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NYS Domestic Violence Fatality Review Board issues findings, recommendations

A third of women experience intimate partner violence or stalking in their lifetime, and many of them will die or nearly die because of it. In fact, these deaths have been on the rise over the last decade as other homicides have decreased. It’s why the state created a Domestic Violence Fatality Review Board, which is out with its report of findings and recommendations.

NOTE: We caution that this story contains graphic content.

Since 2013, board members have been meeting in communities where a domestic violence death occurred, talking with all the parties involved and re-assembling all the evidence in a case. Their goal has been to identify common risk factors — or red flags — that, if known and responded to, may prevent another death.

“This is probably the first time anyone is looking at all the available case information at one time,” according to the report. “They create a timeline for the entire case, from start to finish, and look for red flags that should have signaled a heightened response. The goal is to learn from these very difficult cases in an effort to identify ways to improve the overall response to domestic violence, with an eye toward preventing similar tragedies in the future.”

The Case of Rachael Wierzbicki

“I’m Laurie Wierzbicki and my daughter’s killer just got off on murder.”

Laurie Wierbicki and her husband Mark are still in disbelief. Earlier this month, a jury acquitted Shane Casado, 27, of fatally shooting their daughter Rachael, 22, outside his South Buffalo home on the night of Nov. 27, 2018.

The 25 cases selected by board members for their report are confidential, but this is the type of case they reviewed.

“It’s like the start of every bad ‘Nightline’ you’ve ever seen,” Mark Wierzbicki said. “She was young, she was pretty, a heart of gold, who always wanted to help everybody. It seems like these guys just know what their target is.”

“There was so many red flags,” Laurie Wierbicki said. “I kept telling her, ‘Rachel, that’s a red flag.’ And then she gives an excuse. She thought she could help him, make him a better person. And every single relationship was like that with her. She had so much love to give. And she just wanted somebody to love her in return. That’s all. That’s all she wanted.”

Laurie Wierzbicki said her daughter’s previous boyfriend was physically abusive.

“We moved her back home not once, not twice, but the third time. She goes, ‘Mom, I can’t take it anymore. I have to get out. He did this, this and that to me,'” she said. “So I moved her out that day. We went down to the Family Justice Center, with her teeth knocked out, choke marks on her neck, black eyes, bruises all over her arms, her chest, her legs.”

Laurie Wierzbicki talks more about the criminal justice system through the eyes of a mother and the Rachael Warrior Foundation established to honor her daughter’s memory

Relationship “Red Flags”

“Many of these cases include a past history or current history of domestic violence,” said Greg White, director of Domestic Violence Programs for Men, the Caring Dads Program and Public Policy and Gender and Racial Justice at Catholic Charities.

Greg White speaking at a National Training Institute conference.

Catholic Charities

Greg White (left) speaking at a National Training Institute conference on model batterer programs.

White helped complete nearly half the board’s reviews.

“A significant one was involvement or access to firearms or weapons, separation attempts or attempts to leave the relationship,” White said. “Strangulation is a very significant factor in many of these cases, a history of substance abuse, a history of suicidal threats or ideation, past criminal history and evidence of increasing or escalation of violence.”

Of the 25 cases reviewed, the board found:

  • 10 or more red flags in 11 cases
  • 5-9 red flags in 11 cases
  • 4 or fewer red flags in 3 cases
  • Most red flags in a case: 17
  • Fewest red flags in a case: 2

Of the 25 cases reviewed, the board found prior contact with:

  • 10 or more systems of assistance in 7 cases
  • 5-9 systems of assistance in 15 cases
  • 4 or fewer systems of assistance in 3 cases
  • Most systems in a case: 15
  • Fewest systems in a case: 2

White said if every police officer, probation officer, attorney, judge or advocate had known all the red flags during a case, they may have made different decisions — even if the outcome wasn’t different.
“I found it to be very difficult work,” White said. “Some of those crime scene pictures still come back to me — and it tugs at my heart. And what that means to me is that this work is so, so serious. Our courts, our service providers, our police, our district attorneys always need to take this serious when a victim says I’m being abused. When a victim says I’m being abused, the research on it says 95% of those reports are 100% truthful.”

If you are having a domestic violence emergency, call 911. For assistance from the Family Justice Center, call 716-558-SAFE (7233).

Greg White talks more about the social change necessary to end domestic violence

Review Board Recommendations

One way to help ensure everyone is aware is the central registry of Domestic Incident Reports in Albany. But the board found police departments aren’t always sending them in, as required by law.

The board also recommended police departments use lethality and danger assessments to identify all the red flags in a victim’s life, but many departments don’t use them.

Training was also a big part of the recommendations.

“Training efforts should include all responders within each entity and not only those in specialized domestic violence units or with domestic violence caseloads,” the report said. “The team found ‘general practitioners’ handled as many, if not more, domestic violence incidents and cases than those who specialize in domestic violence.”

Laurie and Mark Wierzbicki want training included for juries.

“I feel there was just a lot of mistakes on this entire jury and they just didn’t understand the law,” Laurie Wierzbicki said. “We have an advocate to explain the law to us. And they should have a legal advocate in the room, so that when these people have questions they can understand.”

“Those 12 didn’t take care of the victim. There’s no real voice for the victim,” Mark Wierzbicki said. “It became very apparent that the state, the prosecution is fighting with one arm tied behind their back because they have to actually prove things and have to have evidence and put everything together, where the defense can say anything and everything they want. And this team threw everything they could possibly throw at the jury, from it was a conspiracy to the police were bumbling.”

White said domestic violence won’t end without a culture change, like with smoking or drunk driving.

“Drunk driving wasn’t considered that serious of a matter and now it’s very serious. And thank God for Mothers Against Drunk Driving to accomplish that social change in our community. Now you don’t ever smoke in a public building,” White said. “But we haven’t come to the belief system that is systemic in this country: that it’s not okay for men to perpetrate any kind of violence against the women that they are partners with. We have to work to make that social change if we are ever going to end domestic violence.”