Domestic abuse, brain injury link inspires bill

Legislation may include insight for police, health professionals, victims



“My injury is quite old, so I don’t know what opportunities for recovery I have at this point,” abuse survivor Victoria says.

LAUREN ELLENBECKER, Evergreen reporter

Victoria records daily conversations, transcribes the recordings, refers to her notebook and studies material until it becomes a memory.

“If I don’t write something down, it doesn’t exist in my world,” said Victoria, who asked that her full name not be used due to an ongoing restraining order. “It’s highly exhausting and labor-intensive.”

Forty years ago, her husband at the time struck her with a blunt object, causing a head injury. It took more than three decades before doctors diagnosed her with a traumatic brain injury, or TBI.

“My injury is quite old, so I don’t know what opportunities for recovery I have at this point,” the now-60-year-old said. “I don’t really know if I’ll be able to get back to where I was.”

Up to 90 percent of domestic abuse survivors report head, neck and face injuries at least once in their abusive relationship, and the majority of these reports resulted in a TBI, according to a study done in 2016 by the Washington State Department of Health.

A bill in the Washington State Legislature would raise awareness about the connection between domestic violence and a person’s increased risk of a TBI.

SB 5573 would require health services and law enforcement to recognize probable TBIs in abuse victims. It also would educate people about TBIs through informational handouts.

The handouts would include an explanation of the potential for domestic abuse to lead to a brain injury, a self-screening tool used for evaluating TBI symptoms and resources for people with a TBI, according to the Senate bill report.

“Having materials around traumatic brain injuries will fall on the same line of education, [which] is very powerful for folks to help improve their situations,” said Sarah Boyer, an Alternatives to Violence of the Palouse (ATVP) legal advocate. “TBI info is very pertinent in that sense … we only get one brain — limited brain functioning leads to limited life functioning.”

If a person has a concussion, there may be symptoms that happen in their brain they might not be aware of. The brain could be swollen, which leads to bigger issues, like memory loss and prolonged issues, according to Janessa Graves, WSU Spokane College of Nursing assistant professor.

“It’s well known that [a TBI is] a major concern in cases of domestic abuse, so [education] is an important element in ensuring people get proper care and that they are getting taken care of,” Graves said.

Educational handouts would be added to a packet that ATVP has compiled for the Pullman Police Department, which are given to those involved in domestic incidences, Boyer said.

In rural areas it is difficult for individuals to reach a doctor or go to a clinic, so having TBI information provided to them would be meaningful for people to be proactive in their situation, she said.

This bill would also require law enforcement to receive training in order to detect probable TBI in domestic assault survivors. This raises an issue for law enforcement, especially since it is not clear what the training would entail and how long it would take, Pullman Police Cmdr. Chris Tennant said.

“We have a lot of training requirements put on by the state, so adding another one is somewhat of a concern,” Tennant said. “Every time there seems to be an issue in society … the fix for it is to train the cops more and I question why.”

He said police training doesn’t address the main issue of domestic violence and takes officers off the road when they could be helping the community. It’s easy to make training a requirement and assign people to fulfill that requisite — but behind the scenes — it’s much more extensive, Tennant said.

The operating expenditures for this plan would be applied to the Department of Social and Health Service at an estimated cost of $13,000 for 2019-2021, and an additional $8,000 for 2021-2025, according to the fiscal note summary in the bill. There is no foreseeable cost for the Criminal Justice Training Commission nor are there details regarding training expectations.

The bill concerning domestic violence and TBI was placed on a second reading in the Washington House of Representatives on March 29.

Victoria said she went 30 years undiagnosed. She figured her short-term memory loss, fatigue and loss of proper functioning was something she simply had to overcome.

Her TBI was discovered when she went to the doctor involving another accident. TBI is an umbrella term for head injuries that can vary from a mild concussion to a complete skull fracture.

The previous doctor visits leading up to the one that uncovered her TBI didn’t mention that Victoria could have had a brain injury. If she had been told about this possibility, she said would have had a better quality of life.