Agencies working together in Johnson County to prevent domestic violence deaths

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JOHNSON COUNTY, Kan. -- An Overland Park woman's murder and her husband's confession that he did it has once again brought domestic violence into the spotlight.

On Tuesday, KCK police shot and killed Charles Pearson after he shot an AR-15 at officers.

But before he died, Pearson told an employee at a nearby hotel that he killed his wife, Sylvia Pearson, and that they should call police.

Shortly after the shooting, Overland Park police searched Pearson's Lenexa home. Inside, they found a note and a map he left behind. The documents revealed the location of his estranged wife's body. Later, Arkansas police used the map to locate Silvia Pearson's body.

But that wasn't the first time there was alleged domestic violence in the metro couple's marriage.

According to the court documents, Charles Pearson was arrested and charged with property damage recently. He'd broken a mirror in what authorities called a domestic violence situation. A judge gave Pearson a diversion, as he did not have a criminal record.

At a news conference Wednesday, Overland Park's police chief informed reporters that Silvia Pearson's body was located. He also spoke about domestic violence.

"Domestic violence continues to be a problem in this country," Frank Donchez said. "It's a problem we face as a society, and as law enforcement we need to continue to work on that problem."

In Johnson County, several agencies are working together to prevent domestic violence deaths.

In 2011, the District Attorney's Office partnered with Safehome, a domestic violence support agency and shelter, and law enforcement to conduct lethality assessments.

The assessments are a set of research-based questions to see if domestic violence victims are at high risk to be seriously injured or killed.

"Some of the questions that we highlight are, 'Are you  currently separated, or have you attempted to leave?'" said Valerie Guile, Safehome's lethality prevention coordinator. "That gives insight on if they attempted to leave in the past, what did that look like for them?"

"What was the abusive person's reaction? Did the control increase? Was there stalking? More harassing? Kind of what might they be able to expect. Has the abusive person been arrested for domestic violence? Do they have access to guns or weapons that can make a big difference on how lethal the situation may be? Have they ever attempted to kill the person that's being abused or their children?"

Safehome conducts the assessments, as do court advocates and law enforcement officers who respond to domestic violence scenes.

"We really focus on safety planning. We focus on coping skills and really allowing them to survive the situation they're in," Guile said. "Sometimes that's physically, sometimes that's emotionally and a lot of times it's a combination of both."

Safety plans depend on an individual's situation.

When it comes to the legal side of things, the DA's office does its part to keep people safe.

"We look at the lethality assessment to decide what conditions of bond should be imposed," said Steve Howe, Johnson County District Attorney. "If the person is a serial abuser, we may ask for a different sentence or different conditions of probation than a one time incident."

According to the district attorney, the lethality assessments are working for the most part.

"For a period of time, there was actually two or three years where we didn't have any homicides, and there were years where we maybe had one or two at the most," Howe said.

Last year, Howe said there were three domestic violence-related homicides. The number was usually five or higher before the lethality assessments started.

Police in Arkansas, where Silvia Pearson's body was found, are investigating her death as a homicide. Authorities aren't looking for any suspects.

"In this case, this is a good example of the safety planning might have been able to prevent this from happening," Howe said. "Unfortunately, in this situation, it didn't assist the victim or prevent her from being killed. But we hope the plans and procedures will reduce the likelihood of these things happening in the future."

If you or someone you know needs help, you can call Safehome's 24-hour hotline at 913-262-2868.

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