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Working With Our Community to Prevent Re-Assault


The Friendship Center will soon be joining staff from several local agencies to implement a new risk assessment tool in our community that can help prevent some of the worst outcomes of intimate partner violence.


Our understanding as a society of intimate partner assault and sexual violence has come a long way in recent decades. One of the most profound shifts in the way we approach these forms of violence in the U.S. occurred when the landmark Violence Against Women Act was passed in 1994. Beyond calling for intervention and prevention of domestic violence, the legislation appropriated funding for programs addressing it at the state and local level. It also tasked the CDC with administering violence prevention efforts—positioning intimate partner violence, sexual assault, and stalking as not just crimes, but serious public health issues.


The significance of seeing interpersonal violence as public health and safety concerns cannot be overstated. By approaching these crimes less like random instances of private violence, we remind each other that perpetrators are among those we know and trust and—because many of them are serial offenders—the harm they do is rarely isolated to a lone survivor. When we discuss these violent crimes in the context of public health, we also empower communities to see them as preventable. However, their sheer prevalence presents persistent challenges for criminal justice personnel as well as agencies like The Friendship Center who work with survivors.


As recently as 10 years ago, an article in the American Journal of Public Health estimated that 12-14 million individuals were victims of rape or sexual violence in the U.S. annually. For comparison, the article’s authors highlight that figure as about 2.5 times the annual incidence of cardiovascular disease, cancer diagnosis, diabetes diagnosis, and contraction of HIV/AIDS combined. They also make the point that though the economic impact of rape and attempted rape was higher than it was for any of those diseases, public funding to research and address sexual violence remained many times lower.


The general saturation violence in the U.S. is staggering—any health factor so widespread has a variety of causes. It did not reach epidemic levels overnight, so it’s not going to be eliminated quickly, nor by any single agency acting alone. We know, for example, that most sexual assault cases won’t go through the justice system since more than 60% are never reported to law enforcement. Stalking and intimate partner violence are similarly underreported—underscoring a need to consider the role of every system, not just law enforcement, in supporting survivors and preventing violence. The good news is that communities are getting better at working together, and there are promising tools that can help prevent the worst outcome of intimate partner violence: fatality.


Dr. Jacquelyn Campbell is a trailblazer credited for what’s known as the Danger Assessment—a tool developed in 1985 to help determine someone’s risk of being killed by their intimate partner (a metric we often refer to as lethality). Before Campbell’s Danger Assessment, evidence-based lists of warning signs for domestic violence lethality were sorely lacking. As a result, many professionals who interacted with homicide victims likely missed telltale indicators that they were at extreme risk of being killed before they could help with services or safety planning. Put simply, risk assessments can save lives—especially when the various systems that respond to domestic violence cases can put them into action. The Friendship Center is excited to be part of a multi-disciplinary group of professionals that will soon be implementing one such assessment tool in our community.


A New Risk Assessment Tool for Our Community


Later this year, our team will be joining staff from several local agencies, including law enforcement, county and city attorney’s offices, the Office of Public Defenders, Child and Family Services, the Child Advocacy Center, Pre-trial Services, judges, Department of Corrections, and others to learn how to use a lethality risk assessment tool that’s currently used statewide in Arizona. Known as the Arizona intimate Partner Risk Assessment Instrument System (APRAISthe tool measures a perpetrator’s likelihood to commit a severe re-assault within seven months that would result in serious injury or death to their victim. APRAIS builds on Dr. Campbell’s groundbreaking danger assessment with questions that reflect current data and can help assess risk for victims of any gender. This update is notable: While the dynamics of an abusive relationship are fairly consistent and predictable regardless of a victim’s gender identity and sexual orientation, Campbell’s Danger Assessment was based specifically on data for femicide victims.


Although Arizona’s application of APRAIS has been tailored to meet state-specific logistical and legal considerations, it’s intended to be adapted to suit broad community efforts to respond to intimate partner violence. In Helena, local law enforcement is already trained to use a voluntary lethality risk assessment when they respond to reports of domestic violence. When victims show a high risk, officers call our 24/7 crisis line from the scene, giving the victim an option to speak directly with an advocate about our services and any immediate safety concerns they might have. Research has proven that this timely connection with an advocate can decrease the frequency and severity of violence in the months following the incident. It also increases the likelihood that a survivor will access services—so we know the value of risk assessments in supporting a survivor’s safety. What sets APRAIS apart is that it expands a community’s use of lethality assessment results from the immediate response to violent crimes to their prosecution.


How does it work? Prosecutors and judges are given the results of the assessment that indicate whether a victim falls into one of two risk categories:

  • High Risk: Victims that answer “yes” to at least four of seven first-tier questions have a 10.5 times higher risk of re-assault than those with fewer risk factors. An estimated 15% of victims in this category will experience re-assault within seven months.

  • Elevated Risk: Victims that answer “yes” to two or three of the first-tier questions have a six times higher risk of re-assault than those with fewer risk factors. An estimated 9% of victims in this category will experience re-assault within seven months.


In Arizona, a state law enacted in 2015 requires that judges consider the results of a risk or lethality assessment in a domestic violence charge presented to the court. Many states have laws allowing or requiring courts to use various pre-trial risk assessment tools in determining release conditions for certain crimes, but Arizona is one of the only states to have a statute requiring courts to review assessment results specific to domestic violence charges. While there’s no such law requiring Montana courts to consider risk assessment results, prosecutors can consider a victim’s APRAIS risk category when advocating for conditions of a perpetrator’s release like bail amounts, restricting contact with the victim, and prohibiting firearm possession. Judges can consider the risk categories as well for setting bonds or determining whether to hold a suspect in custody until formal charges can be filed.


Why a Multi-Disciplinary Approach Matters


In Arizona’s case, APRAIS was born from a recognition that domestic violence cases are complex. Many entities interact with a survivor following a reported incident or assault, and many of those agencies were using their own risk assessment tools. Whether the results of those assessments were consistent or evidence-based mattered little when a different agency or official would review them. Judges in particular expressed frustration with not knowing how to weigh information from risk assessments when setting bail. As part of the APRAIS training, legal and criminal justice personnel learn about the empirical basis of the questions used to determine somebody’s risk.


In addition to aiding decision-making in the criminal justice process, assessment tools like APRAIS can be immensely helpful in empowering survivors to understand their risks and take safety precautions. They can also be eye-opening for the public, helping us all better recognize the high-risk signs of abuse that may be affecting us or somebody we know.


Part of the reason risk assessment tools like Dr. Campbell’s 1985 Danger Assessment were so revolutionary is that they were at the forefront of detecting warning signs for the worst possible effects of domestic violence. Those risks are better known now in the systems that work most closely with survivors, but some factors can manifest before a survivor ever interacts with an advocate or the criminal justice system. It’s devastating when we hear that lethality factors were present in a relationship after a homicide has already occurred. Risk assessment tools like APRAIS can empower us all to understand what survivors face and offer support before it’s too late. In that spirit, we encourage anyone interested in learning about the risk factors for severe re-assault to visit the ASU Family Violence Center’s page on the APRAIS program to learn more.


 

An earlier version of this story published in the Spring 2024 edition of our print newsletter referred to our APRAIS training dates that were originally scheduled for April 2024. Due to an unforeseen delay, the training had to be postponed. The Friendship Center is working with all the participating agencies and APRAIS training staff to reschedule the training for later this year.

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