Northwestern DA secures two-year grant to continue domestic violence high risk team
Takes team approach to protecting at-risk victims
GREENFIELD — A $300,000 federal grant will continue supporting a group of law enforcement and victim advocacy officials who meet monthly to identify people they believe have a high probability of committing domestic violence.
The Domestic Violence High Risk Team will continue its work for the next two years.
Organized by the Northwestern District’s Attorney’s Office, a Franklin County team — made up of representatives from police departments, probation and parole offices, bail commissioners and victim advocacy and protection organizations — has identified 56 cases in the county over the past two years.
The “high risk” classification comes after team members present evidence that an alleged offender has exhibited certain warning behaviors, which include: threatening to kill a domestic partner, strangulation, threatening to or actually using a weapon, child abuse, animal abuse and displaying suicidal tendencies.
“These are the real serial batterers ... the very, very serious cases,” said Mary Kociela, director of domestic violence projects for the DA’s office. Between the two counties, there have been 100 cases identified, out of a total of 1,600 domestic violence cases that the DA’s office has reviewed over the past two years.
The alleged offender may sometimes carry out these behaviors without being prosecuted for a crime, officials said.
But once a person is identified as “high risk,” the whole team pays closer attention to the case. Police may drive by the home more often. Local agencies may connect with the would-be victim on safety planning and other services.
And if the alleged offender is arrested and charged with another crime — even one completely unrelated to domestic violence — the DA’s office assigns a domestic violence designated prosecutor to the case. That prosecutor would try to get the maximum jail sentence possible, said Jennifer Suhl, the domestic violence and sexual assault unit chief.
“It’s creating a conversation between all of the first responders who are working with these families,” said Kociela. “There have been cases where we’ve been very concerned about someone and everyone in the system has worked together to put more resources towards that family.”
The $300,000 grant, from the Department of Justice’s Office on Violence Against Women, pays for the high risk team coordinator, Cassie Carter, who runs teams in both Franklin and Hampshire counties.
It also pays for a full-time victim witness advocate for Franklin County, who will inform witnesses of their legal rights and provide another voice to the “high risk” team discussions.
It also will pay for increased training for prosecutors and police officers — an attempt, said Kociela, to get them “on the same page.”
In domestic violence cases, where the victim often will choose not to press charges or testify in court, evidence is key, officials said. Police officers will be trained to fill out a “strangulation checklist,” which describes in detail the alleged incident and tries to determine the exact motive of the offender, said Carter.
The program was introduced in 2010 as a result of a safety and accountability audit conducted in the DA’s office 10 years ago, said Kociela.
In the past two years, there were five homicides related to domestic violence in Franklin and Hampshire counties and the North Quabbin region, she said. The DA’s office has seen a total of 1,600 domestic violence cases.
Officials said that they believe their effort is making a difference, although they said there is no way to concretely illustrate the program’s success.
But they acknowledged that even with the increased effort to protect would-be victims, it is impossible to always identify domestic violence cases before they occur.
Information about the program, including an assessment tool that analyzes domestic violence risk, can be found at www.northwesternDA.org.
To make a referral for the high risk team, contact the team at: 413-774-3186, ext. 5903.
You can reach Chris Shores at:
or 413-772-0261, ext. 264