York County team delves into deadly tragedies to fight domestic violence


By the time the York County Domestic Violence Fatality Review Team takes on a case, the tragedy is often long past.

But questions linger in many cases, and team members say reviewing domestic-related homicides is essential to find ways of keeping future victims safer.

Lessons learned during fatality reviews have led to changes that include county employees being trained to recognize warning signs of domestic violence, according to team members Anne Acker and Heather Keller. Acker is director of Safe Home, a domestic-violence program of the YWCA of Hanover, and Keller is legal advocacy director for Access-York and the Victim Assistance Center, run out of the YWCA of York.

The women spoke to The York Dispatch this summer about the team, its goals and procedures, and the emotional toll borne by its members.

"It's such a heavy process. It's very painful for many of us," Acker said. She and Keller explained that team members basically relive the last days and moments of a homicide victim's life, as well as her death.

"We're almost grieving for this person again," Keller said.

Despite the somber nature of the work, Acker said she considers her involvement with the team one of the most valuable things she's done in two decades.

The reviews can be frustrating, Keller acknowledged.

"Sometimes there isn't anything that could've been done (to stop the death)," Keller said — a phenomenon Acker likened to "a train coming down the track."

How it works: The team meets four times a year and tries to review every domestic homicide that happens in York County, one case per meeting. Police investigations into the cases must be closed, Acker said, meaning domestic homicides in which arrests are made don't get reviewed until after defendants' criminal cases are resolved.

"Sometimes things get lost when you review a case three years later," she said.

Because of that, the team will often take on a case immediately after trial, when memories of police officers, family members and others have been refreshed, Keller said.

Once a case is chosen, Acker said, she sends out letters to every team member with information about the homicide so everyone knows a case's background before the meeting.

Also prior to the meeting, Acker or Keller interviews the victim's family and friends to gather additional information.

"We have to be really, really careful how we approach people," Acker said. "We have to be respectful of survivors."

From the source: Meetings start out with a detailed briefing about the homicide, usually presented by the lead police investigator in the case, called the affiant.

"Sometimes that takes an hour, sometimes it takes three hours," Acker said.

"Then we have questions for the affiant," Keller said. "Even while they're presenting (the case) we ask questions.

The team considers whether anything could have prevented the homicide and comes up with recommendations based on its findings. A few weeks later, its recommendation subcommittee meets to hone those ideas, which eventually are presented to the appropriate governmental or social-services agencies.

Team members are sworn to confidentiality about details of the homicides they review, and can't even make public which cases they've examined, Acker said. Because of that, victims' loved ones can be sure anything they share will remain private.

Effecting change: Recommendations from the York County Domestic Violence Fatality Review Team have closed procedural loopholes in county government that left abusers temporarily unmonitored, and led to regular domestic-violence trainings for county workers, hospital employees, local attorneys and others whose jobs could put them in contact with domestic-violence victims.

The team's recommendations also have led to the creation of two brochures.

One of them, "What to do if your PFA is denied," directs domestic-violence victims to Access-York, Safe Home and the Victim Assistance Center, all agencies that can help victims create personalized safety plans. The brochure gives victims information about safe shelters, support groups and other resources.

"Safety planning is a huge piece of the puzzle, whether you have a PFA or not," Keller said.

Advice for abusers: The second brochure, "What to do if you are served with a PFA," is handed out by sheriff's deputies to PFA recipients and also is being used in Adams County and in Oregon, according to Acker.

It provides advice on what to do if you've received a PFA — as well as what you legally can't do — and lists phone numbers for shelters, domestic-abuse intervention programs and behavioral health services. The goal is to help recipients so they don't return home spoiling for a confrontation.

"What better way to keep victims safe?" Acker asked.

Both Acker and Keller said the brochure for PFA recipients is a good example of how a team of people from diverse backgrounds can come up with unusual, yet effective, ideas.

The conventional wisdom for those fighting domestic violence is to focus on the victim's needs, they said, so turning the focus to an abuser's needs was innovative.

Don't demonize: Society demonizes domestic abusers and murderers at its own risk, the women warned.

"We're not saying what they did isn't monstrous," Acker said, but marginalizing them means not learning from their mistakes.

"If he has nothing else to lose, she's in incredible danger," Keller said.

— Reach Liz Evans Scolforo at levans@yorkdispatch.com.