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The Use of Standardised Risk Indicators for the Prediction of Domestic Violence: a Study

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Domestic violence is a broad expression which refers to situations wherein abuse occurs within a domestic context. Due to the magnitude of this phenomenon, as well as its significant impact on individuals’ physical and psychological wellbeing, numerous researchers, professionals and institutions worldwide have attempted to identify the most effective method/s to assess and treat domestic violence, in order to prompt offenders to abandon their violent behaviour whilst providing victims with adequate support. (Hamberger and Phelan, 2004)

As Lee et al. (2003) pointed out, assessment plays a crucial role in the analysis and treatment of domestic violence and usually revolves around the causes and effects of violent behaviour, placing special emphasis on the identification of risk indicators which may help to predict and prevent violence. However, during the past few decades, society has become increasingly diverse in ethnic, cultural, religious and linguistic terms, thus making it difficult for professionals to offer standardised solutions to domestic violence, without taking into consideration both victims and offenders’ particular background and socio-cultural surroundings. In spite of that, significant progress has been made in the field of assessment of domestic violence, as several studies have revealed that it might be possible to predict abuse by developing a set of standardised risk indicators, which may be used to evaluate all offenders, regardless of their ethnicity, surroundings and other distinctive characteristics.

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In view of these considerations, this essay will evaluate and compare various viewpoints in order to determine whether and to what extent standardised risk indicators can be used to predict domestic violence.

Domestic violence assessment

In order to fully appreciate the importance of domestic violence assessment and treatment, it should be noted that according to recent statistics, 30% of women worldwide have been abused by their intimate partners and/or family members and most of the time, children are also maltreated when domestic violence events occurs. (WHO, 2014; Fantuzzo and Fusco, 2007) Moreover, recent findings indicate that men make up a significant portion of domestic violence victims. (Campbell, 2010) As a pattern of behaviour, domestic violence implies qualitative aspects which have been preventing researchers from developing a universally-valid framework which would enable practitioners to assess predict and treat domestic offenders with absolute certainty. However, it cannot be denied that the vast amount of data and knowledge accumulated over the years has allowed practitioners, agencies and prosecutors to make more accurate assessments and to manage risk more effectively thanks to the development of risk assessment tools which use risk indicators as a basis to assess risk and choose adequate safety plans. (Dutton and Kropp, 2000)

As Lee et al. (2003) pointed out, the main reason why domestic violence assessment encompasses both risk evaluation and prediction is because these different and yet equally essential aspects allow mental health experts and professionals to develop effective treatment solutions, whilst promoting victims’ safety and helping prosecutors make informed decisions about the degree of supervision each offender should be subject to. In other words, it is important that domestic violence should be approached from both an analytical and etiological perspective in order to gain a deeper understanding into the factors that trigger different forms of abuse and develop frameworks and models which may help professionals to recognise, assess and predict domestic violence.

With regards to the validity and reliability of different risk assessment methods, Stanley and Humphreys (2006) noted that in spite of its complex nature, domestic violence is often approached from a positivist viewpoint, which is usually promoted by the insurance industry, whose main goal is to manage risk as accurately as possible as to avoid compensation claims from their clients. However, considering the significant amount of evidence concerning domestic violence cases which has been accumulated throughout the years, it cannot be denied that without a positivist paradigm, it would be very difficult to elaborate data in a systematic way as to obtain reliable and consistent results which may be used by practitioners as a basis for their clinical and professional evaluations. In fact, it is important that professionals should be aware of the most common individual and sociocultural characteristics of as many groups of domestic offenders as possible, in order for them to conduct accurate clinical diagnoses and select adequate treatment.

With regards to the impact of scientific research methods on the psychological world, Haig (2014) noted that although many have argued that psychology should not be treated as a science due to its qualitative and humanistic dimension, scientific research methods are widely applied to behaviour psychology as they can help to establish cause and effect relationships, thus making it possible to predict future patterns rather than simply describing and analysing past events in subjective terms.

Typological research

During the past few decades, several studies have been conducted in order to identify the most common risk indicators which professionals should look out for when assessing and treating domestic offenders. (McClennen, 2010) To be more precise, significant efforts have been made to analyse perpetrators in such a way to identify common characteristics, traits and other factors which may be directly linked to violent behaviour in domestic contexts. (McClennen, 2010)

However, before evaluating the contribution of typological studies to the assessment and treatment of domestic violence, it is important to first understand what constitutes typological research and what its underlying rationale is. As Lee et al. (2003) pointed out, typological research became an important component of domestic violence assessment and treatment in the early 1990’s, when practitioners and researchers started trying to distinguish between different types of intimate partner abuse by identifying tendencies, patterns and particular traits. In spite of being a relatively new approach to behavioural analysis, typology uses a positivist paradigm to interpret and classify data in such a way to link different kinds of domestic violence with specific causes, consequences and treatment options. (Johnson, 2010)

In view of the remarkable progress which has been made in the field of assessment of domestic violence thanks to typological research, it is no surprise that today, numerous professionals rely heavily on standardised risk indicators based on typology literature to assess and treat domestic violence. (Ross, 2015) For instance, a study conducted by Dutton (1998) revealed that domestic offenders tend to be antisocial and psychopathic and that male offenders suffering from mental disorders may resort to patriarchal schemes to justify their violent behaviour. Moreover, analysing past domestic violence cases, Holtzworth-Munroe and Stuart (1994) and Wallace et al. (1999) concluded that around a quarter of domestic offenders participating in treatment programmes are likely to be antisocial and/or violent and that this particular group of individuals is more difficult to treat and has a tendency to reoffend in the future. (Lee et al., 2003) As a result of that, it is usually recommended that psychopathic domestic offenders are treated as high-risk individuals and constrained through imprisonment and/or strict supervision.

Risk indicators

Although numerous studies have proved that there exists a correlation between various forms of psychopathology, antisocial behaviour and domestic violence, during the past few decades significant efforts have been made to identify specific risk indicators associated with severe violence as to aid practitioners in managing and predicting risk more accurately. (McClennen, 2010)

For example, Saunder (1995) found that several studies on domestic violence indicate that aggressive behaviour, alcoholism and abuse by parents are three risk indicators which are likely to result in domestic violence. Similarly, Straus et al. (1996) adopted an etiological approach to past diagnoses to develop a framework consisting of eighteen standardised risk markers, including drug abuse, alcohol abuse, aggressive behaviour, parental abuse, strong male dominance (associated with patriarchal ideology), repeated verbal aggression and signs of violent behaviour outside the domestic environment.

With regards to the scientific validity of the aforementioned assessment methods, Murphy and Eckhardt (2005) argued that in spite of being a relatively new approach to domestic violence assessment and treatment, typological research has already proved more effective than intuition-based methods, whose subjectivity and lack of actuarial grounds are likely to lead to biased conclusions and evaluation errors. Similarly, Monahan et al. (2005) noted that scientific methods are much more reliable than intuitive ones when attempting to make accurate predictions and manage risk effectively, as clinically-valid statistics can only be obtained by analysing a vast amount of data in such a way to identify patterns and causal mechanisms.

With regards to women’s protection, for instance, typology literature suggests that battered victims tend to be more depressed than non-battered women, which means that depression in women should be treated as a high-risk indicator for domestic violence by professionals. (Hamberger and Phelan, 2004) On the other hand, however, research does not provide information as to whether battered women were already depressed before being abused, and thus more likely to attract a violent partner. (Hamberger and Phelan, 2004)

In other words, it is important to remember that as clinically-valid as quantitative data may be, there are certain dynamics resulting from qualitative factors which cannot be easily analysed in statistical terms, thus making it challenging for researchers to reduce them to merely causal mechanisms.

Changeable factors and practical considerations

While the previous sections focussed mainly on the empirical significance of risk indicators resulting from a typological and positivist approach to domestic violence assessment, it should be noted that behavioural sciences are characterised by a strong qualitative dimension which should always be taken into consideration in order to avoid overestimating or underestimating risk. (Russo, 2004) As Stanley and Humphreys (2006) pointed out, the moment practitioners start interacting with domestic violence victims and offenders, they realise that there are numerous changeable factors which make it difficult to accurately assess and predict risk by relying exclusively on standardised risk indicators.

In fact, the relationship between typological research and domestic violence assessment is a rather new one, which means that the evidence and data that have been collected during the past three decades are not sufficient to develop universally-valid quantitative models. (Lee et al., 2003) To be more precise, although risk markers have certainly proved effective in helping practitioners assess risk and select adequate treatment, it is important that changeable factors are kept into consideration and that training courses emphasise the importance of one’s intuition, listening skills and sensitivity when processing information and assessing individuals’ diverse needs.

An excellent example of this would be a woman from a minority group who is periodically abused by her husband. Although typological research suggests that men who belong to minority groups tend to be attached to traditional patriarchal dynamics and may resort to violence to enforce such views, risk markers provide no indication as to whether the said woman was unable to defend herself due to linguistic barriers, socio-cultural isolation, her immigration status and so forth. (Stanley and Humphreys, 2006) It follows that while risk indicators certainly provide a strong basis for domestic violence assessment and treatment, real-life situations entail various changeable factors which practitioners should try to detect by hearing what victims and offenders have to say, rather than relying solely on quantitative assessment tools which may prevent them from grasping the complexity of one’s circumstances.


In light of the considerations illustrated in this essay, it can be inferred that during the past few decades, significant efforts have been made to assess and treat domestic violence from a scientific approach. Although all behavioural patterns entail qualitative aspects which cannot be reduced to causal mechanisms, the establishment of cause and effect relationships is necessary to identify patterns and manage risk, which is what has motivated researchers and practitioners to adopt quantitative models rather than basing their assessments solely on intuition.

As a result of that, several studies have been conducted using data from past domestic violence cases, which have revealed that domestic offenders tend to possess specific characteristics and distinctive signs, including violent behaviour, alcohol abuse, various forms of psychopathology and child maltreatment. As Murphy and Eckhardt (2005) pointed out, although typological research still represents a relatively new approach to domestic violence assessment, risk indicators have already proved effective in helping professionals to assess abuse and select the most appropriate treatment. It follows that with the passage of time, more data will be collected and researchers will be able to base their analyses on larger samples, thus reaching more accurate conclusions and obtaining clinically-valid statistics which may allow professionals to manage and prevent risk more effectively.

However, it should be noted that heavy reliance on purely quantitative evaluation methods may result in approximate, over-generalised assessments which do not take into consideration changeable factors, which can only be detected by assessing domestic violence on a per-case basis. This way, practitioners should be able to evaluate each individual’s specific treatment needs by combining typology literature with their own intuition.


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