State backs groundbreaking approach to domestic violence intervention

Neil Websdale

A state-funded project coordinated out of Northern Arizona University will for the first time combine two powerful interventions to prevent domestic violence.

The Fatality Reviews and Safety Audits project, headed by criminology professor Neil Websdale, recently was awarded a $783,090 grant by the Arizona Governor’s Office for Children, Youth and Families.

“The governor’s office is taking a bold move here to fund an innovative project that could really pay rich dividends for victims of domestic violence,” said Websdale, who also directs the National Domestic Violence Fatality Review Initiative at NAU.

Data varies by source and methodology, but the numbers are sobering: In Arizona, Websdale said, 80-100 domestic violence-related deaths occur each year.

Websdale is a leading proponent of the fatality review process, an approach he said has spread quickly across the United States and elsewhere. His longtime colleague, Ellen Pence, is “the founding mother” of safety audits, which have become an established method of analyzing the systems intertwined around domestic abuse cases.

Fatality review brings together a team of those involved in cases, along with other stakeholders—sometimes surviving family members—to systematically review a domestic violence fatality. Safety audits focus on an analysis of systems, such as law enforcement or victim advocacy, to determine their effectiveness in ongoing domestic violence cases.

“We decided several years ago to meld these two interventions,” Websdale said.

Thanks to the state grant, that idea is now being implemented. The Battered Women’s Justice Project, closely allied to Pence’s own Praxis International organization, will partner with Websdale’s fatality review initiative.

The one-year project will convene three conferences and one fatality review training summit, all in Arizona. The conferences, one of which will be in Flagstaff, will assemble police officers and prosecutors from throughout the state for in-depth training on the theme of domestic violence and risk.

The summit will bring together all of the Arizona fatality review teams—about 10 in various stages of development, according to Websdale—for a day and a half of training and networking.

“We’re going to kick off the project with some ratcheting-up of fatality review work,” Websdale said. As the project progresses, a federally funded audit team from Minnesota will visit Coconino County for up to 10 days to review issues posed by the county’s own review team.

Websdale acknowledged the important role being played by the county’s review team, which is co-chaired by Sheriff Bill Pribil and professor Kathleen Ferraro, chair of NAU’s Sociology and Social Work Department. “They’re a fairly new team that has agreed to scrutinize their fatality review practices,” Websdale said.

Even as the use of fatality review becomes more widespread, many challenges remain for newly formed review teams. The cases are difficult and emotional. Unraveling the complexity behind a domestic violence death, Websdale said, takes open communication by an array of stakeholders committed to the analysis.

“We’re not into blame, or finding fault or discerning guilt because that’s done elsewhere,” Websdale said. “The idea is to identify systems gaps by working back from the death.”

Overlaying such reviews with the well-established methodology of safety audits will bring insights and build new lines of communication. Websdale explained that the audit has its roots in institutional ethnography—the study of the ways of life of institutions, which is well established in anthropology and sociology.

“A team of ethnographers skilled in domestic violence cases conducts an audit on the ground by an analysis of living cases,” Websdale said. They ride with police officers, sit in court, follow a probation officer and watch an interaction between a victim advocate and a victim. According to Websdale, “The basic question for them is, ‘How do systems not work for victims?’ ”

Now, by bringing these tools together, the Fatality Review and Safety Audit Project aspires to enhance coordination among the agencies most involved with domestic violence cases in Arizona.

“We’re just part of a national movement,” Websdale said, “and we’re pleased and proud to be part of it.”