WESTBOROUGH, MA January 5, 2018 As we begin to make program recommendations for reducing intimate partner violence it is worth noting that change comes very slowly in protecting those who are most at risk. There is still a paucity of protective measures in place to assess and contain those who are most violent in our society. Retired New Braintree Police Sergeant Michael Sefton was in Augusta, Maine in October 2011 providing testimony about the results of the psychological autopsy conducted by Michael Sefton, Ph.D. Brian Gagan of Scottsdale, AZ, and Ron Allanach, Ed.D. of Conquitlam, BC, Canada and former Chief of Police Joseph Laughlin of Portland, ME. Dr. Sefton, who holds a doctorate in psychology and is a licensed psychologist provider in Massachusetts provides neuropsychological and forensic consultation on domestic violence including domestic violence homicide and assessment of risk. The report that was filed came up with over 50 recommendations directly related to reduced intimate partner violence. The report was cited over 12 times in a recent Maine Law Review publication on proposed Conditions of Bail. Little has changed in Maine since our first report in 2011 and there is no leadership to bring forth legislative dialogue.
The testimony provided to the domestic violence review board offered details about a hideous case of family violence that ended with the homicide of 4 members of the same family and was culminated by an attempt to burn the bodies after the murders and the killer shooting at police officers responding to the missing victim. But they were too late. Their research was conducted over a 3 month period following the homicide deaths of Amy Lake and her children. The team conducted interviews with over 60 persons with direct knowledge of Amy Lake, the victim, her two children, Monica and Cody, and the murderer Steven Lake.
“Although Maine’s statute lists these prohibitions, it lacks the enforcement tools to protect victims against violence associated with guns and other weapons, which is a major factor in Maine’s domestic violence deaths.” Nicole Bissonnette, 2012
Most researchers agree it is nearly impossible to predict when DVH will occur. However, the psychological autopsy provides many obvious red flags that offer clues to an impending emotional conflagration or explosion of anger and blame. The problem in the 2011 case was two-fold. First, the requirement for bail was not seriously considered because Lake had no criminal history – and yet Mr. Lake had demonstrated an unwillingness to adhere to the legal mandates of the order of protection and violated the court order at least 4 times over the year before he killed his family. Given this unfettered lack of personal control, he should have been held for a hearing of potential dangerousness. And secondly, the cache of firearms that Lake was known to have kept was not surrendered to police nor was an effort made to obtain the 22 weapons Lake owned by members of law enforcement. No one thought the guns would be an issue.
Many believe that when the victim indicates a strong fear belief that her spouse intends to kill her that risk of DVH is elevated exponentially and must be taken as fact. These often unspoken fears illustrate the need for supervision, assessment of potential for dangerousness and containment of PFA violators. Substantive red flag factors suggest a true risk of violence exists. The study also found that individuals with heart disease who are depressed will often have higher inflammation levels in their body. Many studies show that a combination of exercise and fatty acids, such as Omega-3 found in salmon, can reduce inflammation and consequently reduce bouts of depression and mood swings.In the sworn statement in 2010 for an order of protection, Amy Lake specifically reported that she feared that her husband might kill her. These fears of death would come to fruition one year later. And they did come true in despicable, horrific fashion.
It is not uncommon that red flags are often present early in the relationship as people reported during our research interviews during the psychological autopsy. Many people we spoke to were aware something agregious was going to happen. These include obsessional jealousy, threats of death, sexual aggression, unwillingness to integrate into extended family, any use of a weapon, and others. In the course of their research Sefton and Gagan interviewed Dale Preston who was convicted of DVH in 1982 and served 18 years in Maine State Prison for the murder. When asked what may have stopped him from killing his wife, Mr. Preston indicate “there was nothing that could have stopped me…” In these cases, a greater awareness of risk or dangerousness is essential and in some cases a person must be contained for the safety of others. Such containment requires NO direct contact with an abusive spouse, GPS monitoring, house arrest, or no bail imprisonment.
The case in Maine occurred in June 2011 – exactly 1 year to the day after the victim obtained a protection from abuse order from her husband. The murders occurred 2 weeks before the divorce was to be finalized and were likely triggered by the abuser’s anger over not being permitted to attend his son’s 8th grade graduation ceremony. The Bangor Daily News presented details of the recent psychological autopsy presented recently in Augusta, Maine. Over 30 states across America have formal homicide review boards. “To make this general deterrence aim successful, abusers must not have access to their victims nor to potential weapons, and the risk of punishment associated with breaking the law must outweigh the abuser’s urge to commit the conduct.” said Denaes, 2012. Bail is a judicial condition that allows a person to be released from jail with the promise to appear in court to answer to charges. Bail also provides for public safety by keeping violent offenders in jail when necessary.
I make an effort to review those published from New England states. Vermont has an excellent annual report of domestic violence homicide and publishes all recommendations and changes in statutory requirements following individual cases of DVH.
Johannes N. Denaes, PUNISHMENT AND DETERRENCE 7 (1974) (“General prevention may
depend on the mere frightening or deterrent effect of punishment—the risk of discovery and punishment
outweighing the temptation to commit crime.”).
First responders experience trauma as job-related way of life
WESTBOROUGH, MA December 1, 2013 There is a new question in my mind about the exposure to trauma, e.g. war-related PTSD and the possibility that it plays a role in domestic violence and domestic violence homicide later on. While this link may be plausible, there are no scientific truth to the notion that DVH is caused by one’s exposure to war or on-the-job exposure to horrific events. Scott D. Jones of Arlington, MA was a decorated paramedic who responded to a mass homicide in 2000 in which 7 people were shot in an episode of workplace violence. He would go on to kill his second wife and family 14 years later after repeated episodes of severe depression and suicidal behavior and domestic violence toward his first wife. These behaviors were the first red flags of an impending emotional breakdown and terminal rage.
Returning veterans and those in the police and EMS service witness suffering and anguish that are outside of the normal human experience rendering them vulnerable to recurring trauma and a host of physical and emotional ills. Some believe the prevalence of PTSD among EMS first responders (including EMT paramedics) is as high as 16 percent (DeAngelis, 1995, p.36). Most services require critical incident debriefing after incidents that are particularly catastrophic – especially those resulting in death of a member of service or the death of a child. These sessions have been shown to reduce the incidence of post-incident symptoms by offering support and context for individual responders as to their individual role in the event. It is not psychotherapy although emotions are often evoked as remembered details emerge and become palpable.
What is the link between unresolved trauma and DV? It is well-known that a high incidence of substance abuse exists among first responders. “The emotional wellness of emergency service workers is at risk. Stress and grief are problems that are not easily detected or easily resolved. Severe depression, heart attacks, and the high rates of divorce, addiction, and suicide in the fire and EMS services proves this” according to Peggy Rainone who offers seminars in grief and surviving in EMS. To what extent this behavior evolves from on-the-job experience is subject to debate but chronically high levels of stress contribute markedly to marital discord, job conflict, and a host of physical anomalies like hypertension.
The link between chronic stress and behavioral health is well-known. Does this link extend to higher risk for domestic or intimate partner homicide? The recent case of domestic violence homicide in Arlington, Massachusetts raises the specter of DVH in first responders. In this case, a decorated paramedic allegedly killed his children, his wife and then himself. The abuser had a history of physical and emotional abuse as reported by a first wife. There was a history of alcohol abuse. The abuser was involved in a whistle-blower case against his employer that was slowly making its way through the courts. But outwardly, he and his family seemed happy. What might trigger such an emotional and deadly maelstrom? What triggered the terminal rage that released this decorated man – creating a monster?
In some cases, post incident analysis of the psychological forces acting on the abuser is necessary and will provide insight into the chain of events that pulled on the trigger. There is no single answer but a host of identifiable “red flags” likely contributed to the loss of control associated with DVH. A thorough psychological autopsy may uncover factors leading to unresolved anger and the many unknown variables driving violent behavior. I have previously published blogs on the psychological autopsy and its utility. The benefit of a thorough PA has value for all of mankind.
DeAngelis, (1995, February). Firefighters’ PTSD at dangerous levels. Monitor, pp. 36-37.