Research: assessing risk in domestic violence cases

Community Care Inform looks at the implications of research into specialist domestic violence risk assessment for safeguarding and family court work. By Thangam Debbonaire

Community Care Inform looks at the implications of research into specialist domestic violence risk assessment for safeguarding and family court work. By Thangam Debbonaire

Domestic violence is present in many cases that social workers and Cafcass officers become involved in. If domestic violence is correctly identified at an early stage, the risks assessed and a clear plan for intervening or recommendations for contact and residence identified, the risks of harm to the children and victim can be reduced. Incorrect identification or inconsistent assessments are likely to increase the risks of harm.

Risk assessment for domestic violence is still at an early stage of development (Iwi, Blacklock and Radford 2006; Hoyle, 2008). This is part of a wider culture around risk management in which the emphasis of dealing with a social problem is shifted from responding to it after it has happened, to attempting to predict that it will and to taking evasive action.

However, use of actuarial processes has increasingly led practitioners and the public to think use of such processes is both essential and reliable. In fact, the evidence is much less certain (Hoyle, 2008).

Indicators of domestic violence types

Rigorous research has identified several indicators of various types of domestic violence. They include: past violence, previous police call-outs, separation, threats to kill, presence of children or step children, strangulation, injuries and access to weapons (Campbell, 2008). Others include: breach of civil orders or criminal sanctions, drug or alcohol abuse by the perpetrator, perpetrator’s obsessive jealousy and conflict over child contact. Note that, contrary to popular belief, separation increases the risk of further violence in about half of all domestic violence cases in the short- to medium-term.

Many risk assessment tools do not contain all of these indicators, or contain indicators which are difficult or impossible to document objectively, such as “cultural sensitivities”, which is wide open to stereotyped interpretation (Hoyle, 2008; Humphreys et al, 2005). Risk is therefore a social construct and risk assessment is very far from an exact science.

Furthermore, most domestic violence and domestic homicide incidents are not preceded by agency contact. Reliance on risk assessment for protecting actual or potential victims is therefore still limited.

However, the rigorous, consistent use of an evidence-based tool can and does inform responses to domestic violence (Harne, 2009; Debbonaire, 2008). It can help to identify those cases from within caseloads which require particular attention and help to highlight those situations and behaviours by the perpetrator which exacerbate risk. It can also help to inform practitioners of risky situations that they can unwittingly put victims and children into with well-intentioned actions. It can also inform Cafcass and safeguarding procedures (Harne, 2009).

Incorrect focus on victim behaviour

Risk assessment and management in social work often focuses on the victim’s behaviour and ability to make choices, which effectively makes the victim responsible for the perpetrator’s behaviour and often ignores all other risks of harm (Hoyle, 2008). These other risks include having to uproot children or risk losing them, and effectively punishes the victim if they take a different view to professionals about the management of risks. Risk management also has unintended consequences, such as making women feel safer so they take more risks, or making them feel perpetually vulnerable and frightened (Hoyle, 2008).

To avoid these unintended consequences, Hoyle recommends that risk assessment and management models “should allow for the fact that perpetrators also have agency”. She adds: “Some can, under the right conditions, take responsibility for changing their behaviour with the right support, whether the victim wishes to remain in a relationships with them or not. Hence, the risk management programmes should include opportunities for men to attend domestic violence perpetrator programmes or become involved in restorative justice processes aimed at supporting both victims and offenders toward changes in their lives which end the violence and leave them both safe.”

Multi-agency risk assessment conferences

Locally, inter-agency domestic violence risk management will now commonly involve a multi-agency risk assessment conference (Maracs) (Robinson, 2004). These bring together lead professionals from all relevant agencies to share information about victims assessed as high risk by the risk identification tool developed by the charity Co-ordinated Action Against Domestic Abuse (Caada), the Domestic Abuse, Stalking and Honour-based violence risk identification checklist, also known as the Dash. This tool and variations of it are now in widespread use in many statutory and voluntary agencies across the country, including social work child protection and Cafcass. A recent evaluation of the use of this tool in Cafcass found that it helped to make risk identification part of the routine work of Cafcass officers and focused attention on key risks (Debbonaire, 2008).

Multi-agency risk assessment conferences help key agencies such as social services, police and victim services to share information, identify high risk victims, and plan safety strategies to protect victims and children (Robinson, 2004). Recent research on the outcomes of these conferences has shown that they are a potential cost saver (Caada, 2010).

Risk tools

Identification of risk and safeguarding concerns in family law disputes is significantly improved by the consistent use of a risk identification tool (Harne, 2009). Cafcass officers are required to follow the practice direction from the President of the Family Division (updated in 2009). This includes recommendations that domestic violence is identified at the earliest possible stage, that findings of fact hearings are part of the process, and that interim orders may be considered. But the impact of these on the safety of the child and others must be a factor and specialist domestic violence risk assessments should be considered in these cases.

Points for practice

● Social workers and Cafcass officers should identify who may be a source of risk, which may include the father, mother or a partner.

● Identify responses to provide the perpetrator with a way of changing their behaviour towards the victim and children, bearing in mind that, without addressing the violence to the victim, the child is likely to continue to be affected by this in the father’s continued abuse of their mother or in subsequent relationships with new partners. It is not sufficient to refer the perpetrator to a parenting programme, though this can be extremely useful.

● Identify responses to support the victim and protect children in the short- and long-term, remembering that simple separation from the perpetrator will not stop their abusive behaviour.

● Request a specialist domestic violence risk assessment at any stage to identify the relative likelihood of various outcomes, as well as identify the measures above. Propose a plan incorporating these indicators to the safeguarding board and, if necessary, to court. Monitor and review the plan.

References and Key Texts

Robinson, A (2004) Domestic violence Maracs (Multi-Agency risk Assessment Conferences) for very high-risk victims in Cardiff, Wales: A process and outcome evaluation. Cardiff: Cardiff University

Campbell, J (ed.) (2007) Assessing Dangerousness: Violence by Batterers and Child Abusers. New York: Springer.

Hoyle, C (2008) “Will she be safe? A critical analysis of risk assessment in domestic violence cases”. In Children and Youth Services Review 30 (2008) 323 – 337.

Radford, L, Blacklock, N & Iwi, K (2006) “Domestic Abuse Risk Assessment and Safety Planning in Child Protection – Assessing Perpetrators”. In Humphreys, C. & Stanley, N. (eds.) Domestic Violence and Child Protection. Directions for Good Practice. London: Jessica Kingsley.

Debbonaire, T (2008) Evaluation of the use of a risk identification tool in Cafcass, Relate and Respect projects. London: Cafcass/Relate/Respect.

Harne, L (2009) Domestic violence and safeguarding children: the use of systematic risk identification and assessment in private law proceedings by family court advisors: a pilot study. Bristol: University of Bristol and Cafcass.

Co-ordinated Action Against Domestic Abuse (2007), Caada/Dash recommended risk assessment checklist for Marac agencies.

Cafcass Safeguarding Framework: 2010 Working Together Update.

Approved providers of domestic violence perpetrator programmes for Cafcass.

Co-ordinated Action Against Domestic Abuse (2010), Saving Lives, Saving Money: Maracs and high risk domestic abuse. Bristol: Caada.

About the author: Thangam Debbonaire is a specialist in prevention of and research on domestic violence

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Title Domestic violence risk assessment
Author Thangam Debbonaire

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