The Fatality Review process in Hennepin County began in 1998 when WATCH, a nonprofit court monitoring organization, received a planning grant from the Minnesota Department of Children, Families and Learning. As part of its work, WATCH routinely creates chronologies of cases involving chronic domestic abusers and publishes them in its newsletter.
While creating chronologies, WATCH often became aware of missed opportunities for holding abusers accountable. The organization felt strongly that, in the vast majority of cases, these opportunities were not missed because of carelessness or disinterest on the part of the individuals handling the cases. Instead, many opportunities were missed because adequate and accurate information was not available at critical decision points and because the sheer volume of domestic abuse cases created significant pressure to resolve them quickly, oftentimes forcing an outcome that was less than ideal.
While attending a National District Attorneys Conference in 1997, a WATCH staff member learned about a movement to conduct Domestic Fatality Reviews, a movement that was gaining interest nationwide and that appeared to address many of the organization’s concerns about the many places where chronic abusers could slip through the cracks of the justice system. When WATCH learned about the availability of planning funds from the Minnesota Department of Children, Families and Learning, it applied for, and soon after received, a $25,000 planning grant to determine the potential for establishing such a project in Hennepin County.
If representatives from the justice system and community agencies determined that such an effort was feasible, the grant called for an organization that would lay the foundation for the project. Upon receipt of funding, WATCH put together an Advisory Board of representatives from the primary public and private agencies that handle domestic violence cases. The Advisory Board included representatives from District Court, City and County Attorney, Police, Public Defender, Probation and Victim Advocacy Services, meeting up to four times a month.
Enthusiasm for the project was high from the outset. Consequently the Advisory Board spent very little time on the feasibility study and soon began laying out the framework for the project to be established in the Fourth Judicial District. It began with an extensive research effort to gather information from jurisdictions that had already implemented fatality review teams, gaining extremely valuable information in this process. Many jurisdictions stressed the importance of having enabling legislation to create the project and to lay the framework for the project to go forward with multiagency participation. This would assist in creating a non-blaming environment and help to assure the neutral review of cases.
During the process of developing the proposed legislation, the Advisory Board assembled a larger Planning Committee comprised of 34 members representing private, public and nonprofit agencies and organizations to gain a variety of perspectives on particular topics and to develop broader support for the project. The Planning Committee worked primarily on establishing a definition of domestic homicide and on identifying who should be represented on the Review Team. Once critical decisions had been made about participation and structure, the existing Advisory Board worked with Senate counsel to put together legislation that would create and fund the project. The legislation also included important data privacy and immunity provisions that would enable the project to gain access to confidential records related to these cases and provide immunity to those who spoke openly to the Fatality Review Team about case information.
A proposal to create and fund the pilot passed during the 1999 session. However, for technical reasons the data privacy and immunity provisions were taken out of the enabling legislation. This language was critical to the success of the project, since many agencies were interested in providing information to facilitate the fatality review process but were not able to do so under existing statutes without suffering significant penalties.
The Advisory Board returned to the legislature during the 2000 session to pursue the data privacy and immunity provisions. The legislation passed and was signed by the Governor. It became effective on August 1, 2000. In 2004, the State Legislature granted an extension to these provisions until June 2006. In 2006, the Team was granted another extension, this time to December 2008. In 2009, the legislature made permanent the data access that enables the work of the Team and extended the opportunity to develop a Fatality Review Team to all Judicial Districts in Minnesota with Statute 611A.203.