Investigating domestic violence, predicting danger, and containing the anger

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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 on the left. That is a fair statement but it happens enough in the United States and elsewhere that it must be considered. 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 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. 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’sAp. It is all about control and instilling fear.

Restraining order’s are authorized by a district court judge who is on call night and day. They 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 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 law enforcement intervention in these cases. Early incarceration provides access to 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

Orders of Protection – Underpinning the Good Safety Plan

Many cases of domestic violence (DV) result in an order of protection being issued.  The protection order is based upon the personal report of the victim which is substantiated by police report and perceived risk and may be implemented 24 hours a day. The approval of a court judge or magistrate  is generally required for its issuance. This order requires that the abuser “stay away” from the victim and is based on the totality of circumstances presented to a district or family court judge at the time of arrest.  Police officers use report narratives to construct the details of the protection from abuse (PFA) or restraining order (RO).  Different states utilize differing nomenclature to define what is the substantive court directive that provides the underpinning of a victim safety plan. They are granted on an emergency basis for 24-48 hours and are sustained for up to 6-12 months following a review by the court.
What happens between the time the initial PFA is granted and when the victim is expected in court to chronicle his or her intimate partner violence is often a mystery.  Victims often fail to show for the initial hearing that allows the initial PFO to go away.  Why? In some cases they become intimidated by their violent spouse who has made promises to straighten up and fly right. This is the core dynamic of intimate partner violence and it is well-described in these pages and elsewhere.
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“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).
In all states a protection order requires that no contact be made via telephone, through acquaintances, text messaging, or in person.  By violating a PFO requires that law enforcement make an arrest of the person in violation. This information becomes the grist of the underlying risk to the victim.  The marginalized abuser sometimes becomes obsessed with his loss of control and may take to cyber stalking in order to keep tabs on his partner.  As just mentioned any violation of the protection order renders the abuser subject to arrest and should require a high amount of bail before he is released from jail.  This is rarely the circumstance as violators easily make bail ironically blaming the victim as the root cause of the marital strain. These are the hubristic remarks of building tension and frustration described in the cycle of violence.
It is important to note that social media has given abusers extra means to “creep” into the privacy of estranged spouses without detection.  It played a significant role in the domestic violence homicide according to the psychological autopsy report of the Dexter, Maine homicide/suicide in 2011 (Allanach, R. et al., 2011).  Social media may also be used to intimidate and unfairly influence friends and family.
Bail amounts differ from state to state and sometimes even from county to county within a single state. The amount of bail should be high enough to inconvenience and deter the abuser from being tempted to coerce and manipulate his victim and family.  Most often the bail amount is low and inconsequential to the abuser who often has no criminal record.  However, changes in bail conditions and risk assessment must be integrated into orders of protection – especially when a single abuser has had more than one PFO filed against him. This sets the stage for measuring the degree of violence one might expect as the abuser becomes further marginalized and feels his control over the victim begin to collapse.  “Someone with a history, particularly a continuing history of violence, can be presumed to be dangerous.” according to Frederick Neuman, MD.
The order of protection belies the fundamental safety plan that is crafted by police and domestic violence experts and is designed to prevent further victim injury or death.

Sefton, M. (2016) Blog post: DVH in MA: 4 year old child begs his father.  https://msefton.wordpress.com/2016/10/02/dvh-in-ma-4-year-old-child-begs-father-not-to-murder-his-mother/. Taken 8-20-2018

Allanach R. 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.

Neuman, F. (2012) Is it possible to predict violent behavior? https://www.psychologytoday.com/au/blog/fighting-fear/201212/is-it-possible-predict-violent-behavior?collection=113345

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