clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

When an ex causes fear, resources are available, advocates say

FILE - Life sized silhouettes representing victims from West Valley City whose lives ended violently at the hands of a spouse, ex-spouse, family member or partner surround the audience as they attend West Valley City Victim Service’s Domestic Violence Awa
FILE - Life sized silhouettes representing victims from West Valley City whose lives ended violently at the hands of a spouse, ex-spouse, family member or partner surround the audience as they attend West Valley City Victim Service’s Domestic Violence Awareness Night at the West Valley City Hall on Tuesday, Oct. 23, 2018.
Steve Griffin, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Lauren McCluskey's death was not her fault.

"The reason this happened is because a violent person had access to a gun and chose to be violent as a final act of power and control," said Jenn Oxborrow, executive director of the Utah Domestic Violence Coalition.

The death of the 21-year-old University of Utah student has called attention to resources available to those who have reason to fear someone they have dated. And it has led one Utah lawmaker to call for background checks on more types of gun sales.

The man who shot and killed McCluskey, Melvin Rowland, 37, was a sex offender and was barred from owning a gun. Police have not yet indicated how he may have obtained one.

Utah's law enforcement offices, which often have in-house victim advocates, can offer some resources for people with an ex whose behavior has made them afraid. They also help those seeking protective orders and stalking injunctions.

But domestic violence agencies often can provide more immediate services, including secret temporary housing and counseling, Oxborrow said.

"In really high-risk situations, it's critical that you're working with a community-based advocate, too," Oxborrow said.

What's more, the groups are bound to higher standards of confidentiality than police departments, in large part because they receive federal funding through the Violence Against Women Act.

To date, 60 out of about 140 law enforcement agencies in Utah have struck partnerships with shelters and domestic violence organizations with the help of Oxborrow's group. Their officers receive training as part of the deal, including on how to conduct an 11-question "lethality assessment."

"We see that for survivors that go through the screening, their level of awareness goes up. They realize the situation that they're in, that they're not crazy to feel this way," Oxborrow said.

Matt Elson, deputy West Valley City police chief, said his patrol officers carry the questionnaires and use them in responding to calls when they suspect domestic violence has occurred.

If they determine the person has a high risk of being killed by a family member, partner or an ex, officers dial the partner organization immediately and hand the phone to the victim. The person then speaks with an advocate and can determine if they'd like a menu of services.

Domestic violence advocates first approached the University of Utah's police force about the training, Oxborrow said, after Richard Peralta, 25, killed his wife Katherine Peralta, 23, on the campus in December 2016 and then turned the gun on himself.

The university's police have not yet entered into such a partnership, in part because reports of domestic violence are made much more often to city police departments than to campus officers, said school spokesman Chris Nelson. But the school's force is considering the move and the university remains committed to providing counseling and prevention programs to students, he said.

Tom Ross, president of the Utah Chiefs of Police Association, said his group is supportive of the protocol and other, similar risk assessments.

"It's the right thing for us to be doing in law enforcement," Ross said. "Hopefully it will help save some lives and protect people from injury." In his own city of Bountiful, each homicide in the last 30 years has been domestic-violence related, he said.

Rep. Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, said McCluskey and Rowland's deaths fit a larger trend in Utah. Many of the state's gun deaths are suicides or domestic violence-related.

Expanding existing background check requirements to private sales and not just to licensed dealers could help make sure that fewer people with criminal histories like Rowland's get access to firearms, he said.

"This is one of the last guys we want ever having a gun or access to a gun," King said. He has opened a bill file on the issue but is still working out the details.

"It moves us in the right direction," he said of the proposal.

Such a law would not prevent felons from paying someone else to buy a gun for them, emphasized Clark Aposhian, chairman of the Utah Shooting Sports Council. And it already is a state and federal crime for a person to try to purchase a firearm after a court has restricted them from doing so, Aposhian noted, but the offense often goes unprosecuted.

Free and confidential help and support for victims and survivors of domestic violence is available 24/7 by contacting the YWCA, Women in Jeopardy, 801-537-8600; or the Domestic Violence Hotline, 800-897-LINK (5465).