Lethality Assessment Tools: A Critical Analysis

This document critiques several lethality assessment tools and examines the link between these instruments and research on domestic homicide. Discusses the antecedents of lethal violence and utility of dangeousness assessment tools in promoting safety.

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VAWnet Summary:

Lethality Assessment Tools: A Critical Analysis by Neil Websdale (2000).

In Brief:

Insofar as it results in loss of life, intimate partner homicide is the most extreme form of domestic violence. Most intimate violence against women does not escalate to homicide. Lethality assessment tools that purport to assess risk of lethal violence often derive from research and practical understandings about domestic violence and domestic homicide. Given that the research shows little if any qualitative difference in the antecedents to lethal and non-lethal domestic violence, it might be more appropriate to use the term dangerousness assessment rather than lethality assessment. The dangerousness assessment recognizes a continuum of violence against women and seeks to identify what point on that continuum a woman is situated.

Although there are a number of lethality/dangerousness assessment tools in use, there is little research on the precise links between these tools and the research into domestic homicide. Neither is there any systematic research about how these tools are used, what agencies do with assessment scores, how battered women feel about completing these tools, or how victims of intimate violence strategize and plan for their safety in the light of assessment scores. The most common clusters of questions are concerned with: prior victimization; batterer's drug and alcohol problems; batterer's obsessive-possessive behavior and excessive jealousy; batterer's threats to kill the victim or her children; batterer possession of, access to, familiarity with, and degree of fascination with weaponry, especially guns; batterer's use of violence in settings outside the home (e.g.. bar fights); stalking behavior; batterer's suicidal ideations, plans, threats, and past attempts; the status of the relationship in terms of whether the parties are separated, separating, estranged, or whether she is in the process of fleeing. These clusters of questions generally match research findings which emphasize the following antecedents in cases of intimate partner killings: escalating domestic violence and the increasing entrapment of battered women (see Stark and Flitcraft, 1996); the separation/estrangement/divorce of the parties (Wilson and Daly, 1993); obsessive possessiveness or morbid jealousy on the part of the abusive partner (Daly and Wilson, 1988: 295; Easteal, 1993); threats to commit intimate partner homicide, suicide, or both (Hart 1988: 242); prior agency involvement, particularly with the police (Browne, 1987: 10); the issuance of protection or restraining orders against one of the parties, nearly always the male; depression on the part of the abuser (West, 1967; Lester, 1992; Buteau et al, 1993); and, a prior criminal history of violent behavior on the part of the abusive man (Klein, 1993; Fagan, Stewart, and Jansen, 1983; Bureau of Justice Statistics, 1998).

The research into domestic homicide is limited because it is impossible to know precisely the characteristics of domestic violence relationships that end in death. In the final analysis, our knowledge is limited by the information reported by the involved parties prior to the homicide, and subsequently inserted into the official record. It is also clear from other research that lethal outcomes may also depend upon the availability of emergency medical services, especially in the first hour after a shooting or stabbing (Doerner, 1983; Mann, 1988; Websdale, 1999).

While rare, it is nevertheless the case that domestic homicides occur when none or very few of the antecedents are present. It is therefore incumbent upon us not give women a false sense of security if lethality or dangerousness assessment tools indicate an apparently low level of risk. At the same time the assessment tools are useful if used as part of an overall safety plan that takes women's perceptions into account. Any thoughtful instrument has the potential to enlighten those who know little about the plight of battered women. They may also provide a touchstone for victims themselves as they seek to strategize about their futures and those of their children.

Distribution Rights

The production and dissemination of this publication was supported by Cooperative Agreement Number U1V/CCU324010-02 from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Its contents are solely the responsibility of the authors and do not necessarily represent the official views of the CDC, VAWnet, or the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence.