Intimate Partner Violence Risk Assessment Tools: A Review

1. Introduction

Intimate partner violence touches the lives of thousands of Canadians. The criminal justice system is faced with the task of protecting victims of intimate partner violence, while at the same time ensuring that the rights of the accused are not violated. This tension is evident at different stages in the criminal justice system process such as at bail, sentencing and parole. One approach that has been adopted to manage the above noted issues is assessing the risk that offenders pose for re-offending and how to best manage these offenders (Hoyle 2008; Roehl et al. 2005). Specialized risk assessment tools have been created for these purposes and are being used in many jurisdictions across Canada (Millar 2009).

The purpose of this report is to provide an understanding of intimate partner violence risk assessment tools and of the issues that assessors should consider when choosing an assessment instrument. This report begins with a discussion of the general use of risk assessment tools, their use in the criminal justice system in general and in cases of intimate partner violence specifically. The different approaches of risk assessment are then discussed, as are factors to consider when choosing a tool. The strengths and limitations of the various approaches and of risk assessment tools in general are also explored. This report was created to contribute to a better understanding of the range of risk assessment tools that are used by the various professionals working in the area of intimate partner violence.

2. Methodology

Information for this report was gathered from a literature search conducted between July 2011 and January 2012. Literature was collected from a number of sources. An internet search was conducted using the Google and Google Scholar search engines. Various academic databases, including PsycInfo, SocIndex and Scholars Portal, were also searched.Footnote 1 The search included articles published between 1992 and 2012. Information was also gathered from a number of government departments (e.g., Public Safety Canada; Correctional Service of Canada), as well as Canadian research and advocacy organizations (e.g., Centre for Research and Education on Violence against Women and Children).

3. Risk Assessment Tools

Risk Assessment

Before discussing risk assessment tools, it is important to first understand what is meant by risk assessment. Risk assessment is a “decision-making process through which we determine the best course of action by estimating, identifying, qualifying, or quantifying risk” (Nicholls et al. 2006, 276). Although there is currently no agreed upon definition of risk (Kropp 2008), a common definition used in the risk literature defines it as “the probability that the examinee will engage in a certain kind of behaviour in the future” (Heilbrun et al. 2010, 2).

Risk Assessment Tools

Within the risk assessment literature, there is debate surrounding the purpose of risk assessment, with some arguing that the goal is to predict recidivism and others arguing that the goal is violence prevention and risk managementFootnote 2 (Douglas and Kropp 2002). Furthermore, some risk assessments focus on the offender, while others are focused on the victim and the risk that they will be re-victimized. Depending upon the purpose of the risk assessment, different specialized instruments exist to help assessors achieve their goals. Some risk assessment tools provide information “regarding the nature, form, and degree of the danger” of violence (Kropp 2004, 677), while others allow the assessor to make a probability statement regarding the likelihood of recidivism (Hilton et al. 2010), and some do both. This report discusses the general use of intimate partner violence risk assessment tools, but focuses more strongly on the use of risk assessment tools as they are used for the purposes of violence prediction.

Risk Assessment Tools and the Criminal Justice System

The majority of risk assessment tools used in criminal justice settings “were originally developed by forensic mental health professionals to be used in forensic mental health settings” (Storey et al. 2011, 554). Risk assessment tools are now not only being used in a number of different settings, but their use in other settings is growing, including in other forensic areas (Singh et al. 2011).

Risk assessment tools used in criminal justice settings are generally based on a number of different psychological and psychosocial risk factors that are believed to be associated with recidivism (Roehl and Guertin 2000). These risk factors are established through a number of mechanisms, such as empirical research conducted with specific populations or based on theory and literature reviews (Hanson et al. 2008; Kropp 2008).

The majority of risk assessment tools used in criminal justice settings contain two types of risk factors: static and dynamic. Static risk factors are risk factors that are fixed and unchangeable, such as demographic factors (e.g., age, gender), childhood history and criminal history (Guo and Harstall 2008). Dynamic risk factors “fluctuate over time and reflect internal states or temporary circumstances of the individual, such as beliefs and cognitions, everyday associates, and feelings of hostility” (Guo and Harstall 2008, 7). Dynamic risk factors are factors that can change and these changes may be associated with changes in risk level (Hanson and Morton-Bourgon 2009). Dynamic risk factors are also known as “criminogenic needs”. Examples of common static and dynamic risk factors for general violent recidivism include a history of criminal involvement, substance abuse, young age of the offender, and low socioeconomic status (Hanson and Morton-Bourgon 2009; Hilton and Harris 2005).

4. Intimate Partner Violence Footnote 3

The definition of intimate partner violence is complex (Hart 2010). Intimate partner violence includes physical, emotional, sexual, verbal, social and financial abuse (Guo and Harstall 2008). It is not limited to those in a former or current legal marriage or cohabitation, but also includes those in a dating relationship.

Statistics Canada uses the term “spousal violence” to encompass incidents that reflect physical or sexual offences in the Criminal Code of Canada committed by current or former spousesFootnote 4 (Brennan 2011). Data from the 2009 General Social Survey on Victimization indicate that 6.2%, or approximately 1.2 million Canadians 15 years of age and older, reported experiencing spousal violence in the five years preceding the survey. Moreover, 17% of respondents stated that they had experienced financial or emotional abuse during their relationship. Although the number of males and females who experienced spousal violence was similar, women were three times more likely (34% vs. 10%) to experience serious spousal violence compared to males in the past 5 years, including being beaten, choked or sexually assaulted.

Statistics Canada recently began to use the term “intimate partner violence” in their family violence publications to include “violence committed by legally married, separated, divorced, common-law partners, dating partners (current and previous) and other intimate partners” (Sinha 2012, 27). Data from the Incident-based Uniform Crime Reporting Survey (UCR2) revealed that there were 102,500 victims of police-reported intimate partner violence in 2010. The rate of female victims of police-reported intimate partner violence was almost four times greater than that of males in 2010 (574 per 100,000 vs. 147 per 100,000).

The rate of intimate partner homicides (which includes homicides perpetrated by individuals in dating relationships, marital and common-law relationships) in Canada declined 32% between 1980 and 2010 (Hotton Mahony 2011). While there has been a decline in the overall rate of spousal homicide, women remain four times more likely to be victims of spousal homicide than men; this has consistently been the case for the past thirty years. 

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