A University of Central Florida researcher is part of a recently awarded $3.3 million study that aims to keep survivors of intimate partner violence safe while the person accused of intimate partner violence awaits trial.

This pretrial period, when a judge decides if a person charged with intimate partner violence should be detained pretrial, is a critical time, says Bethany Backes, an assistant professor in UCF’s Violence Against Women research cluster and the project’s co-lead investigator.

An improper decision about pretrial detention could result in the release of someone likely to commit a new violent crime.

Bethany Backes
Bethany Backes is an assistant professor in UCF’s Violence Against Women research cluster and the project’s co-lead investigator.

“Women are dying during this period,” Backes says. “When survivors separate or become estranged from their partner, it’s a time of heightened intensity, and probability of homicide increases.”

That’s why the researchers will work to create evidence-based, intimate partner violence pretrial safety assessment guides for judges to use when considering pretrial detention in such cases, with a focus on achieving safety for intimate partner violence survivors during this period.

The goal is to improve the well-being of survivors and decrease homicides during the pretrial period, Backes says. The project is supported by Arnold Ventures, a Houston-based philanthropy dedicated to maximizing opportunity and minimizing injustice.

“Post-arrest and the time waiting for trial are delicate,” she says. “Those who use violence against their partners often try to reconcile, threaten and intimidate survivors, or may increase stalking and surveillance tactics. This will help us better understand what abuse is occurring during the pretrial period and ensure it is addressed in our recommendations for judges.”

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly 33 percent of women in the U.S. are physically abused by an intimate partner in their lifetimes, and 25 percent report severe intimate partner violence in their lifetimes.

Backes, who holds joint appointments in UCFs Department of Criminal Justice and School of Social Work, will work on the study with a team that includes co-lead investigator, Jill Messing, a professor in the School of Social Work and Watts College of Public Service & Community Solutions at Arizona State University.

Current pretrial assessments are often based on general likelihood of committing a new offense or missing a trial date. They rarely incorporate existing, specific factors for continued intimate partner violence, Backes says, such as an accused person’s history of dangerous forms of intimate partner violence, if the accused person owns a gun, has threatened to kill the survivor or children, if they have strangled the survivor, if they have a history of stalking and more.

The researchers will work to change this by merging intimate partner violence safety factors and pretrial safety factors and validate their effectiveness for use in pretrial decision-making using criminal justice data and reports from survivors throughout the pretrial period.

The safety factors will come from established tools that are typically implemented by police officers when responding to intimate partner violence calls to determine next courses of action, such as getting a survivor in touch with a personal safety advocate.

These include the Lethality Screen, the Danger Assessment for Law Enforcement, and the Danger Assesssment-5.

Also, intimate partner violence survivors will complete weekly assessments to help the research team understand the types of abuse experienced during the pretrial period that are not necessarily reported back to the criminal justice system.

“Although intimate partner violence-specific safety assessments have been developed for use with informed collaborative interventions, these safety assessments have not been assessed for use in pretrial settings,” Backes says. “This will be the first inquiry regarding the impact of risk assessments and safety-based recommendations on pretrial decision-making and outcomes in intimate partner cases.”

Project collaborators include Kevin Grimm and Neil Websdale, professors with Arizona State University; Christopher Maxwell, a professor with Michigan State University; and Tami Sullivan, an associate professor with Yale University.

Backes received her doctorate in social work from the University of Maryland Baltimore. She worked for more than 10 years as a social science analyst for the U.S. Department of Justice. She joined UCF’s Department of Criminal Justice and School of Social Work, part of UCF’s College of Community Innovation and Education and College of Health Professions and Sciences, respectively, in 2019.