By: Laura Giles
UTAH COUNTY, UT – Strangulation is very common in domestic violence situations, and is a strong predictor of future, more violent abuse and even homicide, according to police.
That is why a team in Utah County was recently formed to help educate and spread the word about the seriousness of this act.
The Strangulation Awareness Team is a multidisciplinary group made up of a victim services coordinator, a forensic nurse, a prosecutor and law enforcement representative. The team is training others in Utah County and the rest of the state about this serious problem.
“Strangulation is a key indicator of intimate partner violence lethality,” said Selina Gorst, Utah Domestic Violence Coalition prevention coordinator. In fact, one of the key questions asked of domestic violence victims on a lethality assessment program used by many police departments is if the victim has ever been choked.
According to Gorst, strangulation occurs from the outside of the body while choking occurs from the inside. However, the lethality questionnaire includes the word “choked” because it is more commonly used.
“If a victim is experiencing strangulation within their relationship, they are 10.9 times more likely to get killed than other domestic violence victims,” Gorst said. “Generally, the perpetrator knows what level to take it to. People who are being strangled generally don’t get strangled just one time — it could be five times in a night. It’s a huge lethality indicator that needs to be taken seriously.”
Justin Boardman, former West Valley City police officer, is part of the team and provides the law enforcement expertise.
“I came across this a lot in West Valley City. It was something that happened often,” he said.
Boardman recalls one victim who was strangled by her partner.
“I told her that, in the future, he was going to kill her. She went into shelter and then they got back together and moved to California. Five years later, I went out for the homicide trial,” he said. “When you have your hand around somebody’s throat, you have power and that person knows that dinner better be on time tomorrow.”
Another victim Boardman helped, Michelle, was strangled three different times by her former husband.
“He had his hand over my mouth and nose and said, ‘Are you ready to die?’” she recalled. “He had me completely suffocated.”
Michelle said she knew it was serious, but felt powerless. “I knew when he was strangling me that I was probably going to die,” she said.
She has since gotten away from him and is piecing her life back together.
“If your partner puts his hands around your neck, you need to get out, or you’re going to die,” she said, wanting to warn others. “It just gets worse.”
In Utah County, strangulation is common.
“We hear about strangulation all the time,” said Kortney Hughes, Provo Police Department’s victim services coordinator. “We go out on scene and they say there was a scarf around their necks or that they were being choked.”
The training is sponsored by the Utah Domestic Violence Coalition and is open to law enforcement, advocates, medical, therapy personnel and others who want to be educated about the issue, according to Hughes.
Last year, new legislation was passed in Utah making strangulation a felony.
“The new law is more in line with the seriousness and recognizes the danger of strangulation,” Hughes said. “Our training focuses on the seriousness and helpful ways to investigate and report it for successful prosecution. It has been a success and we are receiving more requests from local law enforcement and prosecutors.”
Through the trainings, police officers are trained to look for marks and scratches on the abuser’s face and arms, because the victim is usually fighting their attacker off.
Signs of strangulation in victims include red face, bloodshot eyes, bleeding from ear canal, bleeding from nose, raspy voice and difficulty breathing.
“We talk about the serious of strangulation, the short-term and long-term effects of strangulation, what the trauma may look like, how to report, respond and hopefully get a prosecution at the end and how to work together,” Gorst said. “We want to help the victim get the result that is optimal for her future.”
“The cool thing that has not happened in the past is the teamwork,” Boardman said. “It takes teamwork to investigate these.”
Everyone plays an important role. “The nurses help the police officers to know the signs of strangulation, and to help them write their reports so that the prosecutors can understand how serious it is,” Hughes said. “The victims often think they’re fine, because they can breathe. They don’t understand the long-term effects.”
Victim advocates learn, through training, to help victims understand the seriousness of what they are experiencing, how they can effectively utilize the advocate and how to ask the right questions to know if they have been victims of strangulation. Strangulation can be in the form of smothering, chokeholds or sitting on someone’s chest, according to Hughes.
“Abusers don’t strangle to kill. They strangle to prove that they can kill,” she said.
If someone is in a domestic violence situation, they should alert the local police department or call the 24-hour hotline at 1-800-897-LINK. For more information about the Strangulation Awareness Team training, contact Selina Gorst at firstname.lastname@example.org.