Domestic violence in Maine continues to account for about 50 percent of homicides annually, and a case of domestic violence assault is reported about once every hour and a half.

Starting Jan. 1, all state law enforcement agencies adopted the use of a new risk assessment tool to help predict which offenders pose the highest risk and decide what should be done to intervene.

Statewide use of the Ontario Domestic Assault Risk Assessment tool, or ODARA, was adopted by the Legislature after a 2012 recommendation by the Maine Commission on Domestic and Sexual Abuse, which had spent the prior year researching risk assessment tools.

The tool is a 13-question sheet filled out by responding officers on risk factors that were present, such as if the suspected perpetrator has a history of battering the victim, whether the victim is pregnant, or if the victim faces barriers to getting support.

Studies have shown ODARA is 77 percent accurate, making it the strongest validated predictor of domestic violence recidivism, according to the Battered Women’s Justice Project.

The organization states on its website that ODARA was developed by Canadian researchers to measure the likelihood of continued violence by male offenders against female partners. It was later validated for use with female offenders, but has not yet been validated with same-sex partners.

“It’s been studied. It’s been validated and cross-validated. We can bring some science to the table,” said Margo Batsie, justice systems coordinator for the Maine Coalition to End Domestic Violence.

Batsie said her advocacy group takes the approach that ODARA is “one more tool in the toolbox” to help the justice system and advocates understand the risk an offender poses and how to respond.

Batsie said the reason for the particular focus on domestic violence recidivism is because of the cyclical nature of the crime.

“It’s one of the few crimes where the victim will be the same victim over and over again,” she said. “It’s just so damaging to our overall society. If we can try to help break this cycle earlier rather than later, I think we have a better chance of helping everyone in the family, perpetrators included.”

TOOL HELPED PROGRAM TO LAUNCH

Maeghan Maloney, the district attorney for Somerset and Kennebec counties, said the use of the risk assessment tool was needed for the launch of two pilot projects in her district: electronic monitoring and a high-risk response team.

Police who use the tool go through the 13 risk factors, with offenders who score seven or higher considered an elevated risk to reoffend. Maloney said when she sees a score of seven or higher, it means the perpetrator is 14 times more likely to reoffend, compared with those who scored a zero, and her concern for the victim’s safety increases.

“Whether or not we offer electronic monitoring is going to be based off that ODARA score,” she said “What I ask the court for in order to keep the victims safe is either a bail amount to hold the defendant in jail or the use of an electronic monitor.”

The electronic monitoring devices are used to keep track of those out on bail on domestic violence charges. They allow the person to be released from jail on the condition that authorities are able to keep track of the person’s location to make sure he or she stays away from the purported victim.

High-risk assessment teams bring together professionals with an interest in a particular case. Generally, the teams include prosecutors, probation officers, police, victim advocates and others who would follow and evaluate the case and intervention tactics.

Maloney said she is not bound by the tool in making prosecution decisions. She still gives consideration to some high-risk factors that are not weighed by ODARA, such as whether the assault involved strangulation.

Still, Maloney said ODARA “takes away the hit-or-miss nature of going through cases” and uses a common language in each domestic violence case to reduce the chances of a dangerous offender going unidentified.

MAINE OFFICIALS RECEIVE TRAINING

Maine law enforcement officers, bail commissioners, prosecutors and judges underwent training in use of the tool in 2014, and while some adopted it early, all departments were required to start using ODARA by Jan. 1.

Waterville Deputy Police Chief Charles Rumsey said his department had already been using a different risk assessment tool for about a decade, as part of the department’s response to domestic violence, and made the switch to ODARA at the beginning of the year.

He said the new tool is recognized as research-based, and the department is on board with the change to the Ontario system.

“We feel like it enhances public safety, and we’re all about providing best practices to policing,” he said.

When police respond to domestic violence calls, the responding officer asks the victim questions and uses the responses to fill out the questionnaire. Rumsey said the department already has a “robust and engaged” approach to domestic violence calls. Officers try to help the victim connect to resources, stay on the scene to help if the victim needs to move out, and leave information with the victim in case the person is not ready yet to reach out for help. And now part of an officer’s response includes sitting down with the victim to fill out the ODARA questionnaire.

“Through this dialogue we may help the victim understand how much danger that they are in,” Rumsey said.

Waterville bail commissioner Omer Soucier said having the risk assessment from a police officer on every domestic violence arrest helps improve communication between the officer and the bail commissioner on the circumstances of the offender’s arrest.

“A lot of times when a person gets arrested, I don’t get 100 percent of the facts,” he said. “The (assessment) is all filled out for our consideration.”

Batsie, of the Maine Coalition to End Domestic Violence, said her advocacy group feels the tool is promising because it is a simple change that lets bail commissioners, police, prosecutors and advocates work together better to break the cycle.

“What excites me about this multidisciplinary work is when I see people looking at their job and realizing they could do this small change and potentially make a difference,” she said.