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Grant seeks to better coordinate police, counseling services for domestic violence victims in Portland, South Portland, Westbrook

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Grant seeks to better coordinate police, counseling services for domestic violence victims in Portland, South Portland, Westbrook

PORTLAND — Police departments are joining with Family Crisis Services to provide better aid to victims of domestic violence.

Police in Portland, South Portland and Westbrook have been awarded a grant to launch the Enhanced Police Intervention Collaboration, which would partner police officers with a trained Family Crisis specialist when making follow-up calls to domestic violence victims.

The goal is to provide a coordinated response to domestic violence calls and break down barriers to support services for victims. 

Currently, when responding to domestic violence calls, police are asked to give the victim a brochure of services offered by Portland-based Family Crisis Services. FCS, in turn, follows up with a phone call. Police then contact domestic violence victims 48 hours after the reported incident, typically to ensure the suspected abuser has not returned.

The $100,000 grant, awarded July 8 by the state Department of Public Safety's Justice Assistance Council, will allow Family Crisis Services to hire and train a case worker to accompany police officers when they conduct their follow-up visits with victims 48-hours after the reported crime. 

"We feel it's important to be present in person," Family Crisis Executive Director Lois Galgay Reckitt said, noting the initiative will be the first of its kind in the state. "It's important to make the victim realize there are services available for free." 

Noting that 95 percent of victims are women, Reckitt, who served on the Homicide Review Board for six years, said the majority of those who are killed as a result of domestic violence are victims who were not contacted by crisis services.

"If we don't show up at the house for those people we believe are at a particular risk, there's a chance she's never going to answer the phone at the right time or we're never going to connect with her," Reckitt said. "That really increases the chances of her being killed."

For the last 10 years, Family Crisis Services has been following up domestic violence calls in South Portland, where the Police Department was the lead agency in applying for the grant.

South Portland Deputy Police Chief Amy Berry said a more coordinated effort is needed because police and counselors are working toward the same goal: ending domestic violence. Police are more concerned about safety of the victim and preventing the suspect from returning to the house, Berry said, while counselors can offer a variety of long-term assistance, like navigating the court process. 

Berry said she hopes the more coordinated effort sends a strong message to abusers and their victims. 

"This shows that police take domestic violence seriously and it shows that Family Crisis takes domestic violence seriously," she said. 

In 2008, South Portland received an estimated 392 domestic violence calls, while Portland had upwards of 1,700. Westbrook, meanwhile, received 118 calls.

Since call volumes are so large, Reckitt said the new community advocate will be responsible for drafting a policy defining which calls require an in-person follow-up and which require only a phone call. She said the counselor would likely work one day in South Portland and Westbrook, and two days in Portland.

"One of the biggest limitations right now is the incredible volume of calls," she said. "We can't go out for every call."

Reckitt said she hopes the coordinated, in-person effort will make people who need help more comfortable asking for it. 

"People just need someone to talk to and a police officer is not always their first choice," she said.

Reckitt said the grant is for one year, but could be renewed for a second year if the program is successful. The local match for the grant is only the time officers spend following up with victims and will not cost the communities any additional funds.

"I'm pretty excited about it," she said.

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or rbillings@theforecaster.net