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More needs to be done to address rising number of strangulation cases, Fairfax County says

Leaders stress as Fairfax County sees more strangulations, more training and prosecutions are needed.

FAIRFAX, Va. — Domestic violence in Fairfax County may be an ongoing problem, but the number of strangulation cases is seeing a big increase.

About 100 Fairfax County leaders and employees including judges, police commanders, victim advocates and prosecutors recently gathered for the first training symposium to address how to better handle reported cases of strangulation. The one-day event, hosted through the help of the Victim Services Division for the Fairfax County Police Department and Juvenile and Domestic Relations judges, invited the Strangulation Institute and Leslie Morgan Steiner, an author on domestic violence, survivor, and advocate.

In 2022, Fairfax County reported 217 incidents of a suspect being charged -- 83 more cases than the year before. With more than 350 cases since 2021, police data revealed 96% of the accused were men.

“As awareness on how dangerous strangulation is grows, people are reporting it more,” Steiner said. “Domestic violence is a vastly underreported crime. Sometimes when you see the numbers go up, believe it or not, it's a good thing because that means victims and officers are reporting it more.”

Victim Services Division Director Saly Fayez said although laws changed to make strangulations a felony in 2012, the training has not caught up. There are concerns as the number of strangulations grows, there are not enough prosecutions or convictions.

“We've seen a really big increase in strangulations here in Fairfax County, but once they got into the court system, they weren't being prosecuted,” Fayez said.

Data on how many strangulation cases have been convicted is currently not available, according to a spokesperson for Fairfax County Commonwealth’s Attorney Steve Descano.

Descano agreed how cases are being handled in the county as a whole could be better, but stressed there is more than one department involved.

“We recognize that not only are these types of cases very, very serious, but every actor in the system know they’re some of the hardest cases to bring from a call, into an investigation, to a successful prosecution,” Descano said. “I think overall, we are improving the way we’re doing it and each actor has a role to play.”

In data provided to WUSA9 of serious strangulation cases from January 2022 to February 2023, his office recommended 80% of suspects stay in jail during their bond hearings, but the court decided to release about 60% of them.

While prosecuting these types of cases is tricky and difficult because of safety concerns, fear and the crucial need to collect evidence, Fayez stressed there could still be prosecution.

“With domestic violence cases, it's normal for victims not to continue to want to go forward,” she said. “People assume that the victim has to be there in order for you to be able to do a successful prosecution, which isn't the case. Other jurisdictions have done victimless prosecution where if everything you've gathered evidentiary-wise can prove the case, you may not to have the victim there.”

Fayez said Chief Kevin Davis, who was also in attendance, is making domestic violence a priority for the department.

She wants to offer more training on prosecuting without the need of the victim having to testify, and more training for patrol officers to ask the right questions.

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