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Handbook 13: Assessment Guides
3-15.1  Assessing Lethality in Domestic Violence Cases
Assessment Guides
3-15.1  Assessing Lethality in Domestic Violence Cases
Reference Points
Source Document
Overview
Definition
Information Sources
Gathering Information from Non-family Collateral Sources
Gathering Information from Family Members
Offender Profiles
Interviewing
Other References


Reference Points
Effective Date: 11/1/07
Last Updated: 7/12/07


Source Document   The information in this chapter is taken from the publication Accountability and Connection with Abusive Men, published by the Family Violence Prevention Fund, 2004.
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Overview  

Determining the level of lethality or dangerousness when involved in a domestic violence case is not a clinical decision.  Rather, it is a judgment based on systematic and strategic information gathering that requires ongoing assessment as new information is received.  A social worker makes a determination of lethality in order to be better able to assess risk.  With this understanding, the social worker can develop appropriate service plans as well as safety plans, both for the family members and the social worker himself/herself.

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Definition   Lethality or dangerousness is defined as the demonstrated capacity to inflict severe and potentially deadly violence.

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Information Sources  

As information is gathered on a case, the social worker assesses for lethality for purposes of safety and service planning.  Information gathered from the following sources may assist in assessments:

  • Police arrest reports (obtain report for each arrest, not just the most recent one)
  • Police records of "domestic disturbance" calls at the abuser's or victim's residence
  • The abuser's criminal record
    • A clean criminal history does not indicate that the abuser is not dangerous.
  • The abuser's mental health record
  • The victim's affidavits from past protective/restraining orders
  • All child abuse reports
  • Information provided by:
    • A probation or parole officer
    • Partners or children
    • The abuser

If there is sufficient confirmation from collateral sources of a past history of violence, information obtained from partners and children may not be needed to be introduced, minimizing the family's risk level and exposure to retaliatory assaults or threats by the abuser.

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Gathering Information from Non-family Collateral Sources  

In developing a comprehensive assessment of the abuser, the social worker gathers information about the abuser's past conduct. Because these are indicators of future behaviors, service needs can be planned from the factors that are identified.  Non-familial collateral sources may be able to give information regarding the abuser's:

  • Use of and access to weapons
  • History of:
    • Violent crimes and previous violations of protective orders
      • A lack of prior protective order violations does not indicate, in and of itself, that the abuse is not dangerous.
    • Motor vehicle violations involving alcohol intoxication and other arrests related to substance abuse
    • Violence with spouses or children
    • Previously having attended an abuser intervention program that was not followed by a subsequent cessation of violence
    • Suicidality or suicidal ideation
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Gathering Information from Family Members  

When victims and their family members are willing to be interviewed about the abuser, they may be able to give information about the abuser's conduct known only to them.  Partner's accounts of physical abuse are usually the most reliable and accurate source of information about the abuser's level of violence.   However, good case practice involves acceptance of the victim's limits on disclosure and reliance on information from collateral sources. 

In interviewing family members, the social worker should ask about the abuser's history of and current behaviors regarding:

  • Violence
  • Severe and irrational jealously
  • Threats to punish the victim, the children or the victim's family members
    • These threats are to be taken seriously even in the absence of prior arrests or severe violence.
  • Threats of suicide
  • Severe isolation
  • Fearing the loss of his/her partner
  • Recent instability
  • Substance abuse
    • This is an important factor when the drug or alcohol intake coincides with violent episodes.
  • Generalized violence
    • A history of generalized violence may indicate a heightened risk to the social worker.

It is crucial for the social worker to explain the limits of confidentiality and to make an agreement that if confidential information is to be revealed to the abuser or his attorney, the victim will receive prior warning and an opportunity to plan for his/her safety and that of his/her children.

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Offender Profiles

 

Although all offenders are potentially lethal, some are more likely to be highly dangerous. The typical offender blames his partner and/or other systems and attempts to excuse or deny his behavior, but some have empathy for their partners and may eventually admit to violent and coercive behaviors. However, if the offender fits one of the three profiles below, there is more serious cause for concern.

  • The Obsessed Offender: This person cannot seem to tolerate separation from his spouse. He is very jealous, even to the extent of making irrational accusations, and he frequently monitors his spouse's whereabouts through calls, questioning the children and others, drive-by check-up visits, etc. He makes threats to kill or harm her if she leaves him, asks for a separation, divorce, etc. He often says, "If I can't have you, no one will." This type of offender is most likely to stalk, kill or injure his partner, even months or years after she has left him, obtained restraining orders, etc.
  • The Sadistic Offender: This person's pattern of violence is vengeful and has a bizarre, depersonalized character. He treats his partner with a profound absence of consideration of her as a person. For instance, he forces her to have sex just after an operation or childbirth, or he chokes her by stuffing her head in a drawer and closing it. His violence usually involves inflicting severe pain or torture, such as burning her, starving her, beating her for hours, etc. These offenders often assault their spouses without any warning or apparent provocation. Usually, a sadistic offender terrifies his spouse profoundly through torture and continuous degradation, and (understandably) she is not likely to attempt to flee. He is very likely to retaliate against her even when he appears to accept what she says. This type of offender frequently does not have a criminal record. He is usually employed and may have a prestigious position in the community. He is capable of injuring his partner severely.
  • The Hyper-Violent Offender: This offender takes offense easily; a look, a question, even the most reasonable or mild attempts at limit-setting by others can trigger a violent response. He feels all "challenges" place his manhood and courage in question and that he must always prove himself. He often has a long criminal record resulting from bar fights, brawling, assault and battery charges, etc. He is generally violent. This offender can be very dangerous to his partner, particularly if she fights back (not a usual response for many victims). He usually has very conflicted and belligerent relationships with authority figures, and HE MAY ASSAULT YOU if he feels strongly or directly challenged. It is extremely important to set limits very clearly with this sort of offender and to refuse to continue to work with him if there are threats or attempts to intimidate you. (Fernando Mederos, Common Purpose, Inc.)

If an offender resembles any of the profiles listed above, and the social worker suspects current alcohol or drug abuse, access to weapons, or training in martial arts / boxing, there is increased potential for danger.

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Interviewing  

If the social worker obtains information that indicates an interview with the offender is too dangerous (for the worker or the woman and children), consult with the supervisor and/or Domestic Violence Specialist before proceeding.  If the decision is reached not to interview the offender because it is not in the best interest of the children, document the reasons in the case record. Third-party reports are critical in these instances.

If an abuser becomes agitated or complaining during an interview, the social worker should try to redirect the conversation.  If the abuser does not respond to redirection, limit-setting is the next step.  If the abuser becomes threatening or agitated to the degree that the social worker feels endangered, the interview should be terminated immediately (pg. 54-55).

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Other References  
PDF Accountability and Connection with Abusive Men
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