Lethality Assessments
last updated February 1, 2006

A number of factors have been associated with an increased risk of lethal violence. For example, when a man is excessively jealous and constantly wants to know where his partner is, he should be considered dangerous. A jealous batterer often tries to control his wife or partner's behavior and may accuse her of having affairs. These men often "stalk" women when they leave the relationship or move out of the house.

Often when a batterer kills his wife or partner, he has threatened homicide or suicide in the past. These threats should be taken very seriously. Batterers who are heavy drug and alcohol abusers are more likely to kill. The abuse of alcohol and drugs has also been found to be a factor in cases where women kill their batterers. Often, women are more afraid when men use drugs and alcohol and are more likely to use violence to protect themselves during an assault. An abuser's prior "choking" or "strangling" of the victim is also an indicator of extreme danger.

Research indicates that the most dangerous time for a battered woman is after she ends the relationship. According to the Network Women's Program: "In Hungary, women who are most at risk are those who have declared their intention to file for divorce, and the highest percentage (57 percent) of abused women was among divorced women." From Network Women's Program, Bending the Bow: Targeting Women's Human Rights and Opportunities, Open Society Institute 22 (2002). A 2003 study described by the Family Violence Prevention Fund confirmed that "[s]eparating from an abusive partner after having lived with him, leaving the home she shares with an abusive partner or asking her abusive partner to leave the home they share were all factors that put a woman at 'higher risk' of becoming a victim of homicide." It is very important for a battered woman to make her own decision to leave a relationship because she is in the best position to assess the potential danger.

When a batterer is extremely depressed and appears to lose hope for moving beyond the depression, he may be more likely to commit homicide and/or suicide. When a batterer possesses weapons or there are weapons or dangerous objects around the house, the batterer is more likely to use them in an assault. A batterer who has used weapons in previous abusive incidents or made prior threats with weapons may be more likely to use weapons again. Studies also indicate that the isolation of the batterer and the extent to which he is dependent on the battered woman correlate with the use of lethal violence. Escalation of the violence in frequency or severity can also indicate increased dangerousness. Some men who batter believe that their wives or partners belong to them. A batterer who believes he is absolutely entitled to his female partner, her services, her obedience and her loyalty is likely to be life endangering.

As reported by the Family Violence Prevention Fund (FVPF), a 2003 study described in the American Journal of Public Health found that "[a] batterer's unemployment, access to guns and threats of deadly violence are the strongest predictors of female homicide in abusive relationships." According to FVPF, the study shows that "a combination of factors, rather than one single factor, increases the likelihood of intimate partner homicide involving an abusive man who kills his female partner." Although its is the combination of factors that indicates risk, the study found that the "strongest" risk factor for lethality is the abuser's unemployment. The study also found that the perpetrator's alcohol use was not independently associated with lethal attacks.

The Domestic Abuse Intervention Project has developed a risk assessment questionnaire and recommends that these questions be incorporated into documentation procedures. Neil Websdale, Lethality Assessment Tools: A Critical Analysis (PDF, 9 pages), offers an excellent overview of the current state of research on lethality or dangerousness, describes some of the problems that arise this research, and details the ways in which lethality assessment tools can be used to educate the public, raise the awareness of service providers, and provide battered women with an additional lens through which to evaluate their options and plan for their safety. Sample lethality assessment tools are provided by the U.S.-based Domestic Violence Institute and Alabama Coalition Against Domestic Violence.