#ClackCo’s role in making strangulation during domestic violence a felony

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It just didn’t sit right with #ClackCo officials. How could strangulation during an act of domestic violence not be considered a felony under Oregon law?

How could such a violent act that leaves victims with psychological scarring and potentially-serious long-term health effects be classified as a misdemeanor?

But that’s just what it was prior to January 2019. And the need for a change was clear.

“We have a public health emergency – one in four women experience intimate partner violence in their lifetime,” said Sarah Van Dyke, our Domestic Violence Systems Coordinator, last year. “More than half of domestic violence victims report being strangled, and an even higher percentage of women escaping to domestic violence shelters reported being strangled.”

That’s a wake-up call. And it was simply unacceptable to a number of county officials, both elected and staff.

So our officials did something about it, and their efforts played a prominent role in getting the law changed to make strangulation during an act of domestic violence a felony in Oregon (which passed and went into effect this past Jan. 1.)

One of those was Commissioner Sonya Fischer, who testified to the Oregon Legislature last year to advocate for the bill.

For Fischer, the issue was personal. As an attorney, she had worked with clients who had fallen victim to this heinous act. In fact, during a Facebook Live back in January, Fischer relayed how a woman who was previously strangled was eventually kidnapped by her ex-husband.

“Victims aren’t believed,” Fischer said. “The law did not support them at the time. If [the husband] could have been held accountable for the strangulation that he did in the course of his violence to her, it may never have escalated to the point that it did.”

#ClackCo Commissioners have not only taken a stance against domestic violence, but they’ve created goals to curtail it. Back in 2014, the county implemented its first results-oriented strategic plan, Performance Clackamas. Of the 28 stated goals, one was: “By 2020, there will be no domestic violence related homicides in Clackamas County.”

That’s a strong goal that showcases our commitment to addressing the issue. That goal remains in place today. (Per Performance Clackamas reports, there were 3 total domestic violence homicides in #ClackCo from 2014 through 2017.)

One way that commissioners have continued their support of stopping domestic violence is their ongoing support for A Safe Place Family Justice Center. This pivotal facility, located in Oregon City, has been helping individuals and families by providing support and safety plans for anyone experiencing family violence, sexual violence, stalking, or abuse. Last year alone, A Safe Place had more than 5,500 visits from women and people in need. Some 465 protective orders were filed from the building last year.

How is this facility – run by the Clackamas County Sheriff’s Office – so effective? Besides the passion of dedicated staff and both on-site and off-site partners, it’s because the facility houses multiple programs that provide services to domestic violence victims/families. Like Clackamas Women’s Services (CWS), which provides the majority of supportive advocacy to victims at A Safe Place, working collaboratively with partners to offer life-saving services.

A Safe Place is a one-stop-shop where victims can find advocates, get restraining orders, have access to judges and police, get emergency financial help, get access to attorneys, and get assistance in finding a temporary place to stay.

And A Safe Place is where we caught up with two others who testified for the law’s passage: #ClackCo Sheriff Craig Roberts and CWS’ Executive Director Melissa Erlbaum.

“A lot of amazing people came down [to Salem] to support this bill … including survivors giving their testimony, which was extremely difficult,” Roberts said.

In the above conversation, Sheriff Roberts briefly goes into some of the changes in the law. Essentially, now in Oregon, a person commits the felony crime of strangulation if they try to stop another person’s normal breathing/blood flow by either:

  • Applying pressure on the throat or neck of the other person
  • Blocking the nose or mouth of the other person
  • Applying pressure to the chest of the other person

It’s important to remember just how serious the damage can be to strangulation victims. Even though – if you’ve heard from the video guests above – strangulation marks/lasting effects are not always visible. Learn more by going to the Training Institute on Strangulation Prevention.

In the final installment of videos aimed at raising awareness of the new law, we got a chance to speak quickly with #ClackCo Chief Deputy District Attorney John Wentworth, who also supported passage of the bill.

“What this [bill] does is sends the message to the offender, right from the get-go, [that] we in the criminal justice system are taking this seriously,” Wentworth said. “We recognize the dangerous behavior that you’re engaging in. And just as importantly, we’re sending a message to the victim: This is a very dangerous event for you – we’re taking it seriously, and we care about what’s going on in your relationship that its causing that kind of harm.”

To prepare for the law change, #ClackCo officials took a host of steps, which included: 

  • 14 professionals complete a four-day intensive strangulation prevention training through the Training Institute on Strangulation Prevention in San Diego
  • Forming a Strangulation Response Team that works to improve the identification, response, and prosecution of strangulation in the county
  • Systematically training law enforcement on how to identify strangulation and investigate strangulation crimes
  • Developing a Strangulation Supplemental that will help law enforcement with those goals
  • Developing strangulation protocols that will guide the response to victims and perpetrators – which have been signed by police chiefs throughout #ClackCo
  • Working with the health care community to better identify and treat strangulation victims

All of this coordination takes serious effort, which is why the county position of Domestic Violence Systems Coordinator exists, and clearly demonstrates the county’s commitment to addressing domestic violence. Van Dyke, who fills that role, made an October 2018 presentation at County Headquarters.

Now that this change has been made, what is Van Dyke’s biggest hope?

“We would like to see strangulation be widely understood as a dangerous type of domestic violence –

one that impacts not only the victim but the safety of the wider community and law enforcement,” she said. “We need doctors, law enforcement, social workers, teachers, hospitals, emergency personnel, and others who interact with the public to be aware of and looking for signs that someone has been strangled.

“Improving the identification of strangulation will lead to increased medical intervention and support services for the victim and improved identification of these dangerous offenders. This will take concerted effort but our community is committed to making this a reality in Clackamas County.”

Remember: If you or someone you know is in danger from domestic violence, call 9-1-1, or the Clackamas Women’s Services 24-hour crisis line at 503-654-2288.