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Orange County team concludes decadelong study of domestic violence deaths

Bethany Webb speaks during an Orange County Domestic Violence Death Review Team press conference at UC Irvine.
Bethany Webb shares her personal story during an Orange County Domestic Violence Death Review Team press conference on Wednesday at UC Irvine.
(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)

Although almost half of the domestic violence-related deaths in Orange County between 2006 and 2017 involved somebody with a known history of violence, only 9% of these cases had a restraining order in place.

A recently released study from an Orange County task force determined that in order to prevent domestic abuse from turning fatal, the county needs to address the barriers that survivors face when seeking help.

Among other systemic problems, victims fear that police will not believe their claims or will blame them for the abuse, the report says. Survivors from minority communities may feel further at odds with law enforcement, fearing that they may be arrested or harmed by police. Undocumented survivors may fear deportation.

“These barriers to reporting serve to further isolate survivors and discourage them from reporting or seeking help,” said the report from the Orange County Domestic Violence Death Review Team. “If we want to combat domestic violence effectively, we need to take steps to ensure survivors have a voice, and bridge the gap between survivors and the help they need. We also need to ensure law enforcement and other professionals have adequate training and understand the complex dynamics of domestic violence.”

For the study, the team analyzed the 113 domestic violence fatalities in the county between 2006 and 2017. The group contends that there were likely other deaths that weren’t reported during those years due to some domestic violence homicides being classified as “accidental,” and other cases not resulting in criminal charges or prosecution.

The multidisciplinary task force includes members from county law enforcement, the coroner’s office, domestic violence service agencies, law clinics, researchers, psychologists and other scholars. The coroner’s office identified the cases and the team analyzed them with assistance from students of the UC Irvine Law Domestic Violence Clinic.

Sixteen of 34 Orange County cities had domestic fatalities. Cities that did not have a reported death include Aliso Viejo, Cypress, Dana Point, La Palma, Laguna Hills, Laguna Niguel, Laguna Woods, Lake Forest, Los Alamitos, Mission Viejo, Newport Beach, Rancho Santa Margarita, San Clemente, San Juan Capistrano, Stanton, Tustin, Villa Park and Yorba Linda.

Marciela Rios-Faust, right, chief executive of nonprofit Human Options, at a press conference.
(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)

In the middle of Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month, the team held a press conference on Wednesday morning announcing their findings.

“I can tell you that the most powerful person can feel powerless in their own home,” said Maricela Rios-Faust, chief executive of Human Options, an Irvine-based nonprofit that supports victims of domestic violence.

Out of all the cases, 57% of the victims were female and 43% were male. Yet, more than 80% of the female victims were killed by a male partner, and about 75% of the males committed suicide either after killing their partner or abusing them. About 15% of the men were murdered by a female partner.

The task force also found that economics and access to firearms played significant roles in the deaths in Orange County.

There was an increase in domestic violence deaths in Orange County during 2010 and 2011, which was likely related to the financial stresses people faced following the 2008 financial crisis. Researchers also found that a gun was used in 72% of deaths. This is consistent with the rest of the country, where access to firearms increases fatality rates in domestic abuse cases by 500%.

The study also shows that 9% of the deaths were caused by strangulation. The task force considered this number to be significant, and cited other research showing that up to 68% of survivors are victims of near-fatal strangulation. All of the victims who died as a result of strangulation in Orange County over the period were women.

“Strangulation is the most lethal form of abuse,” the report says. “Education is one of the first steps to preventing strangulation. Strangulation is extremely dangerous, not only in the initial action, but also in the days, months and years following the attack. Because strangulation creates such risks for both the life and ongoing wellbeing of a survivor, it is important that the various agencies (law enforcement, medical and judicial) involved in the investigation of these attacks be aware of all risks involved.”

Jane Stoever, clinical law professor at UC Irvine, speaks during a press conference on domestic violence.
Jane Stoever, clinical law professor at UC Irvine, speaks during a press conference on domestic violence.
(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)

As part of the study, the team made a number of recommendations to help combat domestic violence-related deaths in the county. With regards to strangulation, the report says that law enforcement officers need to follow proper steps to assist survivors in recounting what happened during the abuse because strangulation can lead to short-term memory loss. Officers should also be observant, looking for less noticeable signs of strangulation, like difficulty speaking or a raspy voice. The team also made recommendations for how attorneys, advocates and medical professionals should interact with strangulation victims.

In response to the high rate of gun violence, the researchers pointed out that there are legal blind spots. Despite three of the women having restraining orders against their partners in the Orange County data, their partners still attained a gun. The team recommends that weapons removal be a top priority for law enforcement. Specifically, the task force believes courts should hold a hearing within 48 hours of the restraining order being filed to require the abuser to show a receipt from law enforcement or a gun dealer for giving up their gun. The task force also calls for proactive searches of abusers.

“Although a party restrained by a temporary or permanent restraining order is barred from owning and possessing a firearm and ammunition, and possession of a firearm in violation of a family court order is a felony, it is often left up to the restrained party to obey the order and relinquish guns,” the study says. “Courts often do not follow through with receiving proof to the court that this was done. Further, there is often little follow-up to ensure the abuser does not have access to guns.”

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