Victims of domestic violence face different kinds of risks. Perpetrators are the most obvious source of risk. Risk assessment procedures seek to identify the most dangerous perpetrators. However, victims also face risks associated with the delivery of various system services including law enforcement, the judicial system, emergency medical services, and so on. For example, a battered woman’s risk of dying from her injuries may be far greater in a rural community where emergency services take longer to arrive. It is also the case that lethal domestic violence occurs much more frequently in poorer neighborhoods with fewer resources. Social problems such as poverty, unemployment, and alcohol and drug addiction may also be seen as elevating the risk of dying from domestic violence.
The odds of predicting which victims of domestic violence will eventually die as a result of their victimization are rather low. Domestic violence usually precedes intimate partner homicide. However, there are over a million domestic violence assaults reported to police each year, compared with a thousand to two thousand deaths by domestic homicide. Therefore, identifying cases that will escalate to the occurrence of the abuse victim’s death is an inexact science at best. Nevertheless, risk assessment and management are integral and important aspects of the delivery of all kinds of services to victims.
In any analysis of risk it is important to ask the question, ‘‘Risk of what?’’ In other words, are risk assessors exploring the possibility of death or serious injury or a felonious assault as opposed to a misdemeanor assault? It is also important to bear in mind the duration of risk and how that risk may change over time. For example, one might talk about an elevated risk of homicide during a divorce or the process of physical separation between intimate partners. Alternatively, it is possible the risk will last until the abusive partner moves out of town, or it might last for the rest of the victim’s life. It is also important to realize that victims of domestic violence may see great danger in certain forms of abusive behavior directed at themselves or others that might not register on risk assessment instruments, might not qualify as violence under the criminal code, or might not result in the kinds of injuries that would warrant a visit to a hospital emergency room. Put simply, risk assessment must examine the victims’ own perception of the meaning of abusive behaviors they experience. These risks may often take discreet, subtle, and highly idiosyncratic forms. One example here might be some form of emotional abuse that a victim might perceive as indicative of potentially homicidal behavior, which to the untrained eye may appear innocuous. These subjective dimensions of risk remind us that it is not just the physical acts of violence that contribute to one’s appreciation of potential danger but rather what violence and emotional abuse mean to victims and others and the context within which these various transgressions occur.
Most often risk assessments rely upon information derived from victim reports. However, given the complex and multidimensional nature of risk, it is advisable that risk assessments tap into a wide variety of informants and sources of information. For example, comprehensive risk assessments might involve asking questions of perpetrators, victims, family members, neighbors, friends, workplace peers, and various service providers. This is time-consuming and in practice rarely done.
The risk posed by a particular perpetrator changes. Some risk assessments attempt to transcend a flat, one-off evaluation of danger by examining risk on an ongoing basis or at least assessing it at multiple points in time. The rolling/longitudinal risk assessment and management strategies are much more difficult to conduct and raise some very difficult issues. For example, if there are multiple sources of information on a perpetrator of domestic violence, one might expect the multiple agencies that contribute such data to all have access to the ongoing risk score. However, if the perpetrator is currently being prosecuted, then the broad availability of data regarding the case might compromise the prosecution. The access of agencies to sensitive case information might also compromise the safety of victims of domestic violence.
Police officers attending domestic violence scenes may have neither the time nor the skill to elicit detailed and highly idiosyncratic information pertaining to risk. Thoughtful risk assessments must fit into the busy schedules of those working specifically with victims of domestic violence. In a very practical way, such assessments ought not be prohibitively long.
The asking of open-ended questions usually elicits much more information from victims and provides an opportunity for the development of some rapport between interviewer and victim. In these scenarios risk assessors may pay more attention to demeanor, listening skills, body language, and choice of words. Interviews such as these may be more likely to unfold between an advocate and a victim. The data emerging may be much more idiosyncratic and therefore less amenable to statistical analysis. However, it may tell the advocate/risk assessor much more about the compromises and difficulties the victim faces.
Most risk assessors realize that no instrument should form the exclusive basis for safety planning and that listening to victims is essential. Nevertheless, thoughtfully constructed risk assessment instruments have the potential to enlighten both victims and service providers alike. Although little research has been conducted as of this writing on how risk assessment affects intervention, recidivism, and death rates, anecdotal evidence suggests that risk scores exert pressure on multiple service providers and may encourage them to be more careful. It is also the case that conversations about risk involve a shared language and thus may enhance coordinated community responses to domestic violence.
Notwithstanding all these possible benefits, two questions arise (Websdale 2005a, 2005b). First, because risk assessment involves triaging, is it likely even if ‘‘high-risk’’ cases are identified that resources will be available to increase protection? Second, in situations where victims reject safety-planning advice based on risk assessments or choose to follow another path, does society set them up for blame?
Red Flags or Risk Markers
Researchers appear to have identified characteristics of cases in which domestic violence victims die. Digging deeply into that small population of domestic violence homicides uncovers a number of factors that do not seem to surface as frequently or with the same level of intensity in everyday (nonlethal) cases. Risk assessors search for these red flags in everyday cases and use their presence as a possible sign of increased danger. Researchers are agreed that this is not foolproof science. Indeed, lethal outcomes might depend upon other extraneous variables, such as the quality of emergency medical services or the distance from a major hospital.
Notwithstanding these caveats, certain red flags loom large in both the research literature and in risk assessment instruments (Campbell et al. 2003a, 2003b; Websdale 2000). These red flags are outlined below.
A Prior History of Intimate Partner Violence
The first and most important red flag is a prior history of intimate partner violence (Campbell et al. 2003a; Websdale 1999; Wolfgang 1958). Under this broad umbrella of ‘‘prior history’’ some researchers note the predictive significance of particular forms of violence such as ‘‘choking’’ and ‘‘forced sex’’ (Campbell 2003b). Using data from the Danger Assessment Instrument, Campbell et al. (2003b: 17) found that compared with the control group of abused women, murdered women were forced to have sex 7.6 more times and were 9.9 times more likely to be choked.
‘‘Stalking’’ appears as a prominent correlate in a number of works. According to the research of McFarlane et al. (1999: 300), ‘‘Stalking is revealed to be a correlate of lethal and near lethal violence against women and, coupled with physical assault, is significantly associated with murder and attempted murder.’’
A prior history of intimate partner violence may include the use of a weapon. According to Campbell et al.’s Danger Assessment study, abused women who were ‘‘threatened or assaulted with a gun or other weapon were 20 times more likely than other women to be murdered.’’ The mere presence of a gun in the home meant that an abused woman ‘‘was six times more likely than other abused women to be killed’’ (Campbell et al. 2003b: 16).
Although prior intimate partner violence in many of its guises powerfully informs the debate on risk, it is also the case that significant numbers of women who die report no prior history of violence that researchers are able to later identify. For example, the Chicago Women’s Health Risk Study reports that in one in five cases of men killing female intimates, researchers uncovered no evidence of prior intimate partner violence (Block 2003: 5).
Pending or Actual Separation or Estrangement
The extant research literature contends that women experience an increased risk of lethal violence when they leave intimate relationships with men (Browne 1987; Wilson and Daly 1993). More recent research from Campbell et al.’s eleven-city case control study found, ‘‘Women who separated from their abusive partners after cohabitation experienced increased risk of femicide, particularly when the abuser was highly controlling’’ (2003a: 1092).
Obsessive Possessiveness or Morbid Jealousy
The research literature consistently identifies obsessive or morbid jealousy as central to intimate partner homicides. For example, Daly and Wilson (1988: 202–205) point to the role of male sexual proprietariness in homicides in India, Uganda, Zaire, and Samoa. Easteal (1993: 109) discusses obsessive or pathological jealousy in terms of the perpetrator seeing his partner as part of his own identity. Consequently, any threat of the female leaving threatens the man’s identity. The emphasis with this red flag is firmly on ‘‘extreme’’ or ‘‘morbid’’ forms of jealousy.
Making Threats to Kill
Threats to kill constitute one of the most consistent correlates of intimate partner homicide when compared with abused women in general (Browne 1987; Campbell et al. 2003b: 17; Hart 1988). ‘‘Women whose partners threatened them with murder were 15 times more likely than other women to be killed’’ (Campbell et al. 2003b: 16).
Batterers’ threats to take their own lives, perhaps as a means of gaining some control in the relationship, also appear as risk indicators for homicide. Barbara Hart, J.D., a leading advocate for battered women, sees batterers’ suicidal threats, ideations, and plans as very significant risk markers (Hart 1988: 242). These and other risk markers become all the more onerous if the battered woman plays a ‘‘central role . . . in the batterer’s universe . . . . Especially if the loss of the battered woman represents or precipitates a total loss of hope for a positive future.’’ Hart bases her insights on what she calls ‘‘experiential data’’ rather than statistical research.
Paradoxically, in Campbell et al.’s eleven-city case controlled study of femicide, the researchers found that ‘‘threatened or attempted suicide by either males or females . . . were not found to be predictors of intimate partner homicide. However, there was an increased risk of homicide when the man is suicidal and there has not been any physical abuse’’ (Campbell et al. 2003b: 16).
Alcohol and Drug Use
It is a widely held belief that excessive alcohol and, to a lesser extent, drug use accompany intimate partner violence. In predicting dangerous and lethal outcomes, these variables figure prominently on nearly all risk assessment forms. Campbell et al. (2003b: 17) found that women whose partners became ‘‘drunk every day or almost every day’’ were 4.1 times more likely to die than battered women whose partners did not engage in this behavior.
Recent research reveals a clear association between unemployment and intimate partner homicide. One group of researchers comments that the ‘‘abuser’s lack of employment was the only demographic risk factor that significantly predicted femicide risks after we controlled for a comprehensive list of more proximate risk factors, increasing risks 4-fold relative to the case of employed abusers’’ (Campbell et al. 2003a: 1092). This statistical research is a fine start, but more research is needed that indicates what being unemployed means to victims, perpetrators, and others.
According to Wilson and Daly (1998: 226), the presence of children of other unions constitutes ‘‘a major risk marker for violence against wives.’’ Campbell et al. (2003a: 1092) note that ‘‘instances in which a child of the victim by a previous partner was living in the home increased the risk of intimate partner homicide.’’
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