Lethality Assessments and Extremely Dangerous Behavior

Last updated 2019


Violent relationships often become more violent over time. While it is impossible to predict with any degree of certainty when relationships will escalate to lethal violence, researchers have identified some common factors and have created lethality assessments to gauge the degree of risk in a present situation.

Risk assessments take a number of different forms, including yes-or-no questionnaires, 10-point rating scales, and calendars to track the frequency of violence behavior.[1] The Battered Women’s Justice Project describes several types of risk assessments, including: Danger Assessment by Dr. Jacqueline Campbell, which assesses the victim’s risk of lethal or repeat violence; Domestic Violence Screening Instrument (DVSI-R), which is conducted using court and probation records; Ontario Domestic Assault Risk Assessment, which evaluates the risk of future assaults, as well as estimates the timeline to and severity of a new assault; Spousal Assault Risk Assessment (SARA), which is based on 20 indicators that can be employed at presentencing, probation and pretrial stages; and CAADA-DASH, which provides 24 indicators for various agencies to use.[2] As one team of researchers stated, however, lethality assessments should be used as a guide “rather than as a precise actuarial tool.”[3] Lack of circumstances ticked in a risk assessment—and detailed below—does not necessarily indicate that violence will not become lethal. Victims and advocates should always use extreme care in planning for safety and women should rely on their own instincts in determining appropriate responses to violent situations.

Research indicates that the most dangerous time for a battered woman is after she ends the relationship. According to the Center for Relationship Abuse Awareness, 75 percent of domestic violence related murders take place when the victim separates from her abuser; the violence increases by 75% for at least two years after the separation. In one report, researchers identified “estrangement, separation, or an attempt at separation” as the second most predominant precursor to domestic violence-related homicide.[4] As one advocate explained, “the perpetrator knows that they are losing that power and control. They believe that by escalating the violence they can regain that power and control.”[5] It is important for the woman to make her own decision to leave a relationship because she is in the best position to assess the potential danger.

In many cases when an abuser kills his wife or partner, he has threatened to kill her in the past.[6] One study indicates that women whose current or former partners had threatened to kill them were almost fifteen times more likely to be the victim of domestic violence-related homicide.[7] The same was not true, however, regarding the abuser’s previous threatened or attempted suicide.[8]

An abuser previously “choking” or strangling the victim is also an indicator of extreme danger. In one study, researchers found that “women who were the victims of completed or attempted homicide were far more likely to have a history of strangulation compared to the abused…women [in the control group].”[9] Researchers ultimately concluded that non-fatal strangulation is a significant predictor of domestic violence-related homicide.[10]

Firearms heighten the risk of lethality. An additional risk factor of lethal violence has also been associated with the abuser’s possession of or access to weapons, the use of weapons or threats of such use in prior incidents, and escalation of the violence in frequency or severity. According to Everytown for Gun Safety, “an average of 52 women are shot and killed by an intimate partner [each month]. Nearly 1 million women alive today have reported being shot or shot at by intimate partners, and 4.5 million women have reported being threatened with a gun.” When an abuser has access to a firearm, the likelihood he will kill his victim is five times greater.[11]

Women may experience more fear when men use violence while under the influence of drugs or alcohol. Researchers have found, however, that “although drug abuse or serious alcohol abuse is related to an increased risk to a woman’s safety, threats to kill, extreme jealousy, attempts to choke, and forced sex present a higher risk.”[12]

Advocate should be aware that lethality assessments are not free of critique. Scholar Evan Stark claimed that lethality assessments are “very poor windows through which to assess domestic violence and that redirecting scarce resources based on DA is not only unwise but counterproductive,”[13] further arguing that “abuse-related fatalities and near fatalities [are] too rare to be the basis for a useful intervention tool.”[14] In spite of this perception, lethality assessments remain invaluable tools for aiding women in making decisions regarding their own safety.

[1] See e.g., Domestic Violence Assessment Tools, Domestic Shelters, https://www.domesticshelters.org/resources/risk-assessment-tools (last accessed Mar. 12, 2019); Risk Assessment, BWJP, https://www.bwjp.org/our-work/topics/risk-assessment.html (last accessed Mar. 12, 2019).

[2] Battered Justice Women’s Project, Risk Assessment, https://www.bwjp.org/our-work/topics/risk-assessment.html (last accessed Apr. 2, 2020).

[3] Jacquelyn C. Campbell et al, Assessing Risk Factors for Intimate Partner Homicide, 250 NIJ Journal 14, 16 (2003).

[4] Neil Websdale, VAWnet, Lethality Assessment Tools: A Critical Analysis 3 (2000).

[5] Kristen J. Barnes, Domestic Violence: Women’s Risks Increase after Breakup, Montgomery Advertiser (May 9, 2006).

[6] Jacquelyn C. Campbell et al, Assessing Risk Factors for Intimate Partner Homicide, 250 NIJ Journal 14, 16 (2003).

[7] Id. at 17.

[8] Id. at 16.

[9] Nancy Glass et al, Non-Fatal Strangulation is an Important Risk Factor for Homicide in Women, 35 J. Emergency Med. 329, 332 (2008).

[10] Id. at 334.

[11] Everytown for Gun Safety, Guns and Violence Against Women: America’s Uniquely Lethal Intimate Partner Violence Problem, Oct. 17, 2019.

[12] Glen Kercher, Andrea Weiss, & Katrina Rufino, Crime Victims’ Institute, Assessing the Risk of Intimate Partner Violence 1–2 (2010) (citing Phyllis W Sharps, Jacquelyn C Campbell, Doris Campbell, Fay Gary, & Daniel Webster, The Role of Alcohol Use in Intimate Partner Femicide, 10 Am. J. Addictions 1 (2001)).

[13] Evan Stark, The Dangers of Dangerousness Assessments, 6 Fam. Violence Quarterly 13, 14 (2013.

[14] Id. at 16.