The following describes the key features of Washington’s Domestic Violence Fatality Review (DVFR). Check out Resources for Fatality Reviews for more details on Washington’s DVFR model and for information on how to set up a review team in your community.
Washington’s DVFR model centers the experience of both victims and their communities. Instead of asking how well the systems performed their functions, review teams ask what did victims need and want? Review teams challenge themselves to think creatively about how to expand options for people marginalized by institutionalized bias, poverty, substance abuse, and limited English fluency. Reviews bring in victims’ voices through interviews with friends and family, and direct quotes from victims in public records. Domestic violence and other community based advocates play a central role in representing victims’ experience.
Review teams are made up of members of the community in which the victim lived and died. Typically organized by county or region, review teams bring together the people with direct knowledge of how each community, jurisdiction, system, and organization responds to domestic violence. Review team members bring knowledge of best practice within their own discipline, as well as critical insights about gaps between policy and practice.
The DVFR seeks to engage the whole community in taking responsibility to end domestic violence. Virtually all victims in reviewed cases reached out for help to friends, family, neighbors, or co-workers, but only half had contact with legal systems and social services. Review teams include representatives of domestic violence and sexual assault advocacy programs, the criminal and civil justice systems, domestic violence intervention providers, health care, mental health, child welfare, animal welfare, economic services, schools, local government, businesses leaders, churches and faith communities, grassroots community groups, and cultural organizations.
The purpose of the Domestic Violence Fatality Review is to understand how systems and communities are or are not effective in responding to domestic violence victims and abusers. Through deeply examining one individual victim’s experience, review teams bring to light how systems respond to all survivors and abusers. Analysis is focused on systems, not individual response. Fatality reviews are not investigations, and review teams do not seek to assign blame for a victim’s death. The goals of a fatality review are to:
- identify barriers to safety and justice for all survivors;
- identify how institutional incentives discourage or encourage an excellent response to domestic violence;
- identify gaps in training, policy, practice, resources, communication, and collaboration;
- think creatively about how the work or policies of agencies may need to change.
Attention to marginalized communities
Victims in marginalized communities face massive, systemic barriers to accessing mainstream interventions and are disproportionately at risk for domestic violence homicide. Washington’s DVFR model centers the experience of both victims and their communities in teams’ analysis of how the community meets victims’ needs and holds abusers accountable. In-depth fatality reviews have documented lack of language access, lack of culturally appropriate and relevant services, lack of coordination and collaboration between culturally specific organizations and mainstream providers, historic and institutionalized racism and homophobia, and racially disproportionate poverty that limits victims’ options for safety.
Focused on prevention
Even an excellent system response is not a solution to domestic violence. The fatality review process looks at what conditions led up to domestic violence homicides and murder-suicides. Fatality reviews show us that these events are not unpredictable, isolated tragedies. Review teams look for patterns, and uncover roots of violence. Beyond how the murder itself could have been prevented, review teams ask what could have stopped the violence before it started? What conditions shaped the victim’s options? Where were there opportunities to change the abuser’s behavior? Very often the answers are not individual, but point to systemic change. Focus on prevention and early intervention is especially important in African American, Native, and immigrant and refugee communities affected by disproportionate incarceration and child welfare involvement, inter-generational and historical trauma.
In addition to in-depth case reviews, the Fatality Review project collects data on all domestic violence related homicide and suicide deaths in Washington State. Our definition of a domestic violence fatality is specific to intimate partner violence, and includes: homicides by any current or former intimate partner; friends, family, new partners, or police officers killed by abusers in the context of intimate partner abuse; abusers killed by victims, police, or someone intervening; and suicides of abusers following a domestic violence homicide or assault. The Fatality Review is the only source of data about domestic violence deaths that are left out of state and national crime statistics, such as abuser suicides.
The DVFR combines information about domestic violence fatalities with other statewide data sources including death certificates, court records, census data, and more to produce rich analysis on a wide range of issues. Examples of our research and data analysis include: the connection between domestic violence history and suicide; disproportionate rates of domestic violence homicide by race; domestic violence homicide victims’ use of child support enforcement; and pregnancy rates among victims killed by intimate partners.