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Local

DeKalb County police, Safe Passage key on abusers who go for the throat

Initiative finds spike in attempted strangulation in DeKalb County

Safe Passage Therapist Erika Montes (right) talks to Melissa McGraw, (left) clinical director at Safe Passage, and Mary Ellen Schaid, executive director, in one of the offices Wednesday at Safe Passage in DeKalb.
Safe Passage Therapist Erika Montes (right) talks to Melissa McGraw, (left) clinical director at Safe Passage, and Mary Ellen Schaid, executive director, in one of the offices Wednesday at Safe Passage in DeKalb.

Note to readers: The Daily Chronicle has agreed not to identify the woman who told her story below, as she is the victim of a crime and fears retribution.

Tanya is a strong 24-year-old woman who believes people can change. She stuck with her boyfriend and father of her child thinking things would get better. Things instead escalated.

“For me, I’m kind of a tough person, and I usually stand my ground,” Tanya said during a phone interview. “But it was like walking on eggshells.”

She said that as she resisted her urge to strike back, her boyfriend beat her more frequently, and eventually began choking her during such harrowing encounters. She eventually found a safe haven at Safe Passage, where she said she stayed for two years.

Safe Passage, which provides a safe place for domestic violence victims, as well as counseling and other services, recently has keyed in on abusers’ habit of literally going for the throat of their victims in an attempt to strangle them.

“That’s the deepest level of what domestic violence is about: ‘I have power and control over you, and whether you live or die,’ ” said Lynnea Erickson Laskowski, communications and prevention services director for Safe Passage. “It sends the message that ‘I can kill you.’ It’s attempted murder.”

In October, Safe Passage, along with DeKalb County State’s Attorney Rick Amato, hosted a training session that outlined how agencies should respond to reports of attempted strangulation. As a result, several law enforcement agencies joined Safe Passage in using the Lethality Assessment Program, which determines whether a victim suffered injuries that point toward them being in danger of being more seriously injured – or killed.

The five largest police agencies in the county – the DeKalb County Sheriff’s Office and DeKalb, Sycamore, Northern Illinois University and Sandwich police departments – all have begun using a checklist when officers respond to a domestic violence situation. At its heart is one question: “Were you strangled?”

Safe Passage first started tracking data in October, when four of 18 callers, or 23 percent, who reported domestic abuse also reported their attacker attempted to strangle them.

Once the checklist was used, the numbers spiked. In November and December, 80 percent of victims reported being choked. In January, eight of nine callers (89 percent) reported being choked.

“I think that’s pretty striking,” said Mary Ellen Schaid, Safe Passage’s executive director. “It is really a huge problem that we were definitely not paying enough attention to, but we are now.”

Of the reports from October through December, 82 percent were made to DeKalb police, with more than half of callers saying they wanted services including shelter, orders of protection, safety planning and counseling.

Schaid said Genoa-Kingston police also are getting on board with the checklist. Although it might appear to be one more thing for officers to deal with, it can help prevent officers from being called to the same places again and again after reports of domestic violence, Erickson Laskowski said.

“They could say it’s one more thing they have to worry about, but it provides some structure,” Schaid said. “The questions are written out. They don’t have to think up the questions ... just read them.”

Erickson said marks on a victim’s neck are only one indication of a strangulation attempt. A victim could have bloodshot eyes, bruises or could be having neurological issues, such as memory loss, speech issues or fainting.

Tanya said her ex continues to try to be part of her life, as well as that of her child. But she’s done with him, she said.

“I’d given him enough chances. It was a trust thing, to be honest, and I don’t trust him,” she said. “You can’t have your cake and eat it, too.”

Tanya said there came a point where, as much as she loved him, she had to walk away.

“I knew he was hurt, and I was trying to fix something that couldn’t be fixed,” she said.

She said her counselors have helped her deal with any legal proceedings and also have been tremendous in helping her learn to love herself and then others.

“To be honest, you have to find a way to love yourself before you can expect to love someone else,” she said.

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