to connect the dots.

In Maine, Texas, and across America, the criminal justice system – including prosecutors, too often fail to protect victims of domestic and family violence from their abusers — even when the “red flag” warning signs are obvious as they were in both these cases. In this post, and the March 15 post, I talk about the importance of report writing and truly  understanding DV on a visceral or gut level. To truly understand what is going to happen requires a realization that just below the surface may lie a wolf in sheep’s clothing. 

What happens next?  The failure to see what danger exists as officers interview victim and abuser. This is often because no dangerous assessment has been initiated and secondly, because there are too few prosecutors and judges who connect the dots and understand the cycle of domestic violence. Protective orders must contain contingencies for those abusive partners who do not respect the order of protection and violate its provisions at will. Any violation should be met with revocation of bail and immediate arrest. 

I will post the 10 risk factors below for specific warning signs common to DVH. This begs the question, why are cases of domestic violence homicide not more fully examined with a psychological autopsy? These examinations might add to the body of knowledge and create impetus for change in DV law including bail conditions as suggested in the Maine Law Review in 2012 and again in 2017. There needs to be more bite to protective orders so that victims can move on with their lives rather than live in constant fear as I have posted over and over. Recently, in 2017, the Maine Law Review listed changes in bail conditions that were recommended by Nicole Bissonnette, an attorney and member of faculty at University Law School in Portland, Maine. Heretofore, these have been largely ignored by legislators in Maine. Ms. Bissonnette has written about Bail reform in at least 2 papers published in the Maine Law Review as noted above. I will write about these two Maine Law Review papers shortly.

In early 2021, the police in Austin,Texas were beset by a horrific case of domestic violence homicide. On April 18, 2021, a former police officer killed the family while picking up his son for a monthly supervised visit. The child’s mother encouraged these visits as important to the boy’s development and relationship with his violent and sadistic father. While exchanging pleasantries, the child’s father shot and killed his former wife and step-daughter.  And he killed his daughter’s young boy friend and immediately fled. Detective Broderick was captured 20 hours later and is being held. Yes, the abused was a former law enforcement officer. 

Texas law requires surrender of all guns following a domestic assault. The question remains, had Broderick been relieved of his firearms or did he acquire a weapon after leaving the police department? In Texas, “timely relinquishment of firearms is an essential dynamic of violence prevention. We must work together to ensure that individuals subject to a weapon forfeiture order surrender their firearms immediately” according to Travis County District Attorney Jose Garza in a May 2021 story. So we are led to believe that he turned in his firearms and was relieved of his license to carry a concealed weapon. It is not specifically reported that these conditions were met. However, as it pertains to GPS monitoring a judge believed that because he had been compliant with conditions of his release, including wearing the GPS ankle bracelet for 3 months, that it was no longer required. Why?

This comes in response to the murder of three members of a single family, allegedly by a former police detective who had been ordered to stay away from his wife and step-daughter. He was in direct violation of the order. His court-approved  visitation with his son was to be supervised and on April 18, 2021 during a time where Mr. Broderick was to pick up his son, the murderous assault was initiated: killing 3, including his former wife and adopted daughter. What were the red flag triggers? Was something missed?

In the Texas case there were people who knew what might occur, like murder of former wife, the issues surrounding Broderick and his loss of employment and pending felony trial were among the many triggering factors.

Common sense look at facts

Police need broad discretionary authority in dealing with any violation of orders of protection including no bail holds and danger risk assessment

Following the 2020 arrest for sexual assault of a child, Broderick resigned from the Travis County Sheriff’s Department. He was initially held on $100,000 bond. A family friend remarked, “I kind of had a feeling that this is where he was going, because he was lost,” she explained. “He lost everything. He lost his family. There was a protective order for a reason.” He was lost?  That gives him the right to violently kill his former wife, adopted daughter, and her male friend? Many in our society are lost and do not go on to commit violent homicide.

Like the Austin homicide, in other cases I have reviewed, trends “someone knew” what would happen if the abuser was released from custody. This is a red flag. And facts indicate Mr. Broderick had a violent history including rape of a child and most certainly should have been kept in custody through his trial. What possible good could come from releasing this man into society? And more specifically, why was the victim’s plea for greater protection apparently ignored? At the very least, Mr. Broderick should have been wearing the GPS monitoring bracelet when he was out of custody. The judge who allowed him to stop wearing the GPS monitor should be removed from the bench for such a poor judgement call that she indicated was based on her experience with usual cases. This was not one of the “usual” cases and the fact that someone knew what might happen and kept quiet is despicable and should be made a felony crime of obstruction of justice.Any threat of death and use of firearm removes anything usual about a case of intimate partner violence.

The 16-year old child, who was among the victims, begged for a more restrictive supervision of her step-father who had been released from jail and was not required to wear an ankle bracelet after only a period of 3 months. An order of protection was brought against former police detective. There was a protection order in place but even the teen knew that orders of protection were “not worth the paper they were written on.” 

“Because Mr. Broderick committed this heinous crime after he paid a money bond to be released on charges related to sexual assault against a child, Texas law permits his detention without bail.” Wes Wilson, KXAN television Austin, TX

There is a case to be made for careful analysis of behavioral health functioning of abusers. That seems to be common sense right? But this sometimes does not occur. As a law enforcement officer in Massachusetts, I made an effort to introduce risk assessment tools to quantify a subject’s dangerousness. This is important but is not yet universally adopted here in Massachusetts. Nearly 10 years on, the psychological autopsy conducted in 2011, looked at the red flag warnings that are common to DVH everywhere – including the case in Austin. What brought my attention to the case in Maine was the purported prosecutorial impotence argued by Christopher Almy, the county district attorney, that there was “nothing that could be done to protect the victim, Amy Lake and her two children, from her estranged husband Stephen Lake. That statement was inspiring. Imagine if you and your family were depending upon the police to protect you as Amy Lake was? Everything that could be done was in place. But the protection order had no teeth. So Steven Lake snuck into the Amy’s home at 5 AM and staged a despicable murder scene, ultimately killing the children he claimed to love while Amy was forced to watch. Ending with her shotgun murder and is own death by suicide. 

“Domestic violence is not random and unpredictable. There are red flags that trigger the emotional undulation that bears energy like the movement of tectonic plates beneath the sea.” Michael Sefton (2016)

In an article on the 8th Amendment regarding bail in cases of domestic violence, the Maine Law Review, first in 2012 and an updated second publication in 2017, cited the importance of carefully crafted conditions of bail especially among men who are found to have violated the conditions often by stalking and using social media to intimidate and contact potential victims also by trolling family members in an effort to locate estranged spouse and her children who may be in hiding. Both Amy Lake and Austin, TX mother of 3 expressed an interest in having children remain in contact with extended family in spite of pending serious criminal charges. This opened up access to the perpetrator to information about current living arrangements, employment, after school activities, and other potential clues that raised the risk of further domestic violence and ultimately DVH. In Austin, the victim expressed a wish to allow her estranged husband to have contact with the little boy – his son in spite of pending felony charges brought forth by the 16-year old step-daughter who rightfully feared for her life. Why was her fear ignored or minimized given her history of having been sexually assaulted by her adoptive father and his animosity toward her for reporting the abuse to law enforcement. He blamed her for his loss of career and status as a local detective with the Travis County Sheriff’s Department.

Firearms are a major cause of DVH and in every state are required to be taken from men with active protection orders in place. This was the default expectation in the two cases described here but in the case of Stephen Lake his arsenal of 22 firearms were not removed from his possession in spite of court orders.  Similarly, the Austin killer was left with at least one firearm used to kill his family.  Lake left 9 suicide notes many of which were rambling, angry tirades toward his wife and in laws.  The Austin killer did not take his own life and was captured. This is atypical especially among law enforcement officers raising the specter of possible psychological analysis of his motives. This make the two cases in this post very different at this level. To what extent Texas authorities will endeavor to understand the events that preceded the murders remains unclear although, like the Aurora theater shooting, having a bad guy to study is rare. This means nothing, aside from an opportunity for personality and psyhopathology to be brought up at trial perhaps allowing Mr Broderick to avoid death row.  There is not much in the public media since the crime and his capture. However, gaining a comprehensive understanding of the red flag warnings in this case is recommended and will add to the body of literature on domestic violence. Why he chose not to kill himself is itself a mystery. 

One could argue that the Austin killer shared several commonalities with the Maine case including sexual violence, threats of death, pathological jealousy, violation of the order of protection. The Austin murderer, Mr. Broderick was a SWAT trained police officer who resigned his position after being arrested for sexual assault on his step daughter.  He should not have had a firearm pending the outcome of his case. Stephen Lake, on the other hand, would never stand trial – something he knew was a fact. Lake was keen on the idea that the cost of his divorce was a mere $0.35 cents – about the cost of one bullet. In this case his sister and aunt understood how angry and troubled Mr. Lake had become and said nothing, until we conducted our hours-long interview for the psychological autopsy.


Domestic violence homicide risk factors

  1. Threatens to kill spouse if she leaves him – pathological jealousy
  2. Actual use of firearm or other weapon anytime during domestic violence incident
  3. Access to firearms even if he never used them – veiled threats
  4. Attempt at strangulation ever during fight
  5. Forced sex anytime during relationship
  6. Unemployment of perpetrator
  7. Stalking via social media – one or both spouse use social media to intimidate or garner support
  8. Presence of unrelated “step” child in home
  9. Spouse finds new relationship soon after separating
  10. Low bail release from custody – high bail holds are essential in DVH mitigation

Conditions of bail and 8th amendment freedoms – reflections on domestic violence homicide

The 8th Amendment guarantees that people will not be faced with unfair conditions while in custody nor should they have undue hardship following adjudication. But when victim safety requires it then some modification of this rule must be considered. Dangerousness to possible victims requires some abusive subjects (usually men) be held without opportunity for bail at least as long as it takes to confirm that there is no immediate danger to possible family members. This evaluation sometimes takes hours to days to complete. In Massachusetts, here in the US, some courts have court clinics that can assess persons in custody for risk of suicide and dangerousness. The pandemic has reduced this option significantly and arraignments were conducted virtually for months. Many district courts work with domestic violence agencies on a regular basis sometimes in the court buildings near court rooms.

Maine Law Review

Not much has changed since the Maine Law Review cited our work in its 2012 in Nicole Bissonnette’s review of bail conditions following domestic violence. Ms. Bissonnette published second paper in 2017, in the same MAINE Law Review that gives some quick and easy fixes for the 8th Amendment conundrum as it pertains to domestic violence. It is a fact that victims generally do not call police when the abuse first begins. It is also a fact that if a victim has been threatened with death if she “leaves” or “asks for a divorce” then her risk is substantially elevated and a safety plan must be provided including an order of protection.

The 8th amendment guarantees that excessive bail nor excessive fines shall not be required when someone is in custody and when found guilty of a crime. In many cases of domestic violence assault, abusive spouses are released on personal recognizance – essentially no bail is taken. Abusers are required to show-up on the next court day (usually Monday morning) and answer to charges of assault, domestic abuse, or whatever the evidence shows. The 8th Amendment also specifies that punishment for crimes shall not be excessive, overly punitive or harsh. It is frequent that abusers may have no criminal record whatsoever. Given that fact, it is hard to argue for high bail in a case where the defendant is unlikely to skip out on an initial hearing. This is precisely the reason why officer reports must include detailed statements from victims and witnesses – especially children.

I agree in principle that bail should not be punitive but neither should a family be faced with constant fear and danger because of the arrogant defiance of an abusive spouse. People without means do not have money for bail and some individuals are unfairly kept in jail simply because they or their families do not have cash for release from custody. So, a person who may be unemployed and was picked up for shoplifting and has 2 prior arrests may have an artificially high bail so he sits for weeks in a county jail awaiting trial. There are times when dangerous supersedes the right to be released from custody. This requires close scrutiny for making bail conditions that reflect risk to community and red flags for individual families.

In the 2017 Maine Law Review, Nicole Bissonnette restated her 2012 premise that bail conditions must be considered carefully when it comes to letting violent intimate partners out of custody. Ms.Bissonnette smartly cited the work done by this author and colleagues that brought these issues into sharp focus (Allanach et al. 2012). The importance of orders of protection cannot be understated in preventing domestic violence homicide. “The purpose of this follow-up comment is to evaluate the existing (PFA) system and assess methods of improving outcomes while avoiding prohibitive fiscal impacts” according to Ms. Bissonnete, 2017. The process, structure and failings of the existing system will be illustrated by the tragic deaths of Amy Lake and her two children, who were murdered by Steven Lake, despite the PFA in effect at the time. It was this case that brought domestic violence homicide into national prominence and provided substantive recommendations for mitigating DVH. Information is often unavailable to bail clerks or even judges when PFA’s are needed most. Information such as whether the defendant has previously violated conditions of release, probation or other orders, including, but not limited to, violating protection from abuse orders according to Jennifer Thompson, 2004. When these factors are affirmed then bail conditions must be revised in real time accordingly. Substantial bail for violation of protective orders is but one of them. Some believe that having non-refundable, very high bail is the only sanction to prevent recurring violations of the PFA. The 8th Amendment informs that bail may not unfairly impact people without employment and those who do not have financial means to buy there way out of jail.

There are cases, as recently as 2021 where a protection order was denied and domestic violence escalated into death of the New Hampshire suspect and critical injuries to intimate partner who became the victim. A judge did not think a protective order was warranted. Similarly, in Austin, TX, a disgraced police officer shot and killed his step-daughter, the teen’s boyfriend and his former wife in April 2021, even after the teenage girl begged for a protective order with the option to hold the abuser in jail. Her fear was palpable. The shooter was required to wear an ankle bracelet for 90 days after which he was free to stalk his former family who were trying to move on. There were several flaws in the safety plan in this case that ultimately triggered the terminal event such as coming together for planned visitation so the former police officer could visit his son who was not murdered. In New Hampshire, a judge denied a protective order on the basis that the abuser had not been violent since 2016 although acknowledged that the man was coercive and controlling. The victim, Lindsay Smith, was shot and critically wounded in Salem, MA in November 2021. Her former boyfriend, who had stalked the victim for the years since the break-up reportedly said he intended to forever “turn her life upside down” died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. This may have been avoided if the temporary restraining that had expired had been approved to become a permanent restraining order as the victim had petitioned.

The desire to mitigate police discretion in domestic violence cases stems, in part, from problems relating to “the inherent ambiguity of the police-citizen encounter in the context of domestic violence.”

Jennifer Thompson, 2004 Maine Law Review

The domestic violence literature suggests that after 5-7 beatings victims will reluctantly summon police – especially if they fear either they or their children are about to be murdered. The details Calais, ME case of domestic violence are being carefully guarded even today. It is known that Daniel Phinney, 26 was out on bail after being arrested and charged with domestic violence and criminal threatening in May 2013. At that point he must have both physically assaulted his significant other and threatened to kill or maim his family resulting in the charge of criminal threatening. Police are quick to say that Phinney had “no prior criminal history” perhaps in an effort to obfuscate public outrage evoked by the system of bail in Maine that releases violent abusers over and over again on low bail. Had anyone made an effort to determine the degree of risk posed by Daniel Phinney prior to his release? Had anyone registered safety concerns based on the defendant’s behavior and history? If there had been routine aftermath follow-up then this may have been a known fact. A psychological assessment of Phinney may have provided important details about his impulse control, substance use, coping skill, and proclivity toward violence and had been charged previously with domestic violence. Phinney was killed by police in a stand-off in Calais, Maine shortly after being released from custody.

The case is reminiscent of the 2011 Steven Lake homicide in Dexter. Lake had twice been released on bail before murdering his family.  The medical autopsy concluded that “in spite of psychological counseling (the state) failed to appreciate the degree of anger and violence in Steven Lake”.  He had also been charged with criminal threatening after holding his family at gunpoint as he drove home the point about how much he loved them but he could not let Amy move on. 

Using a firearm in the commission of a domestic violence incident is defacto evidence of dangerousness and no bail shall be considered until such time as all firearms are collected and a viable safety plan is in place for potential victims including police protection. Michael Sefton, Ph.D. 2021

I was a member of a team that conducted a psychological autopsy on Steven Lake that resulted in over 50 recommendations to the esteemed Maine Attorney General’s Homicide Review panel in November 2012. At first glance there appears to be brash indifference toward the court protection order and the failure to remove firearms held by the defendant. It is now important to study the case of Daniel Phinney and others, so we ma learn from the many red flags exhibited in the weeks prior to his death. These red flag events must lead to stopping and containments points in future cases of domestic violence and domestic violence homicide. No family should be kept in fear by a spouse whose loathsome behavior derails all human spirit and sense of dignity.

At what point does the well-being of victims and potential victims rise above the abuser’s right to bail?

Michael Sefton, 2014 on the 8th Amendment and PFA orders


Allanach, R et al., Psychological Autopsy of June 13, 2011, Dexter, Maine Domestic Violence Homicides and Suicide: Final Report 39 (Nov. 28, 2011), http://pinetreewatchdog.org/files/2011/12/Dexter-DVH-Psychological-Autopsy-Final-Report-112811- 111.pdf.

Bissonnette, NR (2012). Domestic Violence and Enforcement of Protection from Abuse Orders: Simple Fixes to Help Prevent Intra-Family Homicide, 65 Me. L. Rev. 287. Available at: https://digitalcommons.mainelaw.maine.edu/mlr/vol65/iss1/12

Thompson, J (2004). Who’s Afraid of Judicial Activism? Reconceptualizing a Traditional Paradigm in the Context of Specialized Domestic Violence Court Programs, 56 Me. L. Rev. 407.

Sefton, M. (2021) Domestic violence and the importance of red flag warnings for preventing homicide. WordPress Blogpost. https://msefton.blog/2021/04/24/domestic-violence-and-the-importance-of-red-flag-warnings-for-preventing-homicide/ taken 2-25-2021

Law Enforcement and the “window” of attack against domestic violence

Human Behavior blog

In Iceland, the first 24 hours after a report of domestic violence, the window of opportunity is open. During this window there is multidisciplinary response from police, social work, legal experts, and from the child protective service that establishes a safety plan and targets supporting the victim from her household, and sometimes away from the dangerous intimate partner.The first 24 hours after the report comes in is critical. Victims are more likely to accept help if definitive, comprehensive assistance can be offered right away. Within the window of emotional opportunity.

The Iceland Project puts together the package needed to bring charges by having a team of social service and law enforcement investigators who work together during the “call out”. One reason cases of domestic abuse seldom make it to court is because days and days go by before investigators can interview the victims. Some go to work, and some do not make themselves available to officers. “In Iceland, twice as many women are reporting incidents of domestic violence to the police than they were two years ago. This is due to an ongoing police initiative to provide women with better-timed and better-located assistance, which is bringing the problem out of the shadows” as reported in apolitical in 2017. I have called for regular aftermath follow-up in cases of domestic violence as a form of community policing. Officers work in pairs and stop during the next day to complete a check-in. Victims are contacted by their abusers or the family of the abuser or may be harassed via social media and made to feel like it is their fault this occurred. I had one victim tell me she was beaten up by her husband because the dinner she had prepared was late and unsatisfactory. I stayed in contact with her until the family quickly sold their home and moved from the area. That is pretty typical whereas the abusive partner wants to keep his wife under control. As soon as she makes friends he moves her somewhere else. Even if he takes a different job. Cases of domestic violence here in the United States skyrocketed during the pandemic quarantine that also gave birth to new higher rates of substance abuse and changes in behavioral health and well-being.

Police in Reykjavik, Iceland believe that detectives or senior police officers must intervene within the window – 24 hours from start of a call out, to put together a strong case and collect evidence. They work in teams of 4 or 5. The former protocol was often several days after the call and coincided with the honeymoon period. Bail conditions frequently fail DV victims as the abuser is often bailed out within 1-2 hours. Egregious cases of DV should be held without bail until a dangerousness hearing may be initiated. The result of this usually resulted in cases being dropped and victims staying in dangerous relationships. In theory, victims are more likely to accept support and provide meaningful evidence in the first 24 hours after their abuse. The window program is designed to link victims with programs such as housing, psychotherapy, job assistance, and financial means for a new start.

The Iceland Window Project also offers perpetrators the same assistance and supports that victims receive. Charges against perpetrators of abuse have gone from approximately 24 percent of cases to approximately 30 percent of cases. This is a modest improvement at best, according to the BBC podcast People Fixing the World who report that caseloads have increased dramatically since 2014. In spite of modest changes in prosecution numbers the Window Project’s fundamental aim is to reduce intimate partner abuse. It is a well designed project to support victims and keep them focused on the problem. Many practitioners believe that when a family is in crisis, such as when police are called to the residence, that great change is possible. There has been some movement toward prosecuting abusers even when the victim changes her mind. This is a primary reason for the Window Project’s success. By getting statements, photos, and other evidence there is greater likelihood that cases can go to court even when the victim chooses not to prosecute police are now doing this on behalf of bullied partner/victims. Children who are exposed to severe domestic violence are more likely to go on and become victims going forward. Or worse, they grow up and do exactly what their abuser did.

Here in the United States victims of domestic abuse are at great risk. Especially as they prepare to leave their abusive partners. Law enforcement is required to arrest perpetrators of DV whenever signs of physical trauma. That is generally understood by the police and the abusive spouses. But what happens just as frequently, law enforcement officers send the abuser away for the night or weekend. This makes things worse for victims and children.

Losing Saffie: The agony and loss of a precious little girl who was calling for ‘mum’ when mortally wounded

8-year old Saffie-Rose Roussos killed in Manchester, UK suicide attack

There are few things that I do not believe I could emotionally survive, like the loss of my spouse, employment, and physical and mental vitality. Certainly, the death of a child is among the worst of all human experience for any parent at any age. This story is a heart wrenching, story of depravity and loss. To this day, the loss of one of my children would leave me shattered, angry, and helpless. I hope these individual stories will all resonate with our humility as human beings. 

The chaos and emotion evoked in mass casualty events such as the Manchester, UK bombing, Boston Marathon bombing and the Sandy Hook, CT Elementary School mass shooting leave searing memories that take months to years to process.  We are reminded of the overwhelming sadness we feel when looking at photographs of people we know are no longer with us. The loss of a child is among the more gut wrenching experiences families can ever endure. Meanwhile, members of law enforcement face multiple victims including young children like Saffie-Rose Roussos during large scale mass casualty events that forever leave their marks. I am working with a former paramedic which was dispatched to a motor vehicle crash in 1990 where a family walking across the street was struck by a vehicle being pursued by law enforcement. The first victim he came upon was a 4 year old girl who had obvious signs of death that he cannot shake 30 years on. These next stories are similarly evocative.

 I recently came upon the story of the death of this little girl in Manchester, England. Her name was Saffie-Rose Roussos. From the sound of the description of Saffie, she was a special little girl with an enchanting wit and precocious love of life. All children are special and we recognize the curious joy through which they live each moment and we cherish every nuance. 

On the night of the bombing, Saffie was attending a music concert with her mother and sister when a suicide bomber detonated his bomb in Manchester, UK.  To see Saffie-Rose, one is compelled to ask whether or not there is a higher power? and if so, how could he allow this little girl to be in harms way? Saffie Roussos died on May 17, 2017 asking for her mum and wondering aloud if “she was going to die?” What child should ever ask this question? It evoked in me a tortuous and unthinkable picture of helplessness. But it was far worse for those emergency responders who were called upon to care for Saffie as her life came to an end that night along with the 21 other victims of the terrorist attack. No person who has ever been dispatched to a mass casualty event, like the Manchester bombing, ever comes away without a substantive chink in the veneer of their emotional core. Many in EMS and cops alike quit after mass casualty events.

The story of Saffie-Rose Roussos brings together good and evil and the ruination of one tiny life, one family, one city, one country, and illustrated the abject courage shown by the youngest of 22 victims that night in May, 2017. For this reason, I am sorry for not just the victims of the blast, like Saffie-Rose, and her family. They are devastated to this day, as I would be. But the heroic efforts of first responders who were called upon to provide life saving measures for this child and the hundreds of others wounded in the bombing. Without a doubt, all experience the deep sense of loss and failure at not being able to provide advanced trauma care for Saffie, so that she might live. “Losing a child feels like the ultimate violation of the rules of life” according to HealGrief.org an organization that guides parents through coping with the death of a child. In this case, Saffie is said to have been conscious after becoming injured but could not be saved given the resources available in the chaotic aftermath of the explosion. The protocols call for rapid triage of the scores of people needing help and this is done in the minutes to hours after the event. It is very likely, Saffie did not have the advanced life support needed to manage the hemorrhagic shock she sustained from massive loss of blood. The human body will compensate for loss of blood only until, in shock, it can no longer maintain blood pressure. Survival is measured when fluid can be replaced and loss of blood can be stanched. In children, this compensatory window is much more tenuous and short lived. 

When I worked as a LEO we were taught techniques for trauma intervention that we were told might save our own life or someone else’s life one day in the event of a shooting or massive trauma resulting in life-threatening loss of blood volume. By using a properly place tourniquet, rescuers can stanch blood loss at times of massive trauma such as from a bomb blast that took the life of 8-year old Saffie-Rose Roussos of Leyland, Lancashire in UK. Saffie was killed while attending a concert in Manchester, England in May, 2017. She was the youngest of 22 people killed on the night of May 17, 2017 when a suicide bomber Salman Abedi blew himself up in the lobby of a Manchester concert venue. Terrorism. 

“Medically trained people were with her. And she was asking for help. She knew what was happening. And she bled to death.” BBC 2021. “How do we carry on living with this information? How can we carry on breathing with this information?” asked Saffie Roussos’s father Andrew Roussos. BBC Judith Mortiz report January 17, 2021

BBC Judith Mortiz report January 17, 2021

Saffie’s father Andrew described his described his daughter as a “perfect, precious, beautiful daughter” who “melted people’s hearts” with those big brown eyes,” adding: “It’s like the best artists got together and drew her from top to toe.” according to a story in the BBC that was published during the public inquiry into the bombing last year. It is likely that the Roussos family is feeling the injustice of Saffie’s death. Anger is part of loss and healing and often is unresolved years after the traumatic loss of a child. Especially given the despicable nature of what caused Saffie to become gravely injured.

 All bereaved parents lose a part of themselves and often require months or years to understand the extent of their grief and anger.

“I did die that day, inside I’m dead. My heart is so heavy, it weighs me down” said Lisa Roussos, Saffie’s mum, now 3 years on. The Roussos family feels the loss of Saffie-Rose every day. 

Lisa Roussos

The immensity of traumatic loss was never more palpable than in 2012 when the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT came under attack by 20-year old Adam Lanza. Lanza first killed his mother with whom he lived and next drove to the largely unprotected elementary school and opened fire, killing 20 first-grade children and 6 adults trying to protect them.

Adam Lanza, 20, committed one of the most hideous acts of murder in history and is forever described as pure evil. Yet he was evaluated at the Yale University Child Study Center in New Haven. He was seen by a clinical psychiatrist, the report states. Ostensibly, the evaluation “purportedly to determine if Lanza had Obsessive Compulsive Disorder in the context of a putative diagnosis of Asperger Syndrome” in a piece written by Aaron Katersky and Susanna Kim in 2014 about the Newtown Massacre. Adam Lanza’s own father said “you cannot get any more evil” when talking about his son in the months after the shooting. Lanza openly wished that his son had never been born, raising an ironic specter between the loss of a child and being unable to love a child who commits unthinkable violence and died in the process. What possible conciliation may be find in his public statements months after the massacre? There is no denying that the Newtown shooting is among the most horrific and despicable violent crimes of the 21st century. No one will ever forget that December morning and the disbelief and horror it instilled. Other acts of violence toward children are documented. This is by no means a complete chronology.  

Perhaps the greatest sporting event in the United States takes place every April, ending on Boylston Street in Boston, Massachusetts. Martin Richard, 8, a child watching the Boston Marathon in 2013 was killed by a pressure cooker bomb filled with ball bearings, marbles and other shrapnel that was a homemade bomb made to kill and maim unsuspecting families watching the annual running event. Hundreds lost arms and legs in the two bomb explosions. 

Martin Richard, age 8

Martin Richard was a special child.  He is not shown in these bombing photographs. His parents have gone on to honor him with annual community events geared toward raising funds for parks and other community projects. In all, over 300 people were injured in addition to the initial 3 people who died in the bombing – including Martin. “The minute the defendant fades from our newspapers and TV screens is the minute we begin the process of rebuilding our lives and our family.” according to a Richard family statement in the Boston Globe as the Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was being tried for the murder of Martin and 2 others on Patriot’s Day in 2013. For their part, the Martin family spoke out against the death penalty which was handed down to the surviving marathon bomber who was captured in Watertown, MA after a 4 day manhunt just a few miles from where they murdered MIT Police Officer Sean Collier in their effort to escape. 

We are all enormously impacted by events such as these and are left feeling sickened by the shear numbers of injuries and deaths.  Saffie-Rose Roussos, Martin Richard, and 20 kids at Sandy Hook Elementary School, 17 teens at Stoneman Douglas HS, and 32 students and faculty at Virginia Tech were all victims of violence and we should never forget these events and so many more, in human history.  The families remember the names and the horrors of the day.  The sadness of these losses makes our heart’s bleed and ache for all those who have lost a loved one to violence.  Even when you are the angry parent of a child you wish had never been born, a further violation of the rules of life.  No person who has ever been dispatched to a mass casualty event, like the Manchester bombing, ever comes away without a substantive chink in the veneer of their emotional core.

___________________________________________

AARON KATERSKY and SUSANNA KIM (2014) 5 Disturbing Things We Learned Today About Sandy Hook Shooter Adam Lanza. November 21, 2014

Family Of Martin Richard Opposed Death Penalty For Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, 2015. CBS TV Boston TV July 31, 2020.

Harlem domestic violence homicide calls for transparent psychological autopsy

The psychological autopsy is an individually designed case study that elicits a broad range of factual data regarding the behaviors of a decedent in the immediate day or days leading up to domestic violence homicide. The study is especially important when first responders and essential workers are involved all the while a pandemic ravages the city in which they live. Michael Sefton, Ph.D. Direct Decision Institute, Inc.

The recent domestic violence homicide in Harlem raises the specter of an essential city worker who killed his sister-in-law while his wife called for help. The police stopped the attack resulting in the death of Ubaldo Gomez but not before he shot and stabbed a women in the head with a kitchen knife. The fact is that domestic violence has increased during the pandemic as it does at other of life’s stress points. Did the fact that the alleged murderer was an MTA employee considered to be “essential personnel” have an impact on his mental health that may have been foreseen? What role, if any, did his role as an auxiliary police officer for the NYPD have in the terminal event? A psychological autopsy would answers these questions and establish a worst case scenario of frontline exposure to trauma and possibly offer insight into underlying history that may have been anticipated and stopped. Certainly the hierarchy at 1 Police Plaza will have an interest in this case. The Corona virus has added to risk of DV and DHV.

For too many women who are abused repeatedly during times of crisis there is no place to run and no one to keep them safe. Orders of protection are ineffective and without GPS monitoring and they are nearly impossible to enforce. In a 2011 domestic violence homicide in Maine, the protective order was violated 4 times by Steven Lake who killed his wife and children in Dexter before killing himself in June 2011. That alone was grounds to hold Lake without bail. No police agency removed access to his collection of over twenty firearms. The scene diagrams illustrate how Lake was armed with two firearms and a hunting knife. He murdered his children while forcing his estranged intimate partner to watch. It was thought that he planned a murder spree and he left 9 suicide notes. The final despicable act, as police arrived, was to attempt to light the bodies on fire.

In general, there is little interest in such a comprehensive post hoc psychological examination because there is no pending prosecution. Nevertheless, a psychological autopsy conducted on Lake in the Fall of 2011 revealed a clear timeline littered with red flag warnings that were missed or ignored. The research conducted in 2011 was done pro bono. It undertook over 200 hours of interviews and presented the Domestic Violence Review Board with over 50 recommendations for reducing high rates of domestic violence homicide in Maine (Allanach et al. 2011). The medical autopsy editorialized the case in its final report:

“Despite receiving some mental health counseling it is apparent, in retrospect that the degree of violence and anger possessed by the abuser was not realized.”                                                            Chief, Maine State Medical Examiner

This latest case in point involved an estranged wife, her sister, and the building manager in Harlem. The three were having dinner when someone armed with a firearm broke into the apartment. It was the estranged husband of one of the women. He was wearing his Metropolitan Transportation Authority uniform, and he had a gun according to the NY Post reports. In the meantime we have been told that the perpetrator was an auxiliary police officer and was licensed to carry a firearm. What triggered this paroxysmal violence? If it was foreseeable, then Mr Gomez should not have had access to his firearm.The psychological autopsy will address prior history of intimate partner violence, protection orders in place, work-related stress, recent health concerns related to the corona virus and Mr Gomez trauma exposure history, and his mental health in the days before the murder. 

Police officials said the transit worker, Ubaldo Gomez, shot his sister-in-law and stabbed her in the head with a knife, while his wife reached out for help. When Gomez refused to drop a 12-inch kitchen knife and tried again to stab the man, a police sergeant opened fire, killing him. In the end, there is always at least a single person who knows what is about to happen and often does nothing to stop it. A family member of Gomez suggested “he had some mental issue, something happened. He was always working day and night. He barely slept. He worked.” as quoted in the NY Post. Whether this duplicity and denial stems from cultural beliefs about the supposed “privacy” of DV, society must change the way in which law enforcement manages these cases. The buy-in from police, legislators, judges, probation, and the public-at large needs to be fully endorsed for real change to happen and for safety plans to work. Many states across America are planning to enact “red flag” rules that will remove weapons from individuals with a known history of domestic violence e.g. choking spouse during fight (Sefton, 2019).

Family members who may be in the crosshairs of these insidious events often see but lack the knowledge to stop the emotional and behavioral kinetics once they start. The fear of being murdered by an intimate partner creates emotional paralysis. In a large percentage of DV occurrences, financial and self-image influences as well as outright fear of the abuser by the victim limit moves toward safety. Therefore, a continuum of interagency cooperation is needed to effectively measure risk and understand the pre-incident red flags that are common manifestations of abuse and often forecast terminal violence, all of which occurred in this case. As the totality of these red flags comes into focus it becomes incumbent upon each of us to take action to prevent domestic violence threats from becoming reality (Allanach, et al. 2011).

It would seem to be vitally important that a transparent psychological autopsy be initiated to gain an understanding of the factual behavior that was observable and measurable in the days leading up to the murder especially given the likely unintended victim. Preliminary reports described Gomez as having a pattern of pathological jealousy and victim stalking. For her part, Gomez’ wife Glorys Dominguez called for help in the weeks prior to the terminal event seeking help.

active shooter addiction aftermath investigation Aging and despair Bail conditions in domestic violence childhood psychopathology CIT Community Policing crisis intervention Dexter domestic violence domestic violence homicide DV DVH DV Homicide extended family health psychology intimate partner violence jail diversion Law Enforcement Leo Polizoti Maine mental health mental illness Michael Sefton parenting Personality Police police behavior police mental health liaison police officer pre-incident red flags psychological autopsy PTSD red flags Resilience Ron Allanach Sefton Sefton Blog Social skills Suicide terminal rage toxic relationships violence workplace violence

Allanach, RA, Gagan, BF, Loughlin, J, Sefton, MS, (2011). The Psychological Autopsy of the Dexter, Maine Domestic Violence Homicide and Suicide. Presented to the Domestic Violence Review Board, November 11, 2011

Sefton, M (2019) Violence prediction: Keeping the radar sites on those who would do us harm. Blog post https://wordpress.com/block-editor/post/msefton.wordpress.com/5012 taken May 23, 2020.

Sheehan, K, Moore, T. Woods, A. NY Post May 21, 2020 https://nypost.com/2020/05/21/man-killed-in-nyc-police-involved-shooting-was-auxiliary-cop/?

Gender in peril

There are places in the world where intimate partner violence is pervasive. so pervasive that it Places the opposite gender in peril for 50% of the poor Places like Russia, Saudi Arabia, France, Egypt, and the United States have excessive rates of domestic violence and domestic violence homicide. This week in Russia, three sisters await trial for the murder of their physically and sexually abusive father. He was murdered while he slept. In spite of having first-hand audio of his abuse the three young women face over 10 years in prison for the crime

While France has a progressive reputation and pushes for women’s rights around the world, it has among the highest rates in Europe of domestic violence, in part because of poor police response to reports of abuse. Many of the women killed this year had previously sought help from police.

Violence against women is a costly and pervasive public health problem and a violation of human rights according to a 2010 paper by the Population Research Bureau. “In Egypt, a third of women are physically abused by their husbands,” according to the 2005 Egypt Demographic and Health Survey (DHS). “Most victims suffer silently and don’t seek help to prevent or stop the violence because they think it is part of life or they are embarrassed by the abuse.” 

It is like that here in the U.S. as well. Victims undergo unbearable pressure to anticipate what triggers the violence they experience. Substance abuse adds to the unpredictable nature of the perpetrators. In some rural communities in Egypt and elsewhere, honor killings remain taboo and are often minimized as a “family matter”. When a woman falls in love with a man of a different religion she may face honor killing by her father or oldest brother who feels duty bound to revenge the dishonor brought by such behaviors. This is a significant problem here in the United Stages as well. In a recent article, a man in his taxi cab ran over his wife because he had a dream she was being unfaithful to him. There are over 25 honor killings estimated annually here in the U.S.

These are not isolated incident from third world countries. While I was working in law enforcement, one victim said to me that “she was beaten by her jealous husband for taking too long in the voting booth.” It was unacceptable to him that she visit with friends and neighbors she encountered while in line to cast her vote. He called her on the cell phone three times in 30 minutes which illustrates the coercive behavior and control seeking put upon victims of intimate partner abuse.

In the French Republic, French film and TV stars joined abuse victims and activists calling for an end to “femicide.” Many held banners reading “Sick of Rape.” Like many developed countries there is an engrained denial and secrecy about spousal abuse including rape. In parts of Africa, including Kenya, Tazania, and South Africa, domestic violence may reach 50 percent of girls over age 15. These figure illustrate the problem of gender inequality in the developing countries alike.

The protest in the French capital came on the U.N.’s International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women and is aimed at pressuring the French government before it unveils new measures Monday to tackle the problem. A shift in egalitarian gender roles will take generations to take hold. Meanwhile, protection of girls and women should include safety planning, early intervention in public education, greater police response to physical violence, and a zero tolerance policy for violating an order of protection.

Domestic violence is a major cause of disability and death among women worldwide, and puts women at a higher risk for unintended pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections, including HIV/AIDS. An undeniable double standard exists across the world when it comes to sexual violence and male infidelity. The incidence of honor killing remains a despicable happenstance in India, Pakistan, Turkey and Egypt and 5000 innocent girls annually.

The proposed intervention measures are expected to include seizing firearms from people suspected of domestic violence and prioritizing police training so they won’t brush off women’s complaints as a private affair. In late November, Time Magazine’s Angela Charleton featured a profile of intimate partner violence that is worth the read . However, countries like France, Saudia Arabia, and Egypt have a low rate of gun ownership so further study must but undertaken to understand the secret narrative that threatens an entire gender.

“…Such are the places where every man, woman, and child seeks equal justice, equal opportunity, equal dignity without discrimination. Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere. Without concerted citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world,” said Eleanor Roosevelt.

More than ever women around the globe are now shouting out in private and public spaces, regardless of the possible backlash, “I am equal!”

“The term femicide was first coined in the 1970s to refer to gender-related killings. Femicide is not recognized in the French criminal code, but Marlène Schiappa, the junior minister for gender equality, said the recognition would be discussed in the coming weeks” described Laura Fourquet in a September 2019 NY Times article on the topic

PRB. (2010). Domestic Violence High in Egypt, Affecting Women’s Reproductive Health taken November 25,2019.

Investigating domestic violence, predicting danger, and containing the anger

image_502116fc-2724-4fe0-bba0-c375c3c85c13.img_0646
Dr Michael Sefton
Domestic violence homicide results when victims decide to move on with their lives and inform a jealous, insecure spouse that they no longer want a relationship. October is Domestic Violence Awareness month. The risk is greatest when victims decide to leave. At first glance one might say “Lots of people break up and do not murder their spouse and family” according to Michael Sefton shown in the photo above. That is a fair statement, but it happens enough in the United States and elsewhere that domestic violence homicide must be considered in the most egregious cases of DV. Last week in Massachusetts a family was murdered because one spouse asked to be let go and people were stunned that they saw nothing to warn them of what was brewing.
“Domestic violence is not random and unpredictable. There are red flags that trigger an emotional undulation that bears energy like the movement of tectonic plates beneath the sea.” according to Michael Sefton (2016).
At what point does a potential victims begin to wonder whether she and her children are safe? We are lead to believe that abusive intimate partners cannot be held in jail unless they are in violation of an order of protection, AKA: restraining order. This is untrue. But time and again, violent and abusive partners stalk and ignore orders of protection – especially using social media tracking software and trolling social media sites like Facebook, Instagram, and What’s App to find victims and watch their activity. It is all about control, pathological jealousy, and instilling fear and terror. Restraining order’s are authorized by a district court judge who is on call night and day in most parts of the country. Restraining orders are not authorized unless substantial threat to the victim exists.  These orders are carefully crafted by investigating police officers whose reports highlight the exact nature of the violence and the reason the victim needs protection. “Protection orders are offered to the victim after the first sign of physical violence. It has been espoused that the police are not called until after the 6th or 7th episode of domestic violence” according to Sefton, 2016.  DV is a secret affair between members of a family who are often ashamed or embarrassed to come forward for help often until things gradually get worse – sometimes years into a pattern of violent dysfunction. Research is clear that separating spouses for the night does not positively impact the level aggression and risk in the household as much as the formal arrest of the aggressor.  What usually happens is the police break up the fighting couple by sending the aggressor off to the home of a friend or family member – less often to jail unless there are obvious signs of abuse. Arrest is mandated by law when physical signs of abuse are apparent. It has become all too often the case that hindsight – taken seriously – may have saved a life. It is when they are attempting to leave that abuse victims are at greatest risk of death due to domestic violence as in the case of Amy Lake, a victim of domestic violence homicide whose case was carefully studied in the Psychological Autopsy of the Dexter, Maine Domestic Violence Homicide (Allanach, et. al. 2011) that occurred in June 2011. Lake’s husband and murderer was heard to state that “if you ever try to leave me I will kill you”.  In research conducted by this author and colleagues we learned that as soon as police leave the scene the risk for violence is increased. We interviewed a man who served 18 years for the murder of his wife and he described in vivid detail how he used nonverbal coercion to manipulate his wife while being interviewed by sheriff’s deputies in Maine. He admitted that as soon as the police were out of the driveway he strangled and drowned his wife for calling them. In our interview, he claimed that she was his best friend. In the end, there is always at least a single person who knows what is about to happen and often does nothing to stop it. Whether this unwitting duplicity stems from the cultural belief that what happens behind closed doors is “nobody’s business” or the conscious result of intimidation should not change the proper law enforcement intervention in these cases. Early incarceration provides opportunity to draft a viable safety plan for potential victims and in some cases, will instill a desire for change in the violent partner. In the meantime, substantive buy-in from police, legislators, judges, probation, and society needs to be fully endorsed for real change to happen and for safety plans to work and violent partners to be contained. 
Allanach, RA, Gagan, BF, Loughlin, J, Sefton, MS, (2011). The Psychological Autopsy of the Dexter, Maine Domestic Violence Homicide and Suicide. Presented to the Domestic Violence Review Board, November 11, 2011 Sefton, M (2016). https://msefton.wordpress.com/2016/07/20/the-psychology-of-bail-and-alternatives-to-incarceration/ Blog post: Taken October 9, 2019

Domestic Violence Awareness October 2019

Today, as we read about another family destroyed in domestic conflict here in the Boston area, I can imagine the images seared into the eyes of those who responded to the call finding 3 children dead along with their parents.  The Abington, MA police chief described the death scene in the Boston Globe as “something unimaginable”.  Some people are better equipped to handle horrific cases where death is on public display – perhaps even today’s horrific domestic terror attack here in Massachusetts. Others become impacted by the recurring images and how they are all the same after a while. Too many calls resonate with the officer’s personal well-being and safety leaving him or her constantly on guard. But over time – even the neurosurgeon – will become harmed by embitterment when his learned craft can do nothing to fix a leaking brain and his patient dies. Perhaps he feels that with updated equipment and training he may have been able to save the life?

This is what LEO’s face.  A loss of purpose in life and the unmitigated stench of a decomposing society over which they have no control and, too often, a internal command structure who does not know what it is like to be in a lonely barn at 2 AM and see the hanged remains of someone who, after 5 hours, would leave even the most hardened of us on our knees and wanting out.

October is Domestic Violence Awareness month. Cases such as today’s Abington murders often leave emotional tracers that can grow a database which LEO’s can utilize when investigating calls for service. Lives will be saved when society takes a closer look at red flag violence – these are the pre-incident indicators that violence and domestic violence homicide are at highest risk (Sefton 2018). Some behaviors are secretly guarded among intimate partners – as “nobody’s business”. Police officers must inquire and listen carefully to the victim who firmly believes her spouse intends to kill her. The underpinnings of her fear are generally spot on as in the case I that investigated in Maine using the psychological autopsy in 2012. For the cases with high likelihood of domestic violence homicide, greater care for victims must be initiated from the beginning before it is too late. It can be a hard sell, I know, but the reports we write must also be “spot on” when it comes to dangerousness, risk, and containment.

Sefton, M (2018) Violence prediction: Keeping the radar sites on those who would do us harm. Blog post: https://msefton.wordpress.com/2018/05/20/violence-prediction-keeping-the-radar-sites-on-those-who-would-do-us-harm/ Taken October 8, 2019

Violence and psychotic people

Among the most dramatic and menacing forms of mental illness are the psychotic disorders. These include people who have uncontrolled paranoid schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, depression with psychotic features, substance intoxication, and perhaps intermittent explosive disorder. Violence is not associated with mental illness per se.  There are factors that increase violent behavior among those who are mentally ill including persecutory ideation like suspiciousness and fear, and co-occurring alcohol dependence.  The most important way in which to reduce violence among citizens who are mentally ill is to provide some form of treatment to them.  Those who go without substantive treatment including psychotherapy are at greatest risk for becoming aggressive or violent according to Coid et al. (2016). These are the citizens who fly above the radar and are seen pacing the street corners in cities everywhere reciting from some unwritten preamble.  People walking avoid eye contact further pushing them to the margins of civility.  Eventually, the bottom falls out and the preamble comes to an incoherent end.  Either they move on or they are picked up for evaluation.

There are even greater numbers of psychotic people living under the radar.  Making their way in society, flying by the seat of their pants.  These people are often cared for by family members including elderly parents. When they relapse or “go off the rails”, caregivers often need the help of police to gain compliance with their loved ones.  Sometimes the police are called to restore the peace and compel the emotionally disturbed person into treatment.  For those individuals who relapse and are substance dependent i.e. alcoholic, the risk for violence is elevated.  These people require special understanding and sensitivity in order to establish a trust and to help them see their behavior patterns and risk taking behavior for themselves.  No easy task.

More recently, meta-analyses and case register studies concluded that psychiatric disorders are associated with violence, but that the relationship is largely or entirely explained by comorbid substance misuse. Fazel et al. (2009)


Fazel S, Gulati G, Linsell, L, Geddes, JR, Grann, M. (2009) Schizophrenia and violence: systematic review and meta-analysis. PLoS Med. 6: e1000120.
Coid, JW,  Ullrich, SP, Bebbington S, Fazel, R,  Keers, R (2016). Schizophrenia Bulletin, Volume 42, Issue 4, Pages 907–915, https://doi.org/10.1093/schbul/sbw006 taken May 9, 2019