|District Attorney Launches 'High-Risk' Team to Address Domestic Violence|
|By Brittany Polito, iBerkshires Staff|
01:20AM / Friday, December 04, 2020
|District Attorney Andrea Harrington announced the formation of a multidisciplinary team to address high-risk domestic violence incidents. |
Cathy Felix talks about her daughter, Julie Shade, a victim of domestic violence who was murdered by her husband.
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — The Berkshire District Attorney's Office has launched a new effort to address domestic and sexual abuse in the region.
District Attorney Andrea Harrington, joined by Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito, on Thursday introduced a Domestic Violence High Risk Team designed to bring multiple disciplines together to strengthen social service and law enforcement responses to domestic violence. The DA's office has also created a new position of a domestic violence coordinator who will work with the team and develop intervention plans.
The initiative continues a campaign promise Harrington made to prioritize domestic violence and develop a team of made up of representatives across several disciplines to create a coordinated response.
"We are using our power to dismantle a culture of violence against women and girls," she said. "Being the first female district attorney [in Berkshire County], being the first anything, being a woman in power in particular, and we have a lot of powerful women standing here behind me today, that in and of its self is meaningless unless we use that power to bring equity and human rights and justice to our community."
Polito is the chairman of Governor's Council to Address Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence. The Berkshires' Domestic Violence High Risk Team is developed from best practices outlined by the council to identify domestic violence cases with a heightened risk of lethality and collectively implements individualized intervention plans.
Harrington said at least 30 different agencies have come together to collaborate on homicide prevention. Berkshire County is the last in the commonwealth to launch a high-risk team.
"Why I really wanted to be here today in person, and not do this on a Zoom, is to say how grateful we are that you would follow through," Polito said. "That this was the one area of the commonwealth that did not have a multidisciplinary high-risk team and now we have the whole commonwealth covered with these high-risk teams, which to me then says our safety net relative to domestic violence victims and sexual assault victims and survivors expands over the entire commonwealth from the Berkshires through the islands, and that means so much to me personally and to our administration."
The high-risk team complements the Domestic and Sexual Violence Task Force launched in early 2019, which focuses on building a community response and changing culture around domestic and sexual violence while the team strengthens legal and law enforcement response.
"This builds on a number of innovations that my office has made to enhance domestic violence prevention," said Harrington.
Harrington's team meets regularly to share and review case-specific information. They also monitor and discuss risk indicators, the nature of an offense, and developments such as releases from incarceration, parole, and probations with an eye toward empowering victims of a crime.
"This team is breaking down the silos that exist between our organizations," the district attorney said. "And we are closing gaps in the system so that we can make fully informed recommendations and decisions."
The high-risk team lists some of the biggest indicators of lethality that are access to weapons, strangulation, mistreatment of animals, stalking, violating restraining orders, suicidal ideations, drug and alcohol use, and mental health issues.
By identifying these risk signs early, the team can provide targeted interventions.
Partners include Berkshire Children and Families, Community Corrections, the Parole Board, the Department of Probation Victims Services, the Elizabeth Freeman Center, Probation Departments from Berkshire Courts, Berkshire County Sheriff's Office, State Police, and 11 local police departments.
The event at the Pittsfield Common was also attended by Mayor Linda Tyer, North Adams Mayor Thomas Bernard, state Sen. Adam Hinds, state Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, and local law enforcement. There were also community members who have been most impacted by domestic violence.
Cathy Felix spoke about the 2008 murder of her daughter, Julie Burdick Shade. Shade was only 22 when she died in the hospital after being strangled and suffocated by her husband, Eugene Shade ll.
Felix and the rest of Shade's family were not aware of the abuse in her daughter's marriage. She said they were aware of some control issues but nothing severe.
"My wish is that if anybody is going through any kind of control, any kind of domestic violence, that they reach out, that they get help," Felix said. "Julie didn't do that, we didn't know, and I wish we did."
Shade was strangled and smothered by her husband as their 3-year-old daughter watched. Eugene Shade fled the scene, leaving Julie and his children inside.
"He left my daughter to die on that couch," Felix said. "He left the two little girls in that apartment with her."
Julie Shade was rushed to the North Adams Regional Hospital and then transferred to Berkshire Medical Center in critical condition, where she died eight days later.
Felix said when the police arrived at her door, they only told her that her daughter was involved in a domestic incident and instructed Felix to go to the hospital. She expected to find her daughter possibly beat up, with a black eye or some bruises, and was devastated to find her in critical condition.
She said Julie's daughter Carly, now in her teens, still has memories of sitting on the couch trying to wake her mother up.
Eugene Shade pleaded guilty to murder and was sentenced to life with parole. Felix said he will go up for parole in a few years and probably be released.
Felix fears for the safety of her granddaughters upon his possible release, and they fear for themselves as well.
"My two girls, Julie's two girls, are already worried about that day," she said. "They have already had concerns and they are young teenagers they shouldn't have to worry about things like that, but they do."
Felix and Julie's daughters have dedicated themselves to bring awareness to domestic violence in honor of her. They advocate on social media, work with the Elizabeth Freeman Center, and Carly has chosen domestic violence as her Girl Scout project.
"Our lives will never be the same, all because of domestic violence," Felix said.
Executive Director of the Elizabeth Freeman Center Janis Broderick said her organization has wanted a high-risk team in the Berkshires for a long time, thanking Harrington and her team.
In the Berkshires, levels of domestic violence are very high, she said, noting the rate of protection order filings in fiscal 2020 was 75 percent higher than the state/national average by population.
Broderick said the county has seen 11 domestic murders in five years spanning from Clarksburg to Sheffield.
Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito says high-risk coordinated teams are based on best practices of the governor's council on domestic violence that she leads.
"There is no easy straight path to safety and recovery," she said. "There's no one place to find all the help we need. It takes a community and it takes strong informed collaboration and communication."
In January 2018, Christa Leigh Steele-Knudslien was killed by her husband, Mark Steele-Knudslien, in their North Adams home followed by the murder of Kassedi Clark by her ex-boyfriend in April of the same year.
Harrington said she was enraged by these domestic violence homicides and was determined to stop them from happening. This lead to her creating the initiative, which was a promise she made in her 2018 campaign.
"When I learned of Cassidy Clark's murder something in me lit a fire, and I said somebody had to do something about this, and that is what this initiative is about," she said.
Polito said a number of district attorneys and partners convened in Southbridge about a year ago to talk about the importance of multidisciplinary teams to address domestic violence.
With the creation of this high-risk team, Polito said she knows that Harrington took this very seriously and is dedicated to the cause.
The lieutenant governor said this approach works. There are 29 other high-risk teams functioning in the commonwealth and they function well because of collaboration, she said.
Local law enforcement acts as the eyes and ears for the team, knowing firsthand who in the community is suffering from abuse. Partners like Freeman Center have the experience on how to help a victim and a survivor get the support they need. The district attorney's office is there to empower and encourage the victims to make a case to come forward and hold the perpetrator and abuser accountable.
Polito said this team has been organized in a way that they are able to know who is vulnerable in a community and keep track of them so the situation doesn't escalate to where a person is injured or their life is lost domestic violence.
Until they get to zero domestic violence cases, their work is not done, she said.