What research says about domestic violence risk assessments

It is important social workers focus less on the victim’s behavior and more on that of the perpetrator, says Thangam Debbonaire

Latest research findings

Domestic violence risk assessments have developed to structure practitioner identification and management of risk. As Hoyle (2008) notes robust research evidence consistently identifies the key risk factors for domestic violence: victim predictions of future harm, perpetrator use of weapons, perpetrator suicidality, perpetrator alcohol or drug use, forced sex, separation, obsessive jealousy, and extensive dominance.

A study by Harne (2009) found Cafcass’s introduction of a systematic risk identification process for assessing domestic violence in contested private law proceedings improved the identification of domestic violence and of the post-separation risks.

This process informed practitioners of risky situations and helped guide Cafcass safeguarding proceedings and recommendations to family courts, improving – in turn – the safety of victims and children.

The impact on practice

However, despite the rigorous evidence about risk, Hoyle reports that the content of the tools used varies. So too does practitioners’ use of these tools. Some practitioners ignore well-evidenced risk factors or place undue reliance on the tools to predict risk rather than guide risk management.

In the last decade, local multi-agency risk assessment conferences (MARACs) have developed in England and Wales. These typically bring together a range of agencies, including police, children’s services and independent domestic violence advocates, to manage risk for victims identified as high risk using the identification tool developed by Coordinated Action Against Domestic Violence.

But although there were an estimated 250 MARACs in operation by 2010, a 2011 study by Steel, Blakeborough and Nicholas found that while there is some evidence of their effectiveness at reducing repeat victimisation that evidence is currently weak.

Hoyle warns that risk assessment and management focusing on the victim’s agency and behaviour effectively makes the victim responsible for the perpetrator’s behaviour. Such practices ignore the continued risk of violence post-separation or the impact of uprooting children from their home and school if practitioners insist on separation. These approaches also ignore the risk of children being removed from their mother if they do not leave the perpetrator.

Single agency responses are improved with consistent use of risk assessment, says Harne. Steel et al report that multi-agency responses are improved by strong leadership, good training and shared cross-agency understanding of domestic violence risks.

Taken together these findings suggest that consistent use of instruments can lead to better risk assessments and more appropriate support and interventions. Practitioners also need to improve identification of domestic violence and of risk from domestic violence to victims and children after separation.
It is also important that practitioners focus less on the victim’s agency and behaviour and more on those of the perpetrator, and for risk management and multi-agency work to include engaging with perpetrators through programmes and other interventions that support both victims and perpetrators in change.

MARAC leads in each agency should participate in joint training on domestic violence risk assessment and management since, as Steel et al indicate, they need skilled leadership and consistent coordination to be more effective.

Questions for social workers and Cafcass officers to think about:

  • How can I best integrate good evidence about domestic violence risks into my interactions with clients in such a way as to maintain engagement whilst also systematically gathering information about risk?
  • What is the difference in my practice between risk assessment/ identification and risk management?
  • How can I ensure that I do not treat risk assessment as risk prediction but instead use the information to guide my intervention and support for families?
  • How can I ensure that I assess and manage various types of risk to victims and children, particularly those associated with separation?
  • How can I move to holding abusers accountable for their behaviour and motivate them to consider changing, taking into account that they too have agency?

Thangam Debbonaire is the author of the Community Care Inform (2011) Research review – Domestic violence risk assessment. To read this review in full email kim.poupart@rbi.co.uk at Community Care Inform for a free copy.

NB This offer is only available until 5 October 2012. After this the article is available to Inform subscribers at this link.

References and further reading

CAADA (2010) Saving Lives, Saving Money: MARACs and high risk domestic abuse. Bristol: CAADA.  

CAADA (2007) CAADA Recommended Risk Assessment Checklist for IDVAs and other Agencies

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

Campbell, J (2007) Prediction of Homicide of and By Battered Women. In Campbell, J (ed) (2007) Assessing Dangerousness: Violence by Batterers and Child Abusers.  NewYork: Springer.

Dobash,R.P., Dobash, R.E., Cavanagh,K. & Lewis, R. (2001) Homicide in Britain: risk factors, situational contexts and lethal intentions. London: ESRC.

Haggerman-White, C. et al (2010) Factors influencing perpetration of violence against women and children. Brussels: European Commission.

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. 

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

Humphreys, C., Thiara, R.K., Regan, L., Lovett, J., Kennedy, L., Gibson, A. (2005) Prevention Not Prediction? A preliminary evaluation of the Metropolitan Police Domestic Violence Risk Assessment Model (SPECSS+).  Warwick: Centre for the Study of Safety and Wellbeing, University of Warwick

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

Regan, L. , Kelly, L, Morris, A., Dibb, R. (2007) “If only we’d known”: an exploratory study of seven intimate partner homicides in Engleshire. London: Child and Woman Abuse Studies Unit.

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 

Steel, N, Blakeborough, L  and Nicholas, S (2011) Supporting high-risk victims of domestic violence: a review of Multi-Agency Risk Assessment Conferences (MARACs) London: Home Office.

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