Derby academic’s research on assessing domestic abuse harm

University of Derby lecturer Joanna Adhikari has been researching identifying risk of harm in domestic abuse, in particular the assessment of impulsivity and aggression and their contribution to risk in domestic abuse. This research was completed working with Dr Paul Smith and Dr Sue Elmer from Leeds Trinity University. EMPAC is pleased to report on her findings here.

Identifying risk of harm in domestic abuse (DA) has become increasingly important for safeguarding victims and their children in recent years (e.g. Messing & Thaller, 2014; Stanley & Humphreys, 2014). Identifying what these risks are is vital since the effects of DA can be as severe as hospitalisation or murder in some cases (e.g. Bridger et al., 2017). Children are also commonly affected by DA, as they not only witness abusive acts and threats on a regular basis, but are very often harmed as well (Safelives, 2014). Such exposure to DA frequently demonstrates behavioural and psychological symptoms in children (Krug et al., 2002). Increasing evidence indicates that coercive control is equally as damaging to DA victims (Stark, 2007), is a core aspect of DA perpetration, and is an issue that should also be considered when assessing DA risk.


This project looked at two psychological constructs, impulsivity and aggression, and their connections with DA. The literature in the area reveals there are potential relationships that could contribute to knowledge in the area of risk assessment (e.g. Shorey et al., 2011; Tweed & Dutton, 1998). Impulsivity is related to many social and individual problems, manifesting itself in a variety of ways, such as in individuals who make hasty decisions, or those who choose immediate gratification, such as in drug abuse (Nagoshi et al., 1992; Winstanley et al, 2004). Most importantly, impulsivity is strongly associated with criminality, including psychopathy (Cleckley, 1976), antisocial behaviour (White et al., 1994), and aggression (Barratt, Monahan, & Steadman, 1994; Smith et al., 2006). While they are two separate constructs, impulsivity and aggression are indirectly linked. Impulsivity is strongly associated with aggression (Barratt et al., 1994; Smith et al., 2006a), and the impulsive type of aggression has been associated with DA (Arias et al., 1987; Shorey et al., 2011; Tweed & Dutton, 1998) as well as links being found between the personality constructs of impulsiveness and impulsive aggression on physical violence (Edwards et al., 2003).


Currently, when considering the level of risk posed by a perpetrator of DA, police and family practitioners in the UK assess risk with the assistance of the ‘Domestic Abuse, Stalking and ‘Honour’ Based Violence – Risk Identification Tool’ (DASH-RIC; Richards, 2009). This is used with victims of DA in order to assess the severity of the abusive behaviour. If the outcome is high then the victim is referred to a ‘Multi-Agency Risk Assessment Conference’ (MARAC) meeting with numerous agencies who use their insights from their own professional perspectives, with a view to protect the adult victim and their children.


When looking at this process from a forensic psychology perspective, the literature outlines guiding principles and risk factors (Whittemore & Kropp, 2002), which shed light on the current DA risk assessment practice and some gaps within it. In addition, while there is extensive research in the areas of aggression and impulsivity and how they relate more generally to DA perpetration, there are specific gaps in knowledge regarding how they inform victim perceptions of risk in DA. Furthermore, considering the high numbers of children that are present within families experiencing domestic abuse, there is a gap regarding the potential contribution these children could make in risk assessment procedures, particularly to ensure their voices are included.


The aim of this project was to provide an original contribution to knowledge by exploring these gaps with a view to informing the DA victim-perception risk assessment literature and practice in the UK. Through use of mixed methods, this project conducted three phases of study. Firstly, interviews with six domestic abuse survivors using interpretative phenomenological analysis (IPA). Secondly, a questionnaire study in the general population measuring self-reports and perceptions of partners on aggression, impulsivity and domestic abuse experience. Thirdly, a case study of a family who experienced domestic abuse using a narrative interview with the mother and narrative observations, using play techniques and rapport building, with her children.


Analysis from the first study revealed a complexity of domestic abuse lived experience via five superordinate themes, within them showing participants could recognise their abusive partners’ aggressive and impulsive behaviours, as well as revealing that they could recall an array of risk management techniques they used in order to minimise risk, these recollections were more tangible than recalling their feelings of risk. Other interesting findings emerged regarding how the younger survivors, who experienced teen dating violence, avoided disclosure of the abuse to their mother, concealing it for as long as possible before they eventually reached out for help. It was found that the participants who were mothers provided mixed accounts of their experiences in regards to awareness of risk to children, providing evidence that children can be hidden in risk assessment procedures if adult survivors are not directly asked


The second phase of study measured impulsivity using the Barratt Impulsiveness Scale (BIS-11; Patton et al 1995) and aggression levels, using the Buss-Perry Aggression Questionnaire (BPAQ; Buss & Perry, 1992), and the Aggressive Acts Questionnaire (AAQ; Barratt et al., 1999) in 113 participants’ self-reports and their reports on their partners. Important differences were found, with those who experienced domestic abuse measuring their abusers as significantly higher on the BIS-11, the BPAQ and the AAQ, than those who had not experienced domestic abuse.


The final study phase revealed powerful themes regarding a family’s shared experience of domestic abuse. The use of sand tray and art-based play with children, aided by rapport building techniques, provided them with the tools they needed to explore their experiences and talk about them in a non-direct and non-intrusive way. This resulted in their disclosures of witnessing abuse between their parents, as well as internalising and externalising behaviours being apparent; where the eight year old boy showed powerful anger and aggression towards the abusive father figure, as well as the four year old boy being preoccupied with his mother’s safety.


Taken together, the findings from the three phases of study expand knowledge of domestic abuse victims’ perceptions of risk, impulsivity and aggression in their abusive partners.  It is suggested that victim-perception risk assessments would benefit from the addition of impulsivity and aggression items, as well as rapport building and play techniques being an ideal method for practitioners to elicit important risk assessment information from children.


So What?


Q What’s the key impact the findings will have?


Firstly, the findings show that there are new ways in which risk could be assessed in domestic abuse, particularly in terms of what the victims can identify in their abusers’ personalities/ behaviours. Higher levels of aggression and impulsivity are known to be associated with domestic abuse, and my research provides evidence that victims can accurately identify these higher levels in their abusers.  These types of questions are currently not included in police risk assessment procedures, such as the DASH, and it may be useful to consider adding such domains into risk assessment tools going forward.


Secondly, powerful accounts from child victims of domestic abuse, gained from non-direct methods such as play and rapport building, suggests the importance of really listening to them when assessing risk – particularly for family practitioners.


Q What can policing professionals do differently?


In terms of assessing risk in domestic abuse, my research has shown the power of listening to the story of the victim. I found in my research that victims’ stories can be disorganised and they tend to jump from one time to another in trying to explain what happened to them, this is likely due to trauma caused by the psychological and physical abuse they were subjected to. Risk assessments, such as the DASH, are a set of questions with yes/no answers, and I wonder if such a transactional box-ticking exercise, although managing the process, can disrupt the thought processes of victims when trying so hard to explain their story. So, perhaps giving witness and victims more freedom to speak at their own pace would get more information during a victim interview in the long run.


Regarding children as witnesses to domestic abuse, it may be that some of the current techniques used when speaking to child victims of sexual abuse can be included in risk assessment procedures for domestic abuse.


Q What’s your take home message based on the research?


The take home message is that my research emphasises the importance of victim knowledge of the perpetrator’s personality and how that can inform risk assessments used by police and family practitioners. Domestic abuse affects children as well as adults, so this research has taken a family approach because listening to accounts of both adult and child victims to build a more complete picture of risk within a family experiencing domestic abuse. Think family!


Joanna can be contacted direct on


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