Intimate Partner Violence Risk Assessment Instruments Essay

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In the United States, domestic violence occurs at a base rate of 16,000 per 100,000 families. Approximately 1,600 women in the United States are murdered each year by their current or former partners. Many of these homicides are preceded by a history of violence, and many cases of nonfatal domestic violence are followed by more severe assaults. Numerous professionals within the criminal justice system and other various medical and community settings are called upon to make predictions concerning the level of future danger that domestic violence perpetrators pose to the women they have abused. These predictions may concern the likelihood that the woman will be assaulted again by the perpetrator, the probability that the perpetrator will act on previous threats made to the woman, or the potential severity of a future assault (e.g., lethal). Some of the professionals have specialized training and expertise in the area of domestic violence (e.g., shelter counselors assisting in safety planning, staff at batterer intervention programs, specialized police officers). Other times, less-specialized professionals may be in a position of making these judgments (e.g., emergency room doctors and nurses, family doctors, psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, and family therapists). These predictions may be made in informal contexts (e.g., when treating and counseling victims or perpetrators) or formal contexts (e.g., when testifying in legal matters with respect to sentencing, treatment placement, or supervision intensity). A relatively new but rapidly growing science designed to assist these professionals in their decision making and predictions is the development of intimate partner violence risk assessment instruments.

The Need For Risk Assessment Instruments

Historically, prediction of future assault was based on professional experience and intuition. More recently, predictions may be based on standardized risk assessment procedures and protocols that utilize instruments outlining various factors empirically associated with increased likelihood of future violence. These tools were developed in response to findings that various professionals are often unable to make unguided accurate predictions based on their experiences and clinical judgment beyond chance levels. These findings were of tremendous importance to criminal justice systems concerned with the balance between the safety of communities and the rights and freedoms of perpetrators. A false positive prediction could unnecessarily restrict a perpetrator’s freedom. By contrast, a false negative prediction could jeopardize the safety of a victim and create a missed opportunity to institute appropriate safeguards to prevent future assault. Criminal justice systems demand sensitive and specific decision-making methods that would correctly classify the large number of cases being processed. Sensitivity refers to the ability to correctly detect true cases of recidivism and to predict them while minimizing false negatives and specificity refers to the ability to correctly discriminate cases in which no violence will occur and to not predict violence while minimizing false positives. Similarly, predictions in family court in regard to child custody and visitation involve the safety of adult victims and their children.

One indicator of risk that deserves special note is the victim’s perception of risk from the perpetrator. Research and clinical wisdom support the notion that a victim’s sense of being in danger should be taken very seriously. At the same time, half of victims who are murdered did not perceive lethal danger, but rather thought of their expartner as annoying or harassing. Some researchers have stressed the importance of a structured approach to history by using a calendar to accurately identify the full history and possible escalation of violence. Given the tendency of many victims to minimize the severity of violence, risk assessment tools may help professionals educate victims about the need for safety planning.

Existing Risk Assessment Instruments And Their Characteristics

At the time of this writing, nine intimate partner risk assessment scales exist with some amount of empirical support for their use. There is variation among these instruments in their sources of information (such as interview with victim, or perpetrator, or both). Some tools require lengthy interviews with victims, and others stress brevity and immediately accessible information for professionals such as the police.

Benefits And Limitations

In addition to increasing predictive accuracy, given the large number of domestic violence perpetrators and victims that come into contact with the aforementioned systems, these instruments also enable professionals to prioritize and manage cases. This prioritization facilitates a system response whereby victims at greatest risk of experiencing severe future violence can receive timely safety planning strategies and perpetrators most likely to inflict such violence can receive more immediate risk-reduction intervention. Additionally, these instruments provide a common language for all professionals across systems so that communication of danger is clearly understood.

Intimate partner violence risk assessment instruments are not without their limitations and controversies. Many instruments are still limited in their predictive validity. The tools are often capable of correctly classifying and predicting recidivists and nonrecidivists in the study samples from which they were derived; however, they often do not maintain the same level of predictive accuracy when used with new groups or study samples. This problem is in part due to the fact that the initial studies are retrospective rather than prospective (or longitudinal). A relatively low base rate of recidivism and homicide cases creates significant challenges in predictions. Reliability and validity measures also influence classification rates. Relatively low base rates of a behavior, in combination with certain psychometric properties of the instruments (e.g., poor validity) may lead to a propensity for false positives. A complication in prediction is the fact that risk may be static or dynamic. Some perpetrators may be a risk as a function of an antisocial personality, while other perpetrators may be dangerous based on situational factors such as separation or job loss. Currently, there is no agreement on which measure is objectively the best.

Future Directions

Research into intimate partner violence, domestic violence risk assessment, and risk assessment, in general, is still in its infancy. As research continues, improvements to measures are expected to be made so that limitations are minimized. The future of intimate partner violence risk assessment depends on extensive research that is based on prospective, multisite, and longitudinal studies. Risk assessment will ultimately be valued as part of a comprehensive and coordinated approach to safety planning and risk reduction.


  1. Campbell, J. C. (Ed.). (2003). Danger Assessment Scale. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University.
  2. Dutton, D. G., & Kropp, P. R. (2000). A review of domestic violence risk instruments. Trauma, Violence, & Abuse, 1, 171–181.
  3. Heckert, D. A., & Gondolf, E. W. (2004). Battered women’s perceptions of risk versus risk factors and instruments in predicting repeated reassault. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 19, 778–800.
  4. Hilton, N. Z., Harris, G. T., Rice, M. E., Lang, C., Cormier, C. A., & Lines, K. J. (2004). A brief actuarial assessment for the prediction of wife assault recidivism: The Ontario Domestic Assault Risk Assessment. Psychological Assessment, 16, 267–275.
  5. Kropp, P. R. (2004). Some questions regarding Spousal Assault Risk Assessment. Violence Against Women, 10, 676–697.

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