WEST JORDAN — It has only been a few weeks since her boyfriend tracked her down at work, lashing out at her in front of coworkers and customers.

"He started choking and beating me," the woman recalls, speaking as she prepares a soup for her children in the communal kitchen at the South Valley Sanctuary for domestic violence victims. "I tried running away from where I was at to (Utah), but that didn't work, he followed me."

Police intervened, and with some apprehension, the woman called a hotline number officers provided and accepted a room at the shelter. She had pictured something stark and perhaps crowded, but when she and her children arrived, she marvelled at the warm, comfortable atmosphere and kind staff members.

"I didn't even know there were places like this out there," said the woman, who the Deseret News is not identifying because she is a victim of domestic violence and remains at risk. "For many, many, many years, this was the story of my life. If I had known there were places like this, I could have been out of this situation a long time ago."

Now there is a plan and a protocol in place to help responding officers identify potential victims and get them the information about help that they need.

When police officers in West Jordan answer domestic violence calls, they come prepared with a Lethality Assessment Protocol, a set of questions to determine whether the victim is at risk for greater violence, specifically homicide. Since implementing the pilot program in West Jordan and three other Utah communities on Sept. 1, the answer to those questions has been "yes" about 60 percent of the time, according to data released last week by the Utah Domestic Violence Coalition.

After a victim is identified as high risk, the officer immediately makes a phone call to a partner service agency, then hands the phone over to the victim if he or she is ready to talk. On the other end is a representative waiting to direct them to a wide range of support and services.

"We already knew we had severe violence happening here in West Jordan," said Jennifer Campbell, executive director of South Valley Services. "We knew the violence was here and we knew there were individuals we weren't seeing, so we wanted to find a way to bridge that gap."

None of the residents currently at South Valley Services were directed there through the lethality assessment. However, Campbell says it's clear that even outside of the protocol, officers are doing more — rather than just leaving them with a pamphlet, police are increasingly focused on urging domestic violence victims to seek services, like they did with the woman who spoke to Deseret News reporters this week.

"As far as police referrals, they have gone up exponentially," Campbell said. "We already had a really good relationship with the police department through our coalition, but the trust factor for both sides, and the confidence in the referral has improved."

In the first month, 47 high-risk calls came in to South Valley Services alone. Only two of the victims had ever heard of the organization, Campbell said. Five victims chose to leave immediately and accept shelter at South Valley Sanctuary, several of them bringing children along with them.

Choosing help

According to quarterly statistics from the Utah Domestic Violence Coalition, 76 Lethality Assessments were done by law enforcement as part of the pilot program between Sept. 1 and Oct. 1 in four participating communities: Davis County, Cache County, West Jordan and Cedar City. Victim service providers completed 90 more through calls to domestic violence hotlines.

In cases where police conducted the assessment in those four areas, 87 percent of victims chose to speak to a hotline worker, with 65 percent accepting services ranging from counseling to legal advocacy to shelter.

"Why this lethality assessment is so important is they have choice throughout the whole process. The police are calling us, but the victims don't have to engage, it's just another choice where they're facing a really hard situation," Campbell said.

South Valley Services has chosen to its funding from the pilot program to staff an extra position around the clock to take Lethality Assessment and hotline calls, Campbell said.

Those calls generally last less than 10 minutes, but in that time, advocates explain that victims can leave in that moment if they want to, they can make an appointment to come in another day, or they can look into other resources. They begin safety planning and are told about mental health services, counseling, healthy relationship classes, or community resource centers at a number of locations they may already be visiting.

"We are talking to them in that moment of crisis and we're telling them, 'you have options, this is not the only thing you have,'" Campbell said.

While the range and focus of the services hasn't changed with the adoption of the Lethality Assessment, Campbell said the real difference lies in proactive collaboration behind the work and a careful effort to track outcomes.

"This way we don't have to assume. The more agencies that are involved and the more police departments that are there, the more confident we can all be that those victims are having those barriers removed and finding access to services," Campbell said.

The system is working so well, she said, the agency is working toward training the West Valley Police Department to begin using the Lethality Assessment Protocol by the beginning of next year, several months ahead of schedule.

Fighting fear

Looking back, the woman at the sanctuary said that for a long time, fear of trying to change her situation outweighed the fear of the violence she was facing.

"A lot of the times you feel like, 'What if I do try to get out of this and it doesn't work? Where will that leave me?'" she said. "I would tell (other victims), it's not as bad as you think it is, just do it. You'll feel like yourself again. … I actually feel like me again, and I think that's the greatest feeling in the world."

As she sat with her small children, she said that she has been able to start working again, that her children are in school,

At the sanctuary, a focus is placed on helping residents feel comfortable and independent. A resident or family is assigned their own room, with their own bathroom, and with access to the shared kitchen and childrens' play spaces. Staff members understand that many times families will come with only the clothes they are wearing, and so have set up a room like a small clothing store to allow residents to browse and choose from racks of donated items.

South Valley Services also puts on presentations or facilitates conversations about domestic violence with any groups that request them. So far, they have met with groups of coworkers, book clubs, schools and religious organizations.

"That's how we're finding people," Campbell said. "We'll go pretty much anywhere. We just talk about ways to refer people, and what's available if you're a victim. It's important for our community to understand that they can play a role in (preventing) domestic violence. We all can."

Help for people in abusive relationships can be found by contacting the YWCA, Women in Jeopardy, 801-537-8600, or the Domestic Violence Hotline, 1-800-897-LINK (5465).

Email: mromero@deseretnews.com

Twitter: McKenzieRomero