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Assessing Lethality

Compiled by Jeri Martinez

A list of risk factors was complied from seven sources which are noted at the end of this handout. Next to each risk factor are the numbers of the sources which list that factor.

"There are no instruments predicting homicide in abusive relationships for which predictive validity information has been published. Therefore the use of cutoff scores is premature...Common sense dictates that certain factors would be more predictive of homicide than others. Yet without a statistical evaluation, designation of which risk factors should be taken more seriously than others is also premature."2

Abusive History:

  • Increase in the frequency of the cycle of violence; police involvement in the prior year. 1,2,4,5,7;
  • Increase in the severity of injuries inflicted; victim needed medical treatment. 1,2,5,6,7
  • Abuser has threatened homicide or suicide. 1,2,4,5,7
  • Abuser has verbalized or acted out fantasies or plans to commit homicide or suicide. 4,6
  • Abuser used a weapon in prior incidents. 5,6
  • Abuser caused life-threatening injury in prior incidents. 5,6
  • Abuser has threatened to use weapons against the victim. 5,7
  • Abuser has threatened to and/or has killed or maimed pets. 4,7
  • Abuser has raped victim. 1,2,7
  • Abuser beat victim while she was pregnant .2
  • Abuser physically abused a child. 2,7
  • Victim has threatened to commit suicide. 1,2
  • Recent unwanted separation; victim obtained an abuse order or filed for divorce. 3,4
  • A change in custody arrangements has limited access to children and partner. 3
  • Victim has entered a new relationship. 3


Characteristics of the Abuser:

  • Abuses alcohol or drugs, e.g. "uppers" or amphetamines, speed, angel dust, cocaine, crack, street drugs, heroin or mixtures. 1,2,5,7
  • Obsesses about the partner: "If I can’t have you, no one will," "Death before divorce." 2,4
  • Exhibits extreme male dominance or attempts to achieve such dominance. 7
  • Exhibits extreme isolation and lack of support systems or supportive others; partner is central to his existence. 2,4,5,6
  • Has a history of violence with other family members and/or outside the family. 2,5,7
  • Depressed; has expressed hopelessness about the future and is unable to see any alternatives to the use of violence. 4,6
  • Increases risk-taking; abuser has begun to act without regard to the legal or social consequences which previously constrained his violence; e.g., he may start to become more seriously violent, injuring victim where injuries show; he may loss his job or be arrested for drunk driving, etc. 4
  • Has witnessed severe violence between his parents 7
  • Has a history of employment or participation in settings where violence has been normalized, e.g. combat. 6
  • Has a psychiatric disturbance, including pronounced disorders such as delusions 6

Situational Factors:

  • Presence of weapons 2,4,5,6,7
  • Access/proximity to victim 4,5

1.Browne, A. Battered Women who Kill, The Free Press, 1987.
2. Campbell, J.C. "The Danger Assessment Instrument: Risk Factors of Homicide of and by Battered Women," in Block, C.R. & Block, R.L., Questions and Answers in Lethal and Non-Lethal Violence, National Institute of Justice, June, 1992.
3. Edeson, J.L.& Toman, R.M., Intervention for Men who Batter: An Ecological Approach, 49, Sage, 1992.
4. Hart, B., "Beyond the ‘Duty to Warn’: A Therapist’s ‘Duty to Protect’ Battered Women and Children" in K. Yllo & M. Bograd (Eds.), Feminist Perspectives on Wife Abuse, Sage, 1988.
5. Sonkin, D.J., Martin, D. & Walker, L., The Male Batterer: A Treatment Approach, Springer, 1985.
6. Stordeur, R.A. & Stille, R., Ending Men’s Violence Against Their Partners: One Road to Peace, Sage, 1989.
7. Straus, M.A. & Gelles, R.J., Physical Violence in American Families: Risk Factors and Adaptations to Violence in 8,145 Families, Transaction, 1990.

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