Domestic violence victims who have been choked are seven times more likely to be killed by their abuser, according to Brevard County Sheriff's Office Agent Cyndi Young.
"People just doesn't see it as the lethal event that it really is," said Young. "Strangulation is the worst of the lethality factors in a domestic relationship. It's the ultimate form of power, this is how easy I can kill you."
"It started off as a typical Sunday evening and it ended as a night of pure terror," said strangulation survivor Tamara Sweet in an educational video created by Young. "I was strangled and let go, only to be dragged for several feet. He was originally arrested with misdemeanor charges. Even while sitting in the back of a patrol car he threatened to kill me when he got out."
Agent Young, a member of the Special Victims Unit, said deputies weren't trained to recognize the severity of the abuse and document the strangulation, which made it difficult for prosecutor to prove the strangulation in court.
"They were getting filed as misdemeanors because we just simply didn't have the evidence to support the felony charge," said Young. "When we first started looking into this program we had had two domestic homicides by strangulation, at the time we started looking into this."
Young told News 6 the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence (FCADV) asked her to consider a new program that trains forensic nurses who examine sexual assault victims to also look for and document signs of strangulation. Young agreed and began the Strangulation Prevention Program at the Brevard County Sheriff's Office.
"We approached sex assault nurse examiners and asked if they'd be willing to take on this extra responsibility of doing these exams for domestic violence strangulation victims," said Young. "And they were very receptive to that. The Florida Department of Health provided them extensive training on the domestic violence strangulation part."
Young said forensic nurses are on call to respond to domestic violence calls 24 hours a day.
"I'm not medically trained to say this particular event is consistent with the history being provided by this victim," said Young. "But our nurse examiners are, so they can testify in court about the things they see that may not be outwardly obvious to us."
Young said documenting strangulation is giving deputies probable cause to arrest for Domestic Violence by Strangulation, a felony, and giving prosecutors evidence to present in court to obtain a conviction.
"It's about helping that victim and also holding that offender accountable because that victim may get away but that offender has learned a behavior that has worked for them," said Young.
The Strangulation Prevention Program is a pilot program ending early next year. Young said at that point the Sheriff's Office and analysts at the University of Central Florida will scrutinize the results. If the program continues to get results on crime, Young said it will continue and expand county-wide to assist victims at all law enforcement agencies within Brevard County.
In 2009, Florida upgraded domestic violence strangulation from a charge of simple battery, a misdemeanor, to a felony, according to Young.
The Florida Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-500-1119 or TDD (800) 621-4202