Protocol change proves positive for domestic violence victims

Protocol change proves positive for domestic violence victims
Maria Dolores Escobedo and Jessica Escobedo.

TUCSON, AZ (Tucson News Now) - The memories and wounds are still fresh for Jessica Escobedo.

Both she and her family are just seven months removed from the night their eyes were opened to evil.

"It was in his home," she said. "It took us all by shock and surprise."

In October 2017, her 52-year-old mother Maria Dolores Escobedo was killed in her ex-boyfriend's home.

The Tucson Police Department said Mario Jesus Dorame, Maria's ex-boyfriend, did it.

Maria Dolores Escobedo and Jessica Escobedo. (Source: Tucson News Now)

Dorame was arrested after a 45-day manhunt and is awaiting trial on a first-degree murder charge.

Maria Escobedo was found dead in Dorame's home in the 5500 block of S. Tyndall Avenue. on Oct. 1.

Jessica Escobedo, the 43-year-old Dorame had brutally beaten her mother only a earlier.

"There were no signs previous to that," Jessica said. "When I woke up to the pictures of her face being bruised and bloodied, we were in complete shock. It was a shock to her and she didn't know how to weigh it. We didn't either, because nobody in our family has ever been in a situation of domestic violence."

Jessica said her siblings joined her in moving their mother out of Dorame's home. She said they had been living together and never saw signs of violence until that first incident.

"We never thought he was capable of that, let alone murdering her," Jessica said.

RISK ASSESSMENT REVISITED

Ed Mercurio-Sakwa, CEO of Emerge! Center Against Domestic Abuse
 

What if law enforcement and service organizations could predict the capability of a dangerous domestic abuser?

"We want those victims to know that the help is out there," said Ed Mercurio-Sakwa, CEO of Emerge! Center Against Domestic Abuse. "The worst thing in the world that we can do is tell a victim, 'You're at risk of being killed. Good luck with that.'"

Mercurio-Sakwa said his organization is already seeing the payoff from a protocol change.

On April 2, he stood at the podium during a news conference and praised a change in the way law enforcement works with victims on a domestic violence call.

For about 10 years, members of the Pima County Attorney's Office and southern Arizona law enforcement have been utilizing a risk assessment questionnaire when officers go out on scene to domestic violence calls.

So what's new?

Mercurio-Sakwa said that before, the questionnaire was only applied to felony cases, which are about 10 percent of all domestic violence calls.

In Pima County, the protocol now encompasses misdemeanor domestic violence calls.

"As soon as they get connected to services their risk of being re-assaulted or murdered d rops dramatically," Mercurio-Sakwa explained.

"These questions are asked, with the permission of the victim, in intimate partner violence incidents resulting in arrest of the alleged offender (or where the alleged offender has fled but will be arrested when apprehended)," the questionnaire reads. "Participation in this assessment is entirely voluntary and victims must be informed that they may decline to answer any or all questions."

Victims who score at "Elevated Risk" or "High Risk" are referred to a domestic violence services agency or referral service, like Emerge, that can provide safety planning and information about additional available services.

"The more that people know that, the more they can make fully-informed decisions. It's a different measurement of pros and cons of leaving versus staying, as soon as you understand, 'I'm actually at great risk of being killed here,'" Mercurio-Sakwa said.

REFERRALS ON THE RISE

"The numbers are startling," Mercurio-Sakwa said.

Mercurio-Sakwa said prior to the new protocol, they averaged about 40 referrals per month.

A referral is defined as a victim who is assessed and connected with their organization, at least starting the communication.

In just the first three weeks of the new protocol, Emerge got 126 referrals.

He said 70 percent of those victims assessed were found to be at high risk of being injured or killed. At the victim's choice, Emerge provided some form of services (hotline call, follow-up call, emergency shelter or next-day appointment at a community-based service site) to 106 of these victims.

Ten of those victims went to the emergency shelter in the first three weeks of the updated assessment, compared to 55 all of last year.

"I think a lot of it is strictly volume. You've got a lot more victims who are being engaged by law enforcement around this idea of the risk that they face, and understanding through this tool the level of risk they're at," Mercurio-Sakwa said. "That's a good thing in terms of trying to increase safety and making sure that people at risk know how they can get help."

Mario Jesus Dorame. (Source: Tucson Police Department)

KNOW THE DANGER

Jessica said she doesn't know why her mom kept in contact with Dorame after they helped move her out of his home.

"We'd told her, 'Don't go back. Don't do this, or worse could happen.' Honestly, not once did 'or worse' ever cross my mind that it could possibly happen to her," Jessica said.

Mercurio-Sakwa explained why victims have a tendency to return to an abusive relationship, saying many victims are often at greater risk if they leave.

"A lot of times, the violence increases substantially for them, and their family members, if they try to leave the situation," he said. "So as dangerous and difficult as staying can be, they often become very skilled at surviving that.

"Another one is they don't even necessarily understand the level of risk that they're at. They think it is something that they have to put up with, they don't like, but don't necessarily understand that it might kill them."

The risk assessment questionnaire allows law enforcement and Victim Services Advocates a chance to assist victims in evaluating the severity of a situation.

Mercurio-Sakwa said it can be difficult for victims to be truthful about the risk if the suspect is around. Victims will often times reassess the situation at a later date to get the help they need.

"If that moment is not the right moment - the safe moment - to be able to answer those questions fully or honestly, or to choose to connect with services, they now know they exist,: he said. "They also now know the level of risk that they're at."

That level turned deadly for Maria.

Jessica said she can only speculate if the new protocol would have saved her mother's life.

"She saw pictures of herself. Every time she looked in the mirror she cried. I think it hurt her," she said. "I think had they asked her questions right then I think she would have been honest."

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