GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — After reviewing what led up to the murder-suicide of a 3-year-old boy by his father last year, a Kent County task force on Tuesday released several recommendations for how systems can more effectively identify domestic violence and work to prevent killings.
The Kent County Domestic Violence Community Coordinated Response Team stressed that the only person to blame for the death of 3-year-old Dylan Thebo is his father Derek Thebo, who shot him at his property near Lowell on Aug. 31, 2021, before turning the gun on himself.
“…Yet,” the report reads in part, “(Thebo’s) behaviors leading up to the murder-suicide exhibited many of the hallmarks of lethality… In domestic violence cases, it is critically important that decision makers have the ability to identify and respond to the breadth of tactics that abusers like Derek often use.”
Court documents show Dylan’s mother Katie Hall filed for a restraining order against Derek Thebo, who she was divorcing, earlier in 2021. She told the court Thebo abused her and had threatened to kill her, his son, her daughter from a previous relationship and himself.
Katie Hall is the person who asked the task force to conduct the review.
“If through these changes we are able to protect and save just one child’s life, then Dylan would not have died in vain,” Hall said at a Tuesday press conference at which the report was released.
The task force said its case analysis and recommendation was meant to “highlight the profound impact of domestic violence” with a focus on the people involved in the cases; “serve as a practical resource” for changes in identifying, understanding and responding to such cases; and learn from victims’ experiences.
“It is our hope that these systems can enact meaningful and lasting change to better protect domestic violence victims, while holding accountable individuals who choose to do harm,” the report says.
The task force made six recommendations:
Hold consistent annual training for the systemic actors so they can recognize and understand domestic violence “lethality factors” and roll out a “shared evidence-based danger assessment tool.”
“When we say ‘systemic actors,’ we are talking about any system that victims or offenders have contact with,” Tara Aday, the chair of the task force and also an executive with domestic violence response program Safe Haven Ministries, said.
She said that includes criminal and civil courts, attorneys for both parties, Friend of the Court, Children’s Protective Services and domestic violence outreach programs.
“It’s … this collective call to action to the systemic actors to do the work: to read the recommendations, reflect on the recommendations, do the hard work to make changes,” Aday said.
This top recommendation was linked to the next two, which included specifics:
Increase understanding of the presence of domestic violence lethality factors.
These 17 factors include but are not limited to a history of domestic violence, a history of worsening abuse during pregnancy, threats of murder or suicide, the belief of the victim that the other partner is capable of acting on those threats, access to guns, mental health issues, employment trouble, a history of violating court orders, and separation of the parties involved.
“It is precisely after victims leave and take the steps to permanently separate themselves from their abusers that victims and their children are often killed,” Aday said.
She went on to say that the system isn’t set up very well to support survivors and protect them when they do leave.
The report also notes that the Thebo family had very little contact with the criminal legal system before the murder suicide, and says that “contact with police or other criminal legal systems actors would not have changed the response to Dylan’s family and would not have prevented his death.
“It is highly unlikely that any arrest or prosecution would have resulted from any report to police on the behaviors that have been highlighted,” the report continues. “This is why the civil legal system’s response is so critical.”
Launch more training on when coercive control is happening within abusive relationship.
The review found at least 11 lethality indicators were present in the Thebo case. Hall had moved out of Thebo’s home and was in the process of divorcing him.
“When allegations are taken seriously … decision makers would be better positioned to contextualize allegations of domestic violence if they are kept abreast of developing evidence-based trends,” the report says.
Do not encourage couples getting divorced to enter a mutual restraining order instead of a personal protection order.
This is because violating a mutual restraining order does not carry the same criminal consequences as violating a PPO. The report argues mutual restraining orders “often exacerbate the problem of domestic violence rather than solve it.”
“Attorneys and Judges who attempt to get a party to forgo their physical safety in order to appear amicable to the Court or to give the perception that necessary communication between parties will be easier, can in fact put victims in increased danger,” the report says.
In Dylan’s case, Hall had filed for a PPO and it was granted but soon ended after she and Thebo entered a mutual restraining order. The report says that in the weeks and months after that PPO was dropped, Thebo was able to legally buy guns used in the murder-suicide.
Additionally, Thebo violated the mutual restraining order, the review says, by telling his son to give Hall a book on Mother’s Day that said Thebo wanted to be Hall’s “last everything.”
Continue supervised parenting time until concerns that prompted that supervision are “genuinely addressed.”
The review says that successful supervised parental time does not necessarily mean unsupervised time will be successful. It also says people responsible for domestic violence can often be manipulative.
In the Thebo case, Friend of the Court did not recommend a psychological evaluation for Thebo even though Hall was worried about his mental health and threats of violence. He had argued, successfully, that his mental health status was privileged and shouldn’t be considered in the custody case.
Launch training for system actors on secondary trauma and compassion fatigue.
The task force says that prolonged involvement in domestic violence stories can lead to secondary trauma in the people who handle the cases, which can affect how they make decisions. Training would help them identify that trauma and mitigate its effects.
‘WE HAVE TO DO SOMETHING DIFFERENT’
The task force noted that in the two and half months before Dylan’s death, Kent County saw six other domestic violence homicides, including the killing of a pregnant woman and her unborn child.
Kent County Prosecutor Chris Becker, who co-chairs the domestic violence task force, said that there was about a 10% increase in domestic violence cases locally and nationwide amid the pandemic.
“Today is an important opportunity for our community to listen and to learn. naming these recommendations to day is the first step of change,” Aday said. “We as a (domestic violence task force), we as a community, believe that Kent County has a desire to understand the complex dynamics of domestic violence and lethality and can learn from these tragic homicides.”
She said part of that is about the community holding the systems accountable.
“We can’t afford to stay the course. People are dying,” Aday added. “And so we as a community have to do something different.”