How can I accurately assess risks my client is facing from her former partner?

Your role as a woman’s advocate will require you to engage in safety planning with the women you support. Safety planning is, in some ways, the other side of risk assessment: the more information you have about the women’s risk, the better you and she can plan for her safety. But effective safety planning means more than risk assessment, as we will explore in this posting.

There have been significant developments in our understanding of and ability to identify risks for women whose partners engage in abusive behaviours both during and after their relationship.

Reduce risk

Predicting risk in the area of violence against women is not an absolute science. With information that is correctly analysed, we can reduce risk, but we cannot eliminate it or determine absolutely what the abuser is going to do or when he is going to do it.

Most lists of high-risk factors are quite similar. They include such factors as:

  • A history of violent behaviour towards family members
  • A history of violence behaviour towards intimate partners
  • An escalation in abusive behaviours
  • Attitudes that support violence against women
  • Sexual violence towards the partner

Barriers for the victim in accessing services and supports also increase risk of ongoing abuse and violence.

As we noted in another posting, the Domestic Violence Death Review Committee in Ontario has identified key risk factors with respect to lethality:

  • Prior history of domestic violence
  • Pending or recent separation
  • Isolation of the victim
  • Jealous or obsessive behaviour by the abuser
  • Threats by the abuser to harm or kill himself
  • Threats to harm or kill family pets or farm animals

Substance use and mental health issues are risk factors for both violence generally and lethal violence.

Assessing risk

According to a paper on risk assessment published by Justice Canada risk assessment is a “decision-making process through which we determine the best course of action by estimating, identifying, qualifying or quantifying risk.” Risk, according to this paper, is “the probability that the examinee [for our purposes, the abuser] will engage in a certain kind of behaviour in the future.

Goals of risk assessment can focus on predicting the likelihood that the abuser will reoffend or on violence prevention and risk management. The two are not necessarily that same thing, which it is important to remember. Risk assessments can look at generalized danger or the specific risk of lethality.

Once risk has been assessed, steps can be taken to manage the risk that has been identified. This can include monitoring, treatment and supervision of the abuser coupled with safety planning with the victim.

Formal risk assessment is often closely associated with the criminal system. For instance, an abuser may undergo a risk assessment as part of a bail or sentencing process. The focus will be on attempting to predict recidivism and on steps to monitor and control the abuser.

This is an important part of managing risk to increase the safety of women and children, but the woman can get lost in this approach.

Assessing safety

In our work with women, we need to make sure we keep the woman (and her children, if she has any) at the centre of our safety planning.

The Redwood, a shelter in downtown Toronto, has turned the traditional approach to risk assessment and safety planning on its head by doing just this.

The language is turned around in this approach. Instead of talking about risk assessment, The Redwood talks about safety assessment. Instead of safety planning, the shelter uses the term risk management. This helps workers and women understand safety from the woman’s perspective.

Its process includes assessing risks that are generated by/from the abuser as well as life-generated risks (aspects of a woman’s life over which she has little control). The process looks at what the woman’s primary concerns are and then develops strategies to manage the risks and respond to her concerns. These strategies can incorporate proactive steps taken by the woman as well as by community resources and the criminal and family law systems.

Tools

There are a number of good tools available and in use by police and others to assist in assessing risk. Depending on the circumstances of the woman you are working with, the information gathered using one of these tools may be very helpful in your safety planning efforts with her. It might also provide important and helpful evidence in her family law case, especially if she is seeking a restraining order or limited or supervised access to the children. If the woman has already been through a formal risk assessment, you can encourage her to get a copy of it. If she has not, you may want to find out what is available in your community and discuss with her the possibility of participating in an assessment.

However, it is also important for you to remember your focus on assisting the woman to both be and feel as safe as possible; a process that has to start and end with her. There are many good safety planning tools available, and you are probably already using one.

Nonetheless, you may want to check out The Redwood approach to see if there are any elements of it that you would like to incorporate into your work: Her Toolkit by The Redwood.

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