23 Jan GUEST BLOG: Domestic violence risk assessment and perpetrator pattern mapping: How do they work together?
By Guest Blogger Rodney Vlais
Many states, territories and provinces – and sometimes whole nations – have developed their own common domestic violence risk assessment (and risk management) framework. These frameworks typically outline principles, guidance, and tools to support services and practitioners in using a common and consistent approach towards assessing and managing risk.
Many of these frameworks focus on a single main risk assessment tool that specialist domestic violence services within the jurisdiction are meant to use. Some frameworks encompass multiple tools, including ones for services that aren’t for domestic violence specialists. Nevertheless, they are often at the frontline of needing to identify and assess risk. The frameworks vary in the degree of practice guidance depth, ranging from a few to literally several hundred pages (as per the MARAM in my home state of Victoria, Australia.)
Despite this variation, these frameworks are similar in their general approach to risk. They support practitioners in making structured professional judgments based on:
- the survivor’s fears and her own assessment of risk,
- evidence-based risk factors identified through engaging the survivor and from other sources (for example, police DV incident or child protection reports),
- and in the case of some frameworks, on indications of the nature and severity of risk gleaned from engaging the perpetrator.
Some frameworks extend this basic structure in particular ways. They might, for example, outline additional risk factors or risk assessment considerations specific to particular cohorts. Two examples of this are First Nations or LGBTIQA+ survivors. In the case of the MARAM (and soon, some other frameworks in Australia), guidance and tools are incorporated to support practitioners. These inclusions augment risk information obtained from survivors or other sources, with indications of risk gleaned through engaging the perpetrator.
Understandably, these frameworks are future-focused. They aim to identify survivors who are at heightened or serious risk of experiencing lethal or severe injury-causing violence. This is a crucial focus for efforts as practitioners and activists to prevent and respond to gender-based violence.
These risk assessment tools are future-focused beyond identifying perpetrators who pose a serious threat to the lives of survivors. They also assist practitioners and services in identifying the risk of the perpetrator continuing to use or escalating domestic violence, even if there is not a serious threat of homicide. Impacts on adult and child survivors and on family functioning can be severe even when the risk of homicide might not be high.
Risk assessment frameworks and tools assist decisions about risk management actions and strategies. If a survivor is deemed to be at serious risk or threat based on an assessment made using a common tool, she and her children might then be referred to a multi-agency collaborative strategy such as a high-risk team. Further, quality risk assessment frameworks guide practitioners to not only determine the level of risk but also to analyse risk.
Analysing the Assessment
To guide a risk management strategy, it is not sufficient to only ask, “Is the survivor at serious risk of being killed?” A quality framework and associated tools guides practitioners and services to take a more nuanced view. They should guide analyses like:
- Given the information we have collected, including what we know about the perpetrator’s behaviours, and
- his motives for using violent and controlling behaviour, and
- the meaning he is likely to make out of new or changing circumstances and
- what might be the pathway from here in which he might kill her (or engage in other severe behaviour, such as kidnapping her children)?
- Given what we know about him, for example:
- his sense of desperation,
- his fixation on the survivor as the only one who can ‘make things right’ for him,
- his intense, obsessive possessiveness, and
- his ingrained motive to not ‘let her win’ under any circumstances,
- we can inquire about what is changing in his life, and what might be the ‘triggers’ for him to change his motive from wanting to control her to wanting to destroy her?
Predicting the circumstances in which violence might escalate is crucial. But what might it mean to focus our assessments only on trying to prevent things from happening in the future?
Domestic violence practitioners and responders are not only future-focused. They are also attuned to the present and to the past. After all, a perpetrator’s past and current behaviours carry significant weight in assessing the risk to survivors in the future.
Beyond this, practitioners and responders are also highly cognisant of the needs of the survivor in the present. Advocates focus on what the impacts of the perpetrator’s patterns of behaviours mean for the current needs of adult and child survivors and the family as a whole. They are also focused on how survivors respond to the perpetrator’s violent and controlling behaviour. They also focus on how they attempt to resist his violence and limit the impacts and how the perpetrator is currently responding to this resistance.
Assessment of accumulated harms
Some domestic violence frameworks locate an assessment of perpetrator impacts, survivor needs and resistance, and how the perpetrator is responding to survivor resistance, as part of their practice guidance. However, this is generally mentioned at a high level and is not reflected in framework tools. In the main, they do not include sections or fields where the assessor can detail the accumulated and current harms that the perpetrator has caused to adult and child survivors and to family functioning. In other words, the frameworks and tools support a common approach to assessing risk. They do not provide detailed guidance to support practitioners and services to assess both risk and harm.
An assessment of accumulated and current harms needs a strong focus on the impacts of the perpetrator’s use of domestic violence on:
- the adult survivor’s parenting capacity,
- their relationship with the children,
- various aspects of family functioning,
- the family’s connections with community, and
- cultural and service system supports.
Some domestic violence risk assessment frameworks include mention of evidence- or practice-informed indicators of the specific risk to children. Again, however, this focus is on identifying children at heightened risk of experiencing physical violence or other highly traumatising behaviour from the perpetrator. Rather, it should also encompass a detailed analysis of accumulated and current harm.
An assessment of harm requires an analysis of the perpetrator’s coercive controlling behavioural patterns. Many domestic violence risk assessment frameworks emphasise the critical importance of coercive control as a risk factor. Some framework tools incorporate fields or prompts for the assessor to consider different types of coercive controlling violence. However, in many cases, the tools might contain only a small number of tick box items (sometimes only one). The assessor may need to note the presence of coercive control and maybe one or two fields that enable some related qualitative information to be recorded.
Limitations of assessments and frameworks
The lack of scaffolding for detailed explorations of the perpetrator’s patterns of coercive controlling behaviours limits the ability of these frameworks and tools to assess accumulated and current harms. It also has a bearing on the tools’ ability to assess risk. The extent of the perpetrator’s coercive control is a significant factor in determining risk such as:
- The range and comprehensiveness of his coercive controlling tactics,
- the intensity of the tactics,
- the amount of planning and effort he goes to in order to execute these tactics,
- the measures he takes to suppress the survivor’s resistance to his regime of control, and
- the lengths that he goes to in order to manipulate systems and other responders to the violence.
These all correlate with the seriousness of risk. One or two tick-box items or a single text field on coercive control might not prompt the risk assessor to consider these things.
A domestic violence risk assessment framework-associated tool cannot do everything. This is one of the many reasons why responses to domestic violence require strong collaboration between services and systems that each have their own areas of expertise.
Frameworks and tools used in child welfare systems are often much more focused on assessing accumulated and current harms.
Nor can a framework or tool capture everything, or even most things, that domestic violence advocates focus on with survivors. Advocates attempt to discern the perpetrator’s coercive controlling patterns, the harms resulting from these patterns, and what this means for the survivor’s needs and for how the survivor is seeking to be supported. Many of these things are documented in case notes that can’t always be captured in a tool.
Tools to drive assessment and practice
At the same time, tools help to drive practice. The purpose of a common framework is to support consistency in practice and a shared understanding of and approach to risk assessment. Consistency in practice and a shared understanding are important to assess both risk and harm.
The Safe & Together Model perpetrator pattern mapping tool helps fill in some of the gaps left by domestic violence risk assessment tools. Perpetrator pattern mapping:
- enables a more nuanced analysis of coercive control;
- accumulated and current harms to adult and child survivors and to family functioning as a whole; and
- makes visible survivor actions that resist the violence.
Perpetrator pattern mapping helps drive consistency in practice towards truly partnering with the survivor. And towards holding the perpetrator accountable for the harms his behaviour causes.
Survivors not ‘only’ want to be and to feel safe. They want the harm to their lives and families to stop. Partnering with the survivor requires us to understand the cumulative and current harms caused by the perpetrator on a case-by-case basis. It also requires us to follow the lead of the survivor to support their struggle to limit these harms.
We need to focus on preventing homicides and serious injury. We also need to focus on the harm caused by each perpetrator so that we can work with him. It allows us to also work with the victim-survivor and with other agencies in ways that are informed by these patterns of harm. All so that we can try to reduce these harms. As practitioners, responders and activists, our role is both to predict and attempt to prevent future escalations of violence. We are to sensitively step in to address the injustice of what is happening now.
In my view, we need to better integrate assessments of risk with assessments of harm. Patterns of harm form the underlying ground upon which risk of serious injury-causing violence spikes. A nuanced understanding of the perpetrator’s patterns of harm helps us to understand the circumstances in which he might escalate.
Let’s start thinking about conducting risk and harm assessments rather than just risk assessments.
Let’s also start asking the question – how can we better integrate the use of DV risk assessment tools with perpetrator pattern mapping?
Coming Soon: David Mandel’s forthcoming (2024) book
 https://www.vic.gov.au/maram-practice-guides-professionals-working-adults-using-family-violence – perpetrator-facing tools are also being developed in Queensland – stay tuned to https://www.justice.qld.gov.au/about-us/services/women-violence-prevention/violence-prevention/service-providers/integrated-service-responses/dfv-common-risk-safety-framework in late 2024 or 2025
By Guest Blogger Rodney Vlais
Rodney Vlais is an independent writer, trainer and change agent focusing on struggles to end gender-based violence and intersecting forms of harm. They are influenced by the politics, principles and practices of transformative justice, and by everyday acts of solidarity towards upending oppressive systems and structures.