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Evidence-based risk factors and the MARAM risk assessment tools

There are 3 categories of risk factors under the MARAM Framework.

Comprising those that are:

  1. specific to an adult victim survivor’s circumstances
  2. caused by a perpetrator’s behaviour towards an adult or child victim survivor
  3. additional risk factors caused by a perpetrator’s behaviour specific to children, which recognises that children experience some unique risk factors, and that their risk must be assessed independently of adult victim survivors.

There is also a separate category reflecting children’s circumstances that may indicate (not determine in isolation) that family violence is present or escalating and should prompt assessment of children.

The risk factors reflect the current and emerging evidence base relating to family violence risk.

International evidence-based reviews[27] and consultation with academics and expert professionals have informed the development of a range of evidence-based risk factors that signal that family violence may be occurring.

This practice guidance is concerned with risk factors associated with an adult perpetrator’s family violence behaviours towards adult and child victim survivors.

Each perpetrator’s patterns of behaviour towards adult and child victim survivor(s) can be understood as coercive and controlling behaviour, or coercive control.

Perpetrators exert coercive control using a range of behaviours over time, and their effect is cumulative.

Coercive control can be exerted through any combination or pattern of the evidence-based risk factors.

It is often demonstrated through patterned behaviours of emotional, financial abuse and isolation, stalking (including monitoring of technology), controlling behaviours, to choking/strangulation, sexual and physical violence.

One occurrence of family violence behaviour can create the dynamic of ongoing coercion or control, due to the threat of possible future family violence behaviour and the resultant ongoing fear, even if ‘high-risk’ behaviours do not re-occur.

The implication for professionals working with perpetrators of family violence is that narratives and behaviours that appear innocuous may in fact be part of a pattern of behaviour making victim survivors feel unsafe and elevating their level of risk.

In addition, understanding adult and child victim survivors’ and perpetrators’ broader needs and circumstances can help you to identify, assess and manage risk according to your level of MARAM responsibility.

In Table 3, emerging evidence-informed family violence risk factors are indicated with a hash (#).

Serious risk factors — those that may indicate an increased risk of the victim being killed or almost killed — are highlighted with orange shading##.

Table 3: Evidence-based risk factors

Risk factors relevant to an adult victim’s circumstances

Explanation

Physical assault while pregnant/following new birth

Family violence often commences or intensifies during pregnancy and is associated with increased rates of miscarriage, low birth weight, premature birth, foetal injury and foetal death. Family violence during pregnancy is regarded as a significant indicator of future harm to the woman and child victim. This factor is associated with control and escalation of violence already occurring.

Self-assessed level of risk

Victims are often good predictors of their own level of safety and risk, including as a predictor of re-assault. Professionals should be aware that some victims may communicate a feeling of safety, or minimise their level of risk, due to the perpetrator’s emotional abuse tactics creating uncertainty, denial or fear, and may still be at risk.

Planning to leave or recent separation

For victims who are experiencing family violence, the high-risk periods include when a victim starts planning to leave, immediately prior to taking action, and during the initial stages of or immediately after separation. Victims who stay with the perpetrator because they are afraid to leave often accurately anticipate that leaving would increase the risk of lethal assault. Victims (adult or child) are particularly at risk during the first two months of separation.

Escalation - increase in severity and/or frequency of violence

Violence occurring more often or becoming worse is associated with increased risk of lethal outcomes for victims.

Imminence

Certain situations can increase the risk of family violence escalating in a very short timeframe. The risk may relate to court matters, particularly family court proceedings, release from prison, relocation, or other matters outside the control of the victim which may imminently impact their level of risk.

Financial abuse/difficulties

Financial abuse (across socioeconomic groups), financial stress and gambling addiction, particularly of the perpetrator, are risk factors for family violence. Financial abuse is a relevant determinant of a victim survivor staying or leaving a relationship.

Risk factors for adult or child victim survivors caused by perpetrator behaviours

Explanation

Controlling behaviours

Use of controlling behaviours is strongly linked to homicide. Perpetrators who feel entitled to get their way, irrespective of the views and needs of, or impact on, others are more likely to use various forms of violence against their victim, including sexual violence. Perpetrators may express ownership over family members as an articulation of control. Examples of controlling behaviours include the perpetrator telling the victim how to dress, who they can socialise with, what services they can access, limiting cultural and community connection or access to culturally appropriate services, preventing work or study, controlling their access to money or other financial abuse, and determining when they can see friends and family or use the car. Perpetrators may also use third parties to monitor and control a victim or use systems and services as a form of control over a victim, such as intervention orders and family court proceedings.

Access to weapons

A weapon is defined as any tool or object used by a perpetrator to threaten or intimidate, harm or kill a victim or victims, or to destroy property. Perpetrators with access to weapons, particularly guns and knives, are much more likely to seriously injure or kill a victim or victims than perpetrators without access to weapons.

Use of weapon in most recent event

Use of a weapon indicates a high level of risk because previous behaviour is a likely predictor of future behaviour.

Has ever harmed or threatened to harm victim or family members

Psychological and emotional abuse are good predictors of continued abuse, including physical abuse. Previous physical assaults also predict future assaults. Threats by the perpetrator to hurt or cause actual harm to family members, including extended family members, in Australia or overseas, can be a way of controlling the victim through fear.

Has ever tried to strangle or choke the victim

Strangulation or choking is a common method used by perpetrators to kill victims. It is also linked to a general increased lethality risk to a current or former partner. Loss of consciousness, including from forced restriction of airflow or blood flow to the brain, is linked to increased risk of lethality (both at the time of assault and in the following period of time) and hospitalisations, and of acquired brain injury.

Has ever threatened to kill victim

Evidence shows that a perpetrator’s threat to kill a victim (adult or child) is often genuine and should be taken seriously, particularly where the perpetrator has been specific or detailed, or used other forms of violence in conjunction to the threat indicating an increased risk of carrying out the threat, such as strangulation and physical violence. This includes where there are multiple victims, such as where there has been a history of family violence between intimate partners, and threats to kill or harm another family member or child/children.

Has ever harmed or threatened to harm or kill pets or other animals

There is a correlation between cruelty to animals and family violence, including a direct link between family violence and pets being abused or killed. Abuse or threats of abuse against pets may be used by perpetrators to control family members.

Has ever threatened or tried to self-harm or commit suicide

Threats or attempts to self-harm or commit suicide are a risk factor for murder–suicide. This factor is an extreme extension of controlling behaviours.

Stalking of victim

Stalkers are more likely to be violent if they have had an intimate relationship with the victim, including during, following separation and including when the victim has commenced a new relationship. Stalking when coupled with physical assault, is strongly connected to murder or attempted murder. Stalking behaviour and obsessive thinking are highly related behaviours. Technology-facilitated abuse, including on social media, surveillance technologies and apps is a type of stalking.

Sexual assault of victim

Perpetrators who sexually assault their victim (adult or child) are also more likely to use other forms of violence against them.

Previous or current breach of court orders/intervention orders

Breaching an intervention order, or any other order with family violence protection conditions, indicates the accused is not willing to abide by the orders of a court. It also indicates a disregard for the law and authority. Such behaviour is a serious indicator of increased risk of future violence.

History of family violence

Perpetrators with a history of family violence are more likely to continue to use violence against family members and in new relationships.

History of violent behaviour

(not family violence)

Perpetrators with a history of violence are more likely to use violence against family members. This can occur even if the violence has not previously been directed towards family members. The nature of the violence may include credible threats or use of weapons and attempted or actual assaults. Perpetrators who are violent men generally engage in more frequent and more severe family violence than perpetrators who do not have a violent past. A history of criminal justice system involvement (for example, amount of time and number of occasions in and out of prison) is linked with family violence risk.

Obsession/jealous behaviour toward victim

A perpetrator’s obsessive and/or excessive behaviour when experiencing jealousy is often related to controlling behaviours founded in rigid beliefs about gender roles and ownership of victims and has been linked to violent attacks.

Unemployed / Disengaged from education

A perpetrator’s unemployment is associated with an increased risk of lethal assault, and a sudden change in employment status — such as being terminated and/or retrenched — may be associated with increased risk. Disengagement from education has similar associated risks to unemployment.

Drug and/or alcohol misuse/abuse

Perpetrators with a serious problem with illicit drugs, alcohol, prescription drugs or inhalants can lead to impairment in social functioning and creates an increased risk of family violence. This includes temporary drug-induced psychosis.

Mental illness / Depression

Murder–suicide outcomes in family violence have been associated with perpetrators who have mental illness, particularly depression. Mental illness may be linked with escalation, frequency and severity of violence.

Isolation

A victim is more vulnerable if isolated from family, friends, their community (including cultural) and the wider community and other social networks. Isolation also increases the likelihood of violence and is not simply geographic. Other examples of isolation include systemic factors that limit social interaction or facilitate the perpetrator not allowing the victim to have social interaction.

Physical harm

Physical harm is an act of family violence and is an indicator of increased risk of continued or escalation in severity of violence. The severity and frequency of physical harm against the victim, and the nature of the physical harm tactics, informs an understanding of the severity of risk the victim may be facing. Physical harm resulting in head trauma is linked to increased risk of lethality and hospitalisations, and of acquired brain injury.

Emotional abuse

Perpetrators’ use of emotional abuse can have significant impacts on the victim’s physical and mental health. Emotional abuse is used as a method to control the victim and keep them from seeking assistance.

Property damage

Property damage is a method of controlling the victim, through fear and intimidation. It can also contribute to financial abuse, when property damage results in a need to finance repairs.

Risk factors specific to children caused by perpetrator behaviours

Explanation
(these are in addition to the risk factors for adult or child victims caused by perpetrator behaviours, above.)

Exposure to family violence

Children are impacted, both directly and indirectly, by family violence, including the effects of family violence on the physical environment or the control of other adult or child family members.[28] Risk of harm may be higher if the perpetrator is targeting certain children, particularly non-biological children in the family. Children’s exposure to violence may also be direct, include the perpetrator’s use of control and coercion over the child, or physical violence. The effects on children experiencing family violence include impacts on development, social and emotional wellbeing, and possible cumulative harm.

Sexualised behaviours towards a child by the perpetrator

There is a strong link between family violence and sexual abuse. Perpetrators who demonstrate sexualised behaviours towards a child are also more likely to use other forms of violence against them, such as:[29]

  • talking to a child in a sexually explicit way
  • sending sexual messages or emails to a child
  • exposing a child to sexual acts (including showing pornography to a child)
  • having a child pose or perform in a sexual manner (including child sexual exploitation).

Child sexual abuse also includes circumstances where a child may be manipulated into believing they have brought the abuse on themselves, or that the abuse is an expression of love, through a process of grooming.

Child intervention in violence

Children are more likely to be harmed by the perpetrator if they engage in protective behaviours for other family members or become physically or verbally involved in the violence.

Additionally, where children use aggressive language and behaviour, this may indicate they are being exposed to or experiencing family violence.

Behaviour indicating non return of child

Perpetrator behaviours including threatening or failing to return a child can be used to harm the child and the affected parent.[30] This risk factor includes failure to adhere to, or the undermining of, agreed childcare arrangements (or threatening to do so), threatened or actual removal of children overseas, returning children late, or not responding to contact from the affected parent when children are in the perpetrator’s care. This risk arises from or is linked to entitlement-based attitudes and a perpetrator’s sense of ownership over children. The behaviour is used as a way to control the adult victim, but also poses a serious risk to the child’s psychological, developmental and emotional wellbeing.

Undermining the child–parent relationship

Perpetrators often engage in behaviours that cause damage to the relationship between the adult victim and their child/children. These can include tactics to undermine capacity and confidence in parenting and undermining the child–parent relationship, including manipulation of the child’s perception of the adult victim. This can have long-term impacts on the psychological, developmental and emotional wellbeing of the children, and it indicates the perpetrator’s willingness to involve children in their abuse.

Professional and statutory intervention

Involvement of Child Protection, counsellors, or other professionals indicates that the violence has escalated to a level where intervention is required and indicates a serious risk to a child’s psychological, developmental and emotional wellbeing.

There is evidence that the following child circumstance factors may indicate the presence or escalation of family violence risk. If any of these are present, you should undertake an assessment of risk for children.

Risk factors specific to children’s circumstances

Explanation

History of professional involvement and/or statutory intervention

A history of involvement of Child Protection, youth justice, mental health professionals, or other relevant professionals may indicate the presence of family violence risk, including that family violence has escalated to the level where the child requires intervention or other service support.[31]

Change in behaviour not explained by other causes

A change in the behaviour of a child that cannot be explained by other causes may indicate presence of family violence or an escalation of risk of harm from family violence for the child or other family members. Children may not always verbally communicate their concerns, but may change their behaviours to respond to and manage their own risk, which may include responses such as becoming hypervigilant, aggressive, withdrawn or overly compliant.

Child is a victim of other forms of harm

Children’s exposure to family violence may occur within an environment of polyvictimisation. Child victims of family violence are also particularly vulnerable to further harm from opportunistic perpetrators outside the family, such as harassment, grooming and physical or sexual assault. Conversely, children who have experienced these other forms of harm are more susceptible to recurrent victimisation over their lifetimes, including family violence, and are more likely to suffer significant cumulative effects. Therefore, if a child is a victim of other forms of harm, this may indicate an elevated family violence risk.

9.1 Using assessment tools to identify and assess risk to victim survivors

The risk factors above are central to the identification, screening and assessment processes of Responsibilities 2, 3 and 7outlined in the MARAM Practice Guides.

Identification and screening with victim survivors helps you understand if risk is present, and to decide whether an immediate response is required.

Family violence risk assessment is used to understand the presentation of risk (what risk factors or ‘behaviours’ are being used by a perpetrator) and to determine level of risk. This is informed by analysing the presence and ‘seriousness’ of evidence-based risk factors and pattern of coercive control via a MARAM risk assessment tool.

The evidence-based risk factors are associated with family violence occurring and/or strongly linked to the likelihood of a perpetrator killing or seriously injuring a victim survivor.

In addition, the victim survivor–focused MARAM Practice Guides describe how risk factors might be experienced in Aboriginal communities, diverse communities and for older people, children and young people. The victim survivor–focused risk assessment tools provide specific questions tailored to these communities to help determine if risk factors are present.

For example, for people with disabilities, the comprehensive assessment tool asks whether anyone in the person’s family has used their disability against them (a manifestation of the ‘controlling behaviours’ risk factor for people with disabilities).

New evidence will emerge as professionals use the MARAM assessment tools and Practice Guides, which account for a broad range of experiences across the spectrum of seriousness and presentations of risk.

This will inform continuous improvement and practice change through future updates to the MARAM Framework and Practice Guides.

9.2 Using assessment tools to identify and assess risk by perpetrators

Victim survivor safety is the primary consideration when working with perpetrators.

When identifying and assessing the risk presented by perpetrators, professionals use their understanding of how family violence risk factors and patterns of family violence behaviours are targeted towards, and experienced by, adult and child victim survivors.

The MARAM risk factors also underpin the design of the perpetrator-focused identification and assessment tools under Responsibilities 2, 3 and 7 of the perpetrator-focused MARAM Practice Guides.

A person’s narratives, behaviours, presenting needs and circumstances can support identification of indicators or risk factors demonstrating their use of family violence behaviours.

The perpetrator-focused risk identification and assessment tools support observation, information gathering, contextualisation of presenting needs and circumstances and processes for direct assessment of the perpetrator, without colluding with or minimising or justifying their use of violence. The assessment tools also enable identification of patterns of coercive and controlling behaviours, points of escalation and opportunities for intervention.

In addition, these tools support information sharing to ensure the experience of the victim survivor is central to assessing the level of risk and developing risk management interventions.

You should determine victim survivors’ identity, circumstances, impacts of disadvantage or lived experience in order to understand how perpetrators may target these as part of their pattern of coercive controlling behaviour.

You should also be aware that perpetrators’ own lives are complex, and they may have had experiences of family violence (for example, when they were children) and other forms of discrimination and oppression.

Understanding perpetrators in their context is important to support more accurate identification, risk assessment and tailored risk management plans.

Reviewed 21 July 2021

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