Orlando Domestic Violence Lethality Questionaire

Orlando cops will soon carry a new weapon when they respond to domestic-violence calls: a questionnaire designed to predict whether a victim could eventually be killed by an abuser.

It might not sound like much, but experts say the short list of questions represents a radical shift in the way domestic battery is handled -- and could cut the city's rising murder rate.

"This is a huge, outside-the-box step for OPD. It's this kind of thinking that saves lives," said Carol Wick, CEO of Harbor House of Central Florida, which runs a shelter, hotline and other services for domestic-violence victims.

Too often, domestic violence spirals into murder, records show. Eight of Orlando's 42 homicides last year were related to domestic violence.

But few of those victims had contact with domestic-violence advocates, who typically wait until their abuse hotline rings or a victim walks in the door looking for help.

That's about to change.In a few weeks, Orlando officers who respond to a domestic-violence call will be required to go over the questionnaire -- known as a "threat-assessment checklist" -- with victims. It's designed to determine which cases are similar to ones that have ended in death. It includes questions such as "Is there a firearm in the house?" and "Has your partner been stalking, following or watching you?"

A Harbor House advocate will check the questionnaires and contact individuals whose scores are high enough that experts think they are in grave danger.

"I say, 'I'm contacting you because your situation has come to a point where the next step for you may be death.' I can be pretty blunt," said Harbor House advocate Denise Machado, who offers space in a shelter or other assistance.

In the past year, Machado has combed through every domestic violence-report filed by Orlando police officers and Orange County deputies. It's a big chore: Those two agencies handled more than 8,000 such calls in 2008.

She has tried to contact victims who seemed most in danger, but that can be tough to figure out simply by reading a police report. Soon, Machado will find a questionnaire attached to every Orlando police report.

Judges also will have a copy of the questionnaire when an accused batterer makes a first appearance in court. And caseworkers who deal with Orange County families under scrutiny by the Florida Department of Children and Families will use a similar checklist.

The program is modeled after one used in Jacksonville, where domestic homicides have fallen by an average 46 percent over seven years even as the number has risen in other cities. In 2008, the Florida Attorney General's Office provided grant money to the five counties that had the highest rates of domestic-violence deaths in 2006 -- Orange, Seminole, Alachua, Duval and St. Lucie -- to start or expand similar programs.

Last month, Orlando received $20,000 to train its officers. Seminole plans to use its grant money to host a two-day training conference next month for police, prosecutors, judges and others.

But Orlando may be the only Florida city besides Jacksonville that will soon require its officers to complete the questionnaire in all domestic-violence cases.

"If we do nothing, we can't expect anything," Orlando Deputy Chief Sonja White said. "Even if it only impacts the number of domestic homicides by one, it's worth it."

Mark Schlueb can be reached at mschlueb@orlandosentinel.com or 407-420-5417.

Orlando police are developing a questionnaire for domestic-violence victims that's modeled after one used by Harbor House, which includes questions such as these:

*Have you recently separated from or talked about leaving your partner? *Is there a firearm in the house or accessible to your partner? Do you believe your partner will kill you? *Does your partner control all or most of your daily activities? Is your partner violently and constantly jealous of you?

Information contributed by: Internet