Spousal Assault Risk Assessment (SARA)

Given the increasing number of spousal assaulters coming before the justice system, there is a growing need for risk assessment instruments to assist in making appropriate decisions at various stages of the proceedings. The Spousal Assault Risk Assessment (SARA) guide is a manual that presents a set of recommendations for the assessment of spousal assault risk and includes a checklist of risk factors. Adequate reliability and validity for judgments concerning violence risk with adult male offenders has been established; however, there is a continuing need for further research with the SARA to advance knowledge and practice.

The SARA is a structured professional approach to risk assessment that bridges the gap between unstructured clinical judgment and actuarial approaches. Its purpose is to guide and enhance professional judgments about risk, not to provide absolute measures of risk using cutoff scores. It is composed of 20 items that were selected based on a review of empirical research and relevant legal and clinical issues. These items are both static and dynamic in nature. The first 10 items are associated with risk for general violence and include three criminal history factors and 7 factors assessing psychosocial adjustment of the offender. The next 10 items are directly associated with the offender’s history of spousal violence and include 7 factors that relate to the offenders past assaultive behavior and 3 items that relate specifically to the current offense. Additional case-specific factors may also be considered.

Each of the 20 items is coded on a 3-point scale (0 = absent, 1 = subthreshold, 2 = present), according to detailed criteria. Each item is then evaluated as to whether it should be considered a critical item, defined as those items which, given the specific circumstances of the case, are considered sufficient on their own to compel the evaluator to conclude that the individual poses an imminent risk of harm. After evaluating the presence of each item, and assessing critical items, the evaluator makes a final risk rating of low, moderate, or high. As indicated above, there is no cutoff score for identifying those individuals considered as low, moderate, or high risk. Rather, these ratings are based on a review of the available information and represent the professional opinion of the evaluator.

Assessment procedures for completing the SARA make use of multiple sources of information and use multiple methods. A thorough assessment will include comprehensive interviews with the offender and victim; standardized measures of physical and emotional abuse and drug and alcohol abuse; a review of collateral records, which should include police reports, victim’s statements, and a criminal record; and other psychological tests or procedures. After the SARA is completed using the procedures noted above, overall risk ratings should be communicated in a clear manner with justification accompanying each opinion. Any limitations on the opinions should be included in a report of the findings. Additionally, risk management strategies should be discussed as they relate to the underlying risk factors present for the offender.

Although there is a paucity of research examining the SARA, the available evidence suggests that the SARA has demonstrated adequate reliability and validity for judgments concerning violence risk with adult male offenders. Structural analyses of the risk factors have yielded moderate levels of internal consistency and item homogeneity. Interrater reliability has been found to be high for judgments regarding the presence of individual risk factors and good for overall summary risk ratings. Research conducted by the instrument’s authors showed that SARA ratings yielded good convergent and discriminant validity when compared with other measures of risk for general and violent criminality, and good concurrent validity when scores were compared with another domestic violence instrument.

Evidence of predictive validity with respect to future violence is only modest at present; however, this may be accounted for, in part, by the risk management and violence prevention applications of the instrument. Data concerning the SARA’s ability to discriminate between spousal assaulters who re-offend and those who do not re-offend have been mixed. In some samples, SARA total scores have discriminated between recidivistic and nonrecidivistic spousal assaulters but have failed to distinguish between the groups in others. Current evidence supports the predictive validity of several individual items, and the SARA total score has demonstrated a modest, statistically significant improvement in predicting spousal violence over chance. However, some research has shown that the SARA does not add incrementally to the prediction of wife assault recidivism after controlling for alcohol abuse, severe psychological problems, and childhood abuse or neglect. It should be noted that SARA items were selected on the basis of their established association with interpersonal violence in the empirical literature.

Much of the published literature on the SARA has used offender interviews and file review data to make risk judgments, and it is difficult to ascertain the nature and depth of the information included in these ratings. It is possible that the full assessment procedures described earlier and recommended in the SARA manual have not been followed; this could include failure to conduct victim interviews or use standardized measures. As a result, the generalizability of these research studies to general clinical practice may be limited. Future research incorporating these multiple sources of information may prove informative. While prospective research on the SARA is also needed to further advance the use of this instrument in forensic decision making, additional research is required to evaluate the effectiveness of this risk assessment approach in preventing violence.

References:

  1. Kropp, P. R., & Hart, S. D. (2000). The spousal assault risk assessment (SARA) guide: Reliability and validity in adult male offenders. Law and Human Behavior, 24, 101-118.
  2. Kropp, P. R., Hart, S. D., Webster, C. W., & Eaves, D. (1995). Manual for the Spousal Assault Risk Assessment Guide (2nd ed.). Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada: B.C. Institute on Family Violence.
  3. Kropp, P. R., Hart, S. D., Webster, C. W., & Eaves, D. (1998). Spousal Assault Risk Assessment: User’s guide. Toronto, ON, Canada: Multi-Health Systems.
  4. Whittemore, K. E., & Kropp, P. R. (2002). Spousal assault risk assessment: A guide for clinicians. Journal of Forensic Psychology Practice, 2(2), 53-64.

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