In Pitt County, North Carolina, about 54 percent of murders between 2008 and 2011 were the result of domestic violence. That includes violence against a spouse, ex-spouse, partner, or another relative. Across the state, that number is 22 percent.

This troubling trend in Pitt County forced the sheriff’s office to be innovative in combating domestic violence, according to UNC researcher Rebecca Macy. “For instance, police in Pitt County monitor phone calls between alleged perpetrators and victims,” she says. “If a guy is arrested and is in jail, and manages to talk to his wife or girlfriend, he’ll often tell her he won’t hurt her again; he didn’t mean it; he promises things will be better.”

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When that happens , Macy says, the woman usually drops the charges. But because police monitored that phone call through a court-approved program, prosecutors could use it as evidence of witness coercion. “So even if a victim isn’t willing to come forward,” Macy says, “the prosecutor can still move forward and hold perpetrators accountable.”

But a particularly horrific father-son murder-suicide in 2012 spurred the Pitt County Sheriff’s Office to seek outside help in preventing domestic violence.

In June 2013, thanks to efforts by Detective John Guard and county grants administrator Melissia Larson, Pitt County was one of twelve jurisdictions in the nation awarded a $200,000 federal grant to create an antiviolence program modeled after two successful efforts in Maryland and Massachusetts.

This is where Macy comes in.

On average across the country, at least three women are murdered by their husbands or boyfriends every single day. And intimate-partner homicides account for 14 percent of all homicides.

Those numbers aren’t good, but they were much worse 20 years ago, Macy says. Since then, research and advocacy have led to new laws and prevention measures, which—along with more intentional policing—have reduced the number of homicides due to domestic violence.

Macy, a former social worker, has studied prevention measures for more than a decade, and this summer she finished a five-year study documenting the success of a program called MOVE—Mothers Overcoming Violence through Education and Empowerment—a joint effort between two N.C. nonprofit agencies. Macy found that women who completed the MOVE program—which is designed to improve family safety, build women’s self-esteem, and cultivate parenting skills—were much less likely to be attacked again and much more likely to leave abusive spouses or partners. The program also drastically decreased the chances that victims would experience psychological problems.

Macy’s experience evaluating domestic violence prevention programs was exactly what Guard and Larson needed. When they applied for the federal grant, which required that a local researcher be brought on board, they phoned Macy, who didn’t hesitate to join Pitt County’s anti-domestic violence project.

Throughout 2013 and 2014, Macy will collaborate with the sheriff’s office to document Pitt County’s existing methods for combating domestic violence to pinpoint strengths and weaknesses. She’ll also pore through public records such as the number of 911 calls, protection orders, arrests, and emergency-room visits to create a baseline of data. Then Macy will help Pitt County create a plan based on the Maryland and Massachusetts models to enhance the county’s existing prevention efforts. The hope is that the new plan will drastically reduce the number of domestic violence homicides; that’s what happened in other communities with research-based prevention efforts.

In Maryland, when police respond to a call at a home, they employ the “lethality assessment program,” which includes a one-page questionnaire to figure out if a woman faces a high risk of domestic violence. Questions range from the obvious (“Has your spouse ever threatened you?”) to the not so obvious (“Is your spouse employed?”).

If police suspect a woman has been attacked or faces a high risk of violence, they call a local domestic-violence hotline that’s staffed 24 hours a day. The police then tell the woman they have a specialist on the line who can help her get immediate services, such as access to a safe house and child protection. If the woman agrees to speak to the specialist, then the police officer will hand her the phone.

Since putting the program in place three years ago, Maryland has seen a 41 percent drop in homicides by a spouse or partner.

In Massachusetts, police also try to help victims or women at high risk by immediately referring them to a team of professionals: law enforcement officers, domestic violence victim advocates, and experts in substance abuse, mental health, and child welfare. This team works to keep women safe without requiring them to move into shelters. During the past three years, 93 percent of the 100-plus women identified as being in high-risk situations stayed within their own communities while receiving professional help. Ninety-two percent reported no subsequent assaults.

Macy says her Pitt County assessment and data collection will help determine which program fits the county the best or whether aspects of both should be used.

At the end of the year, Macy will report back to the U.S. Department of Justice, which will decide which six of the twelve research sites it will fund to put new programs into action.

But, Macy says, even if Pitt isn’t one of the six counties awarded an additional $600,000 over three years, the county’s efforts won’t be for naught.  

“I think it was very smart of the federal folks to require that a local researcher be involved at each site,” she says. “We hope we’re selected, and we’re working toward that because it would be great for North Carolina. But if we’re not, we’ll still have valuable data, staff trained in violence prevention, and a plan that could be put into effect. We could seek funding from another source. We could do our own study to see if our program reduces homicides.”

Macy knows there’s so much at stake.

“If we could ultimately figure out how to best prevent domestic-violence homicides, hold perpetrators accountable, and keep victims and their children safe, that would be a huge innovation, especially if we could do that across multiple communities here in North Carolina.”

Rebecca Macy is the L. Richardson Preyer Distinguished Chair for Strengthening Families and the associate dean of academic affairs for the School of Social Work. Her work with Pitt County is funded by the U.S. Department of Justice. Her five-year study on the MOVE program was funded by the Duke Endowment, a Charlotte-based private foundation dedicated to strengthening communities in North Carolina and South Carolina. That study, which focused on the efforts of nonprofits InterAct of Wake County and SAFEchild Raleigh, will be published in the journal Research and Social Work Practice.