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Northwest honored for anti-strangulation program

The Domestic Violence program at Northwest Hospital is more than a medical unit, even though the team treats victims’ injuries. It’s more than a community support service, even though staff offer crisis counseling and education campaigns.

Members of the DOVE team from Northwest Hospital, left to right: Audrey Bergin, program manager; Cassie Offutt, case manager; Robin Straiten, case manager; Sharion Phillip, social worker; Tamara McDonald, case manager; and Roz Berkowitz, nurse.

The Domestic Violence (DOVE) program at Northwest is an innovative solution to the persistent, often deadly problem of household or relationship abuse. By using existing forensic technology in new ways, Program Manager Audrey Bergin and her team not only identify and treat victims of domestic violence but also help put abusers behind bars.

They’re a critical link between health care, law enforcement and the judicial system, Bergin said. On Wednesday afternoon, the U.S. Department of Justice will recognize their efforts in protecting the rights of crime victims. The ceremony, which is part of National Crime Victims’ Rights Week, will honor 13 recipients from nine states.

“We serve crime victims in a setting that doesn’t typically serve crime victims,” said Bergin, who founded the program in 2004, zeroing in on an issue she found particularly concerning: strangulation.

“Strangulation is something that’s used often in domestic violence relationships, and the majority of the time, it leaves minimal to no marks on the neck,” Bergin said.

To reduce those incidents, or at least identify perpetrators, DOVE partnered with local police precincts to use a forensic lighting tool that can detect bruising underneath the skin that isn’t visible to the naked eye. Then, they take photographs of the image, which can be used as evidence in court cases against an abuser, she said. Called the Strangulation Response Project, it’s being replicated in Calvert and Anne Arundel counties.

“What was happening was that these people would have no visible injuries; they would look OK,” she said. “So the abusers were being charged with misdemeanors instead of felonies. And in the medical setting, victims weren’t getting a full medical work-out.”

The goal is for nonfatal strangulations to be taken more seriously — in both the court room and the emergency room, Bergin said.

To address the latter, DOVE introduced the Strangulation Response Protocol, which is followed by emergency room physicians to diagnose and care for patients who might have been strangled. The protocol calls for doing a special kind of CT scan that provides detailed images of the structures that make up the neck, including the blood vessels.

“That’s important because strangulation poses the risk of damaging the carotid artery, which could lead to stroke days, weeks, even months, later,” Bergin said.

The DOVE program served fewer than 25 patients in its first year. In 2012, Bergin’s team served more than 800. Domestic violence cases didn’t balloon, she said; working with police simply helped the program reach victims who would otherwise slip through the cracks.

“I try to remember what I was thinking when I started the program,” she said. “Did I think it would get this big and go in the directions that it has? I can’t remember, but I’ve put a lot into it, and Northwest Hospital has really allowed the program to grow, allowed me to respond to the needs that I see in the community, and allowed us to be creative about taking it to where it is now.”