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

The domestic killing of another Gabby Petito: Send me dead flowers and I won’t forget to put roses on your grave

Gabby Petito with boyfriend Brian Laundrie on cross country trek
By all appearances Gabby was a smart and loving companion. She wanted to impart her love for Brian Laundrie and the life she hoped they would have together using social media. They were engaged to be married but this would never occur. Now she is the victim of homicide. “The loneliest time in a life is being in the wilderness in the middle of night, with a person you once loved, now killing you. “If you scream for help in the wilderness and there is no one there to hear it except your killer, was there ever really a scream?”” Personal correspondence from B.F. Gagan. New website: http://www.arrestbrianlaundrie.com for details on the $25,000 reward for finding Brian Laundrie. Details on the site. There have been at least 11 questionable tips transmitted to the FBI tip line as of October 4, 2021. The media reports keep Laundrie’s picture in the news cycle.  Just today someone reported seeing him on the Appalachian Trail where hikers go from Northern Georgia and finish at Mount Katahdin – the highest peak in Maine. Mr. Laundrie has done parts of the trail and is familiar with its isolation from society. He may feel that he can make a safe getaway while remaining off the grid. But someone recognized him today in South Carolina. Or a look alike. 
Gabby Pitito is a case study for intimate partner abuse. From the outside, we saw a beautiful couple enjoying the wonders of the American West. Social media accounts updated with regularity bringing hundred or even thousands of likes. Gabby had a gift for creating an image.  Only now have we learned the imagery was deeply flawed. Friends of the pair described Brian Laundrie as a jealous and controlling partner as described by Rose Davis, a friend of Gabby Petito.  Common among abusive partners is separating intended victims from their emotional support systems leaving them isolated and without friends and needed help. It is a common red flag in most cases of domestic abuse and more commonly, domestic violence homicide. In most cases the abuser has an underlying pathological jealousy and in some cases, delusions of his partner “hooking up” with someone whenever she is out of his site. Once while on duty with the police agency for whom I served, a jealous husband came crashing into town hall hoping to catch his wife in a tawdry affair while she stood in line to cast her vote in a 2015 election. He had been sending her text messages from the parking lot like “Where are you? Who are you with?” Ultimately, the man needed an escort out of the building and was given a trespass warning. For her part, she felt pangs of guilt, resentment, and fear for keeping him waiting. Shortly after Election Day the family moved away from town. It happens all the time. 
“You can’t say that nothing can be done, because nothing will be done,” said Michael Sefton, a former Westbrook police officer who now works in Massachusetts and retired from the the New Braintree Police Department.
Women are kept from seeing friends and family members in an effort to disempower them of any sense of self. We now know this got worse during the pandemic where people were isolated anyway and those living in domestic fear became further inhibited and marginalized. By outward appearance Gabby Petito was terrified of her boyfriend at the time they were stopped in Moab, UT. This behavior speaks volumes about the state of the relationship just as Supervisory Agent Melissa Hulls said after they encountered Gabby and boy friend Brian Laundrie in late August 2021. I have reached out to Supervisory Ranger Hulls on two occasions without hearing back. I am interested in hearing from few friends of Gabby Petito with their appraisal of what they saw happening to the couple during pandemic? The pair had been together over 2 years and managed to get through waves of pandemic only to be set free on the cross country junket. Both seemed physically fit and healthy. Had the pandemic and subsequent quarantine changed them in any way? How did the couple decide to embark on this journey? Whose idea was it?  “Brian has a jealousy issue,” Rose Davis of Sarasota, FL said in the September 17, 2021 New York Post article. “I’m her only friend in Florida to my knowledge and that’s not because she can’t make friends, he just didn’t want her to have friends.” Gabby Petito and Brian Laundrie at the Narrows in Zion National Park on July 18th.

Rose Davis says Gabby Petito and Brian Laundrie progressively got into “more and more arguments.”
“He was always worried she was going to leave him,” she said. “It was a constant thing to try to get us to stop hanging out.” She previously described him as a controlling and manipulative boyfriend with jealousy issues, and said Petito had sometimes stayed with her to put some space between them according to the New York Post interview with Davis. These are among the most common red flag warning for DV and DVH.

Supervisory Park Ranger Melissa Hulls
The Moab city Utah police were called to a possible case of domestic violence. The interview was caught on officer worn body camera and showed Gabby in an anxious, tearful state. Any physical signs should have been met with arrest of the likely perpetrator whether or not Gabby wanted to prosecute. The police report from Moab indicated that the officer believed something was not right! But he did not move on that feeling or was untrained as to what he might anticipate could happen next. She reported that her mental health was not good. Why? Was she in fear that the relationship was fragile and taking an unhealthy turn. Had the fuse been lit? At the very least Gabby should have been assessed for changes in her mental health and given her history, law enforcement missed the chance to understand the  underpinnings of her sudden loss of control and tearful anxiety? The care-free beginning of the exciting trip became suddenly serious enough to get on the local police department’s radar. A female national park ranger Melissa Hulls interviewed Gabby along side officers from Moab. She tried to advise Gabby that her relationship with Laundrie was had become toxic and put her in jeopardy. And just as quickly, Gabby and her fiancee fell off the police radar, leading Gabby into oblivion. Ranger Melissa Hulls saw the relationship for what it was and very likely feared for Gabby’s safety. Most murder-suicides involve intimate partners (72%) and the vast majority of these cases are women murdered by intimate partners using a firearm (Violence Policy Center, 2015). I have experience with domestic violence and the various red flag warnings of terminal anger and have tracked the downward spiral of a sick relationship. “We knew the system had failed Amy Lake” said Brian F. Gagan, a former Westbrook police officer who helped research the first psychological autopsy report, “We did not know how.” as published in the Portland Press Herald 11/30/2011. We learned plenty over the course of 200 hours of interview data and considered only confirmable facts and presented the findings to the Maine Attorney General’s Domestic Violence Homicide Review Board in the state’s Capitol. At very least, in the death of Gabby Petito, Brian Laundrie’s parents must be charged with harboring a fugitive, and aiding in the escape of a person of interest following a murder. The senior of the two responding officers in Moab is at risk of state decertification and may be charged criminally with statutory Utah failure to arrest. The officer will grope for the excuse that “neither party wished to charge” …which is not material to “Utah Mandatory Arrest”, according to Gagan. Gabby Petito’s body was found Sunday 9-20-2021 near an undeveloped camping area that’s surrounded by woodlands and brush, located about 30 miles (48 kilometers) northeast of Jackson, Wyoming. Her death was a murder according to the county medical examiner who has released very few details. Research has shown time and again that separating the couple for a “cool off” time out does little to stop domestic violence and often makes the violence increase. Meanwhile, I have seen the “neither party wants to prosecute” narrative too many times in my law enforcement career until there is serious injury to one of the partners – usually the female. I am fortunate to have never had a case go to the terminal stage of DVH, aside from Albert Flick – a Westbrook, ME case from 1979, police detectives Ron Allanach and Wayne Syphers handled while I was in the Juvenile Bureau. Flick went on to kill again, within weeks of his release from prison for killing a woman while her children looked on. The domestic victim never wants to prosecute because they have been conditioned against doing so over the years and are afraid they will be killed. Those most in fear of being killed by their partner are likely reacting to a primitive warning signal in the brain. The gift of fear  with a book by the same name highlights the subtle but powerful fear some women feel during courtship with violent men.  So, when these fears are realized, the terminal stage of violence begins the spiral downward when a domestic partner can no longer bind his angry, jealous impulses, and need for control. In spite of what the intimate partner may report to be deep felt “love” for his wife, girlfriend, and innocent family members, it comes down to murder for the sake of owning the life of a spouse and his children and feeling justified in his action. Gabby Patti’s cell phone has never been mentioned in published reports nor has her expansive social media reporting been studied. We have recommended that a safety plan be written omitting all social media whatsoever.  Everyone has a cell phone that can be tracked using triangulation data from cellular towers anywhere there is service. People who are lost can be easily found as long as cellular service is available and phones are properly charged. This is significant given her daily social media focus. It is certain the FBI has received all cell server data from both phones. This has likely contributed to the warrant issuance and national search. The cellular data was added to toll highway data from Colorado and Texas while Laundrie was on his way to Florida from the murder scene in Wyoming. It is also likely now that the Bureau is encircling his parents who may have helped him escape. At least one of them will be convinced to tell the truth because I am certain they are now being interviewed separately. They now cannot lie to protect the killer since there is now a federal warrant on him. If they do, they are then arrested and charged with being complicit in Gabby’s death. This case requires careful analysis once the murderer has been officially charged or found dead. By not doing so Gabby Petito’s death became another invisible young woman who wrongly believed she was safe and with the love of her life. After seeing the body worn police encounter, Dr. Ziv Ezra Cohen, a clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College of Cornell University and staff member of New York-Presbyterian Hospital, told Fox News Laundrie and Petito were ‘both minimizing their argument’ and said the footage suggested the couple may have been high and having ‘a bad trip.’ (Fox News story). The psychologist cast doubt on the couple’s efforts to explain away the fight as caused by Petito’s OCD, insisting that the condition is ‘not a risk factor for violence.’ Petito expressed anxiety through her tears perhaps with an impending sense of doom.  ‘People with OCD are not violent. OCD is not a risk factor for violence. If there was an altercation between them, certainly OCD would not be fodder for something that would lead her to hurt him,’ according to Ezra Cohen, MD. If anything having OCD is more apt to result in being victimized and not the aggressor. Park Ranger Melissa Hills told Petito that her and Laundrie’s relationship had the markings of a ‘toxic’ one as reported in the Daily Mail.  ‘I was imploring with her to reevaluate the relationship, asking her if she was happy in the relationship with him, and basically saying this was an opportunity for her to find another path, to make a change in her life,’ added Ranger Melissa Hulls in Moab according to writer Rachel Sharp published in the Daily Mail on 9-24-2021.  Domestic Violence Fatality Review Teams identify homicides, suicides, and other deaths caused by, related to, or somehow traceable to domestic violence and review them to develop preventive interventions (Dawson, 2017; Websdale, 2010; Websdale, 2012; Websdale et al., 2017). These frequently depend on careful communication among those who work within the field of intimate partner violence including members of judiciary, bail commissioners, district attorneys, law enforcement, and social services. Without definitive recommendations, review boards provide nothing to protect potential victims and do nothing to move the needle in the direction of improved safety plans and dangerousness assessments of potential murderers. Sadly, Gabby Petito will not grow old. She will not have children or grandchildren.  She will not have a career.  It is incumbent upon society to look at the similarities among cases of domestic violence homicide using case study data, aftermath review of facts, and structured interviews to intervene ahead of the secretive pattern of control, abuse, sexual violence, and murder that happens much too often and flies below law enforcement radar. By doing so, victims build new lives with safety plans and legal contingencies for those who violate those orders of protection.

The Psychological Impact of Pandemic: The best and worst of human behavior

On November 11, 2020, I presented a program on the Psychological Impact of Pandemic sponsored by Whittier Rehabilitation Hospital.  It was well attended with a mix of nurses, midlevel practitioners, social workers, and nonclinical participants. The program was presented on the zoom platform. I am now going to put to paper my perspective narrative espoused in my 90 minute presentation.  I had also invited members of law enforcement with whom I have regular contact as the information was drawn from the growing literature on mental resilience and its positive impact on coping with exposure to trauma.

ca-times.brightspotcdn

According to the PEW Research Group, 4 in 10 Americans know someone who has either been afflicted with Coronavirus or someone who has died from the virus. My mother was infected with the Coronavirus in mid April in the same nursing facility where I lost my 93-year old aunt in the first wave of the virus in May, 2020. My mother survived the virus but it has taken a significant toll on her physical and cognitive well-being. We were not permitted to see my mother during her illness and my aunt was alone on May 1 when she succumbed to the virus. Both living on a nursing unit that was doing its best to render compassionate care under extraordinary conditions, in some cases with nurses, aides, and therapists working round the clock. Both of these loved ones received extraordinary care. Nursing units across the country suffered unimaginable loss of life including over 70 elderly veterans at the Soldier’s Home in Holyoke, Massachusetts.  We all saw the images of refrigerated trucks holding victims in expiated purgatory hidden behind hospitals. It may bring horror to those who lost loved ones and never saw them again.

I saw my mother on November 12. She looked frail and disheveled.  The nurse practitioner had ordered a blood draw out of concern for her physical well-being. She is 92 and may have a blood disorder. They had three staff people hold her in place to obtain the small sample of blood which took over and hour.  She has always had difficulty having her blood drawn and this has gotten worse as she has gotten older. She fought and screamed from pain, and fear, I was told. It was torture for all those involved, including me.

Little did anyone realize the extent of disease, contagion, and trauma this pandemic would bring to the United States and the world. We waited in February and March with curiosity and vague forewarning from our leadership. We were led to believe the virus would dissipate once the weather became warm and it would essentially vanish in the heat of summer. This did not happen and public health officials at CDC and WHO were spot-on in terms of the contagious spread of covid-19 and the deaths it would bring.  Now with the approach of winter our fear borders on panic.

This virus poses significant stress and emotional challenges to us all. It raises the specter of both an overwhelmed medical system as well as increasing co-occurring emotional crisis and a collapse in adaptive coping, for many. Sales of alcohol went up 55 percent in the week of March 21 and were up over 400 percent for alcohol delivery services. Americans were in lock-down and many made poor choices. The link between stress and physical health and well-being is well documented and will be a factor as American’s find their way free from the grip of Covid-19. 

“The human mind is automatically attracted to the worst possible case, often very inaccurately in what is called learned helplessness”

Martin Seligman

Whenever human beings are under stress they are going to utilize skills they have learned from other times when they felt under threat. Chronic stress has been shown to have negative effects on health including autoimmune functions, hypertension, inflammatory conditions like IBS, and pain syndromes. Many find it impossible to think about anything but the worst case scenario. Marty Seligman described the concept of “catastrophizing” that is an evolutionarily adaptive frame of mind, but it is usually unrealistically negative.” This leads to a condition known as learned helplessness. In another book, Dr. Seligman writes about learned optimism published in 1990. His cognitive strategies hold true today.

So many use the same coping mechanisms over and over, whether they are effective or not like drinking or gambling to let off steam. These things may help in the short term but can cause further health and social problems later on. They are not adaptive strategies. Stress is unavoidable and the best thing we can do is to understand its physical impact on us and adapt to it in healthy, adaptive ways. Stress raises the amount of cortisol and adrenaline in the body activating the fight-flight response. For many, that meant an uptick in the procurement of spirits in late March to help bring it down. Others think differently. Many began a routine of walking or running or cycling. Regular exercise contributes to reducing stress and when kept in perspective, is an adaptive response to the threat of coronavirus.

Many people in our hospital were afflicted with the virus or some other health concern and became immersed in loneliness and isolation that can lead to disconsolate sadness. It is hard not to be affected by this suffering. Most reviewed studies reported negative psychological effects including depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress symptoms, confusion, and anger, according to Brooks, et.al. Lancet 2020. At Whittier, we had many cases of ICU delirium where patients became confused and frightened by healthcare providers wearing PPE including face shields, masks, and oxygen hoods. Many thought they were being kidnapped or that the staff were actually posing as astronauts. This made it hard to help them feel safe and to trust the core staff including doctors, nurses, and rehabilitation therapists.

Michael Sefton

We have had some very difficult cases including a man who found his wife on the floor without signs of life. He fell trying to get to her and both lay there for over 2 days. He was unable to attend her funeral because of his broken hip. We had another man who pushed us to be released from the hospital. He worried about his wife who needed him to assist in her care at home. She has Parkinson’s disease. He was discharged and died shortly after going home. His wife fell while getting ready for his funeral and is now in our hospital undergoing physical rehabilitation and receiving support from our psychology service. The table below is a list of observations from recent admissions:

  • Anxiety – what will my family do while I am here?
  • Deep felt sense of loneliness
  • Depression – loss of support; loss of control 
  • Exacerbation of pre-existing conditions i.e. sleep disturbance, asthma, uncontrolled diabetes, hypertension
  • Slower trajectory toward discharge
  • Debility greater than one might anticipate to diagnosis
  • Subtle triggers to prior trauma – changes in coping, regression, agitation, sleep and mood

What is left for us to do? Have a discussion about what it means to be vulnerable – talk about family members who have been sick with non-covid conditions like pneumonia or chronic heart disease, COPD, etc. It is important to be ready to work from home again such as when schools switched to remote learning this spring and when governors’ call for closing things down. Consider the return of college kids as campus dorms everywhere are likely to close this winter.

The 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic killed 50 million people worldwide. 500 million people were infected with the virus that lasted 2 years. The virus was said to have been spread by the movement of troops in WW I. The website Live Science reported that there may have been a Chinese link to the Spanish flu as well due to the use of migrant workers and their transportation in crowded containers leading to what we now call a super spread event. We know a lot more about this virus than we did in March 2020 when it first took hold but we need to understand the eradication will be a herculean task driven by science.

“The coronavirus has profound impact on the emotional stability of people around the world because of its unpredictability and lethality. It evokes fear, and uncertainty as it spreads unchecked. Later, the virus can serve to trigger long hidden memories in a way that can sabotage healthy human development leading to vague anxiety, physical symptoms, loss, and deep despair” said Michael Sefton, Ph.D. during a recent Veteran’s Day presentation. People must have resilient behaviors that foster “purpose in life, to help them survive and thrive” through the dark times now and ahead, according to police consulting psychologist Leo Polizoti, Ph.D. at Direct Decision Institute in Worcester, MA.

 

The Elevated Stress Response: Selling when Nobody’s Buying

I am preparing for an upcoming presentation at the annual Society of Police and Criminal Psychologists in Sarasota, Florida held in early October each year.  So far I have offered several police departments an opportunity for free in-service training in the area of risk assessment and domestic violence.  No interest.  I can even say that one of the chiefs I approached is a friend of mine and still there was no interest in hearing about updated issues in domestic violence and the risk associated with intimate partner abuse. This has been both a surprise – given my passion about the topic and self-ascribed expertise, but also because it brings up great anxiety when I think about the expectation for my presentation at a national conference consisting of my peers.  This post is all about how to deal with the flood of anxiety associated with presenting one’s ideas to an audience that may not be interested in what I am selling.
“If we perceive our available resources to be insufficient, along comes the ‘threat’ mindset. When threatened, stress has a catastrophic effect on our ability to perform. We receive an enormous sympathetic surge (adrenaline/noradrenaline dump), and our HPA axis pumps out cortisol. High cortisol levels have a very detrimental effect on higher cognitive processes – decision-making and prioritization” or triage as described in a blog written by Robert Lloyd and physician in the U.K.
Lloyd goes on to say “that breathing is the only autonomic process that we can consciously control (other than blinking – less useful). By doing so, we access the ‘steering wheel’ of our sympathetic nervous system, and can regain a feeling of self-control in a moment of extreme stress. Heart rate and blood pressure come down when practiced. The process of deliberately controlling ones breath in the midst of a stressful moment that is key to lowered autonomic overdrive and greater physiologic homeostasis.  Mindfulness and reslience training converts a ‘threat’ to a ‘challenge’ mindset by building resilience to a controlled stressful stimulus.” It arms you with prophylaxis against condition black when the organism is fighting for its life.
   Stress has undeniable impact on all human functioning and public health. Not enough is being done to infuse knowledge and understanding into the emotional maelstrom created by chronic stress (Sefton, 2014).  Healthy coping and productivity breaks down when uncontrolled stress occurs over and over. According to Leo Polizoti, Ph.D., the primary author of the Police Chief’s Guide to Mental Illness and Mental Health Emergencies stress can lead to a breakdown in adaptive coping. “Learned resilience can be taught and leads to reduced stress and psychological hardiness rather than psychological weariness. Psychological weariness is a drain on LEO coping and adaptation to job-related stress and the efficiency for handling everyday calls for service. As the demand for police service becomes more complex, officers must adapt their physical and emotional preparation for service or risk premature career burnout” according to Polizoti. Resilience and career satisfaction are important components of law enforcement and individual officer training, behavior and longevity. Positive resilience will reduce officer burnout.
In its absence police officers and their agencies are at greater risk for conflict both internally and with the general public in the form of civilian complaints of police officer misconduct.
So in anticipation of my own decrease in internal homeostasis and elevated production of stress hormones, I will breath and adjust my thinking for a positive outcome and not be hurt by the buyer beware myth my topic may evoke. I will take a few moments to relax and breath slowly in anticipation of the quiescence it will bring and my belief in learned resilience.

Protecting the Victim’s of Intimate Partner Abuse: The aftermath of domestic violence homicide

DV_note B&W
Victim passed this note to Veterinarian staff – Photo VCSD

“You can’t say that nothing can be done, because nothing will be done,” said Michael Sefton, a former Westbrook, Maine  police officer who is a psychologist and former police sergeant in Massachusetts at the New Braintree Police Department.

Bangor Daily News

Desperate Victim’s plea for help

DV_note B&W
Victim passed this note to Veterinarian staff – Photo VCSD

WESTBOROUGH, MA  June 6, 2018 A case of domestic violence unfolded on Memorial Day weekend in Volusia County, Florida when a female victim was being held by her live-in boyfriend. The note implores staff members of the DeLand Animal Hospital to call police because her partner was threatening her and had a gun.  These kinds of desperate measures occur occasionally and are dramatic and newsworthy. The staff at the DeLand Animal Hospital are to be commended.  But there are intimate partners everywhere who live in fear just as the indomitable victim who passed this note had been living.

“From coast to coast LEO’s are caught in this moth eaten, patchwork system that lacks resources for both the mentally ill and those addicted to alcohol and drugs.” Michael Sefton, Ph.D. 2018

As the story goes, her boyfriend had beaten her and was refusing to allow her to leave the couple’s home.  To her credit (perhaps life saving) she convinced the man that she needed to bring the dog to the veterinarian.  He agreed but would not allow her to go without him. Upon arrival this note was passed to a member of the hospital staff who knew just what to do.  The man is now behind bars being held without bail – manning his defense.

There is a consensus among experts in domestic violence that victims are abused multiple times – often threatened with death – before they call police for help.

As a society, more needs to be done to fill-in the holes in the system designed to keep families safe.  Safety plans and orders of protection are not enough.  From coast to coast LEO’s are caught in this moth eaten, patchwork system that lacks resources for both the mentally ill and those addicted to alcohol and drugs. The holes in the system allow for violence prone individuals to allude police and coerce victims into silence.  But every once in a while, a silent victim writes a life saving note and gives it to the right person.

Domestic violence happens in family systems that are secretive, chaotic, and dysfunctional.  This lifestyle pushes them into the margins of society – often detached from the communities in which they live.

The abusive spouse makes his efforts known within the system by his barbaric authoritarian demands.  He keeps his spouse isolated as a way of controlling and manipulating whatever truth exists among these disparate family members.  The consequence of this isolation leaves women without a sense of “self” – alone an emotional orphan vulnerable to his threat of abandonment and annihilation.

Successful intervention for these families must slowly bring them back from the margins into the social milieu. Arguably, the resistance to this is so intense that the violent spouse will pull up stakes and move his family at the first sign of public scrutiny.

Police officers are regarded as the front line first responders to family conflict and DV.  For better or worse, the police have an opportunity to effect change whenever they enter into the domestic foray.  This affords them a window into the chaos and the opportunity to bring calm to crisis.  In many cases, the correct response to intimate partner violence should include aftermath intervention when the dust has settled from the crisis that brought police to this threshold.  When this is done it establishes a baseline of trust, empathy, and resilience.

Community policing has long espoused the partnership between police and citizens.  The positive benefits to this create bridges between the two that may benefit officers at times of need – including the de facto extra set of eyes when serious crimes are reported.  But the model goes two ways and requires that police return to their calls and establish protocols for defusing future events meanwhile processing and understanding the current actions of recent police encounters. When done effectively the most difficult families may be kept off the police radar screens for longer periods of time that can be a good thing when it comes to manpower deployment and officer safety.

Violence prediction: Keeping the radar sites on those who would do us harm

crosshairsIn response to recent acts of both terrorism and recurrent gun violence by home-grown psychopaths more should be done to maintain greater control over potentially violent persons. In the Las Vegas concert venue and the more recent Texas church massacre it becomes
increasingly clear that predicting violence is practically impossible. At least this is
what we are led to believe. And yet when it comes to domestic violence
homicide the similarities in cases are almost carbon copy.
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 duplicity stems from cultural beliefs that what happens behind closed doors is nobody’s busy change in the way in which law enforcement manages these cases is essential. The 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. 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. These behaviors toward a victim instill fear and point to the perilous danger that exists.
“Someone with a history, particularly a continuing history of violence, can be presumed to be dangerous.” Frederick Neuman, MD
Coercion and Control
Lenore Walker is a psychologist at the Domestic Violence Institute has published a theoretical description of the coercion and control model of DV. Victims are young and vulnerable to being emotionally and physically controlled. The Texas killer Devin Patrick Kelley had all the makings of a violent abuser from the time he was in high school and only now are people willing to talk about his darker side. Kelley was separated from his second wife who was just 19. Victims like this are often kept away from their families, not allowed to work, or when working are not permitted to handle their own funds. Some victims have to explain every cell phone call or text message they make or receive often being met with jealous fury. By robbing their sense of self keeps intimate partners emotionally isolated and insecure. They are often led to believe they could not live on their own and the children they share will be lost to them if they choose to leave. This “so called” male privilege keeps his partner marginalized and in servitude. It appears at first glance that Kelley was looking for the mother of his currently estranged wife likely enraged over steps taken to keep them apart as the divorce progressed through the courts.
Occasionally police or children’s services are called when intimidation and threats become violent. It is important to provide aftermath intervention and follow-up with families where domestic violence or chronic substance abuse occurs or families tend to disappear. Change is required to pay closer attention to those with whom law enforcement has frequent contact. Over and over
surviving family members speak of coercion and control on behalf of the abused.  Lives will be saved when society takes a closer look at red flag violence – these are the preincident indicators that violence and domestic violence homicide are possible. This is not new data nor are the stories very different.
I speak to police agencies and individual officers about DV and DVH offering detail from the psychological autopsy research we conducted on a sensational and tragic case in Dexter, Maine in which Steven Lake killed his 35-year old spouse after 10 years of marriage along with their 2 children. The Lake case was very much like the Kelley murders in terms of the cycle of abuse and its early onset. It was thought that Lake was intending to go on a killing spree but was interrupted in the act by an observant police officer. Recently a police officer participating in the statewide DV task force in Vermont asked whether there is a single most important factor or predictor to the risk of DVH? Some believe the fear of being killed by her spouse and abject cruelty toward step children raise the bar significantly and as such are worthy of crafting one’s DV report and request for orders of protection around. But keeping the victim and her abuser on the radar screen will also reduce her fear and loneliness and offer greater protection. Other risk factors include: choking and recurrent
sexual violence – although victims seldom disclose this out of guilt and fear of not being believed.
People knew what might happen
The Psychological Autopsy of Steven Lake consisted of over 200 hours of interviews with immediate family members on both sides. Steven’s aunt was quoted as saying “I never thought he would take the kids” in reference to an acknowledgment of his depression and anger at the impending divorce. She believed Lake would take his own life in front of his wife and children as a final act of punishment they would never forget. But he went far beyond that as we again saw in the small church in Texas this week. We are getting better at teaching children and families that if the see something they should say something. This is the trademark line of the Transportation Safety Administration in its fight against terrorism. The same might be taught to neighbors and friends when domestic violence is suspected or known to be occurring. If you see something then it is incumbent upon each of us to do something to help those in harms way.

Neuman, F.  (2012) Is It Possible to Predict Violent Behavior? Can a psychiatric examination predict, and prevent, a mass murder? Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/fighting-fear/201212/is-it-possible-predict-violent-behavior Taken May 12, 2018

Violence in the Workplace: Do people just “snap”?

WESTBOROUGH, MA June 2, 2018  Violence in the workplace is commonplace but has taken a back seat in the setting of recent school shootings. Research on the “lethal employee” is becoming more reliable in the aftermath of of workplace violence. Nevertheless people commit murder in their workplace more than ever.  What should people do if they are worried about a co-worker becoming violent.  There are signs that someone is loosing control and may be thinking of violence.  A list of potential factors is taken below from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security publication from 2008. The term “going postal” refers to a workplace shooter or act of violence.  It evolved from workplace violence in the U.S. Postal service in the 1980’s according to a report published in 2008.

“One theory was that the post office was such a high-pressure work environment that it drove people insane. In the years to come, other cases of murderous rages by mailmen cemented the idea in the public mind. “Going postal” became a synonym for flipping out under pressure.”

RECOGNIZING POTENTIAL WORKPLACE VIOLENCE
“An active shooter in your workplace may be a current or former employee, or an acquaintance of a current or former employee. Intuitive managers and coworkers may notice characteristics of potentially violent behavior in an employee. Alert your Human Resources Department if you believe an employee or coworker exhibits potentially violent behavior” (2008)

Indicators of Potential Violence by an Employee Employees typically do not just “snap,” but display indicators of potentially violent behavior over time. If these behaviors are recognized, they can often be managed and treated. Potentially violent behaviors by an employee may include one or more of the following (this list of behaviors is not comprehensive, nor is it intended as a mechanism for diagnosing violent tendencies):
• Increased use of alcohol and/or illegal drugs
• Unexplained increase in absenteeism; vague physical complaints
• Noticeable decrease in attention to appearance and hygiene
• Depression / withdrawal
• Resistance and overreaction to changes in policy and procedures
• Repeated violations of company policies
• Increased severe mood swings
• Noticeably unstable, emotional responses
• Explosive outbursts of anger or rage without provocation
• Suicidal; comments about “putting things in order”
• Behavior which is suspect of paranoia, (“everybody is against me”)
• Increasingly talks of problems at home
• Escalation of domestic problems into the workplace; talk of severe financial problems
• Talk of previous incidents of violence
• Empathy with individuals committing violence
• Increase in unsolicited comments about firearms, other dangerous weapons and violent crimes

U.S. Department of Homeland Security. (2008). Active Shooter – How to Respond
Bovsum, M. (2010) NY Daily News. Mailman massacre: 14 die after Patrick Sherrill ‘goes postal’ in 1986 shootings. http://www.nydailynews.com/news/crime/mailman-massacre-14-die-patrick-sherrill-postal-1986-shootings-article-1.204101 Taken May 19, 2018

Maine to Consider “Red Flag Law”

WESTBOROUGH, MA April 25, 2018  Maine is the latest state to consider a so-called red flag law. It would let family members or law enforcement officers petition a judge to take away a “high risk” person’s firearms temporarily, if the judge determines the person poses an imminent risk. In a recent post I describe the updated terminology for individuals who are a potential threat called Gun Violence Restraining Orders.  The proposed action would allow law enforcement to remove the firearms of people who are known to be threatening or physically violent toward intimate partners.  “Felons, the dangerously mentally ill, perpetrators of domestic violence – these people have demonstrated their unfitness to own a firearm” said David French, 2018.  In cases such as these police have reasonable cause to disallow gun ownership based not on prior conviction but on the elevated risk to potential victims.
Here in Massachusetts, in August 2013 I published a blog after the death of Jennifer Martell who was murdered in front of her 4-year old daughter by Jared Remy, son of Red Sox broadcaster and former player Jerry Remy.  The younger Remy had received one break after another some say linked to his celebrity father’s influence.  He was never held until a dangerousness hearing could be undertaken.  Had this been done Ms. Martell may be alive today. In 2011, Stephen Lake murdered his wife and children after he was kept from attending his son’s 8th grade graduation.  Lake had exhibited several red flag warnings prior to the murders.  In spite of these he was not held nor were his firearms removed from his control Allanach, et al. 2011.
Several states have debated similar red flag laws in the wake of the school shooting in Parkland, Florida. Supporters argue a red flag law could have prevented the Parkland shooter, but some gun owners say it’s an overreach that threatens their 2nd Amendment rights.
Like many states in the U.S. Maine has more than its share of calls for domestic violence and domestic violence homicide.  “All law enforcement personnel who respond to incidents in which an individual’s mental illness appears to be a factor receive training to prepare for these encounters; those in specialized assignments receive more comprehensive training. Dispatchers, call takers, and other individuals in a support role receive training tailored to their needs.” Communication between members of a response team with awareness and understanding of red flag warnings will reduce the impact of coercion and control that belies the secretive relationships between intimate partners.  It will also bring to light the need for danger assessment and containment of people who are high risk for violence as in the case of Jared Remy in Massachusetts and Stephen Lake in Dexter, Maine.

Red Flag Warnings (2018) https://www.necn.com/news/new-england/Maine-to-Consider-Red-Flag-Law-478687253.html Taken 4-4-18
Allanach, R.A., Gagan, B.F., Loughlin, J., Sefton, M.S., (2011) The Psychological Autopsy of the Dexter, Maine Domestic Violence Homicide and Suicide. Presented to the Domestic Violence Review Board, November 11, 2011