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Shelter demand and calls are up in the wake of Utah’s new domestic violence law

Utah Gov. Spener Cox and Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson sign SB117 into law, March 20, 2023. The bill, sponsored by Republican Sen. Todd Weiler, who looks on from the far right of the photo, requires law enforcement to conduct a lethality assessment when they respond to a domestic violence call.
Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson
Utah Gov. Spener Cox and Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson sign SB117 into law, March 20, 2023. The bill, sponsored by Republican Sen. Todd Weiler, who looks on from the far right of the photo, requires law enforcement to conduct a lethality assessment when they respond to a domestic violence call.

A new Utah law that went into effect in July is already showing results.

Police officers are now required to conduct lethality assessments when responding to a domestic violence call. The 11-question survey helps an officer determine if someone is in a high-danger domestic violence situation and connects them with community resources, like shelters.

South Valley Services, a nonprofit organization with domestic violence shelters in Salt Lake and Tooele counties, says it is feeling the impact firsthand.

“Our calls have increased by approximately 60% [since] July,” said Josie White, the development director at South Valley Services.

The shelter beds, White said, are almost always at capacity. But the increase in calls from domestic violence survivors is a good sign because people who need “intervention support and potentially protection in the form of [an] emergency shelter are able to get those resources with this new protocol.”

“And that in and of itself is life saving,” White said.

The uptick isn’t unique to South Valley Services. Since July, calls to domestic violence service providers have increased by 80% statewide, according to Mikaylee Sanchez Paz, the prevention program coordinator for the Utah Domestic Violence Coalition. “High danger referrals,” or people who disclosed being fatally threatened by their partner or someone in the household, are up 127%.

Sanchez Paz attributes that spike to the referrals made by law enforcement and increased awareness of the problem locally, like the tragic murder-suicide of the Haight family in Enoch, Utah.

“When we see more high-danger folks getting a screen and when we see more services being accessed, that's what tells us that this assessment is working just as we expected it to,” Sanchez Paz said.

From July to September, Sanchez Paz said 1,736 lethality assessments were sent to service providers, compared to 537 in that same period last year.

Over the course of a year, Sanchez Paz expects the number of referrals to reach 8,000, and that only counts the assessments providers receive, not every single assessment conducted by law enforcement.

After her cousin was murdered by her ex-husband with a record of domestic violence, Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson said she “was shocked by the gaps in our domestic violence laws and processes.” So she supported and helped create the law during the 2023 legislative session.

Now that it's enacted, Henderson said the law has been “extremely successful” in identifying victims in high-danger situations.

“But there are challenges that come with success,” she said. “On one hand, this increased demand demonstrates how badly needed the law is and how many people were slipping through the cracks before. But on the other hand, we don’t want our valuable community partners to bear the brunt.”

The biggest obstacle is funding. The organizations focused on domestic violence support are “trying to do more with less,” said Sanchez Paz. Most of Utah’s domestic violence programs share the same pot of money allocated from the state and compete for the same federal and private grants to keep their operations running.

Last year the Legislature set aside $30 million to victim services (not just domestic violence), but Erin Jemison, policy director for the Utah Domestic Violence Coalition, said more state funding is needed to ensure organizations aren’t ending the fiscal year in the negative due to increased demand.

“I think just the services that we're seeing provided right now is costing about $100 million to programs and the state is kicking in about $12 million of that,” Jemison said. “These programs are just in such need of funding. It's so critical and really reaching a breaking point.”

Ideally, Jemison added, the state would cover half the bill. But for now, the goal would be to have the state kick in $20 million a year.

Henderson is aware of the monetary need, especially as lethality assessments spike demand for services.

“Money will be very tight this year compared to the past couple of years,” Henderson said. “We are working through a funding mechanism to include in the governor’s budget that will help with the associated costs to service providers from law enforcement LAP [lethality assessment protocol] referrals.”

She did not disclose how much funding will be recommended in the governor’s budget but emphasized that her office and some members of the Legislature, “will continue to be champions in this space.”

Even with shelters at or beyond capacity, White with South Valley Services doesn’t want that to deter people from reaching out if they need services.

“We've got opportunities for emergency placement of hotels. We've got an emergency bedroom that people can stay in for a few days while we work with our sister shelters and other opportunities to help our clients find a safe place to stay,” she said. “People should still call because even if our shelter is at capacity, we can still help.”

If you or someone you know needs help, call the Utah domestic violence link line at 1-800-897-LINK or text START to 88788.

Saige is a politics reporter and co-host of KUER's State Street politics podcast
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