Module 5: Risk Assessment and Safety Planning

Domestic violence in times of COVID-19
Risk Assessment and Safety Enhancement
Risk Assessment
Communication with victims about safety measures and risk assessment
Information about the usage of risk assessment tools in Europe regarding the Social Sector
IMPRODOVA Checklist for risk assessment of domestic violence
IMPRODOVA Risk Assessment Integration Module

Learning objectives

This module presents what needs to be considered when assessing the risk of victims of domestic violence and what steps are necessary to improve the safety of victims. The learning materials are not tailored to the needs of every country; they include generic cases that need local adaptation.


IMPRODOVA: Domestic violence in times of disasters

The video highlights the influence of disasters on the rate of domestic violence.


Domestic violence in times of COVID-19

Quarantine, restrictions, closed schools, home office, short-time work, financial worries and fear of the future – all these factors have the potential to cause increased stress in relationships and family life. It is therefore suspected that there has been and would continue to be a significant increase in violence at home.


Risk factors

  • Health and mental health problems can increase during the lockdown, as health-related services are only accessible to a limited extent. This in turn can have a negative impact on the health status of individuals, increase their stress levels and encourage an increase in violent assaults.
  • Economic insecurity or unemployment is accompanied by financial worries that can reinforce destructive coping mechanisms.
  • Violence always has to do with power. In times of crisis and isolation and the associated feelings of helplessness, loss of control and powerlessness, violence is supposedly a means of regaining control and power.
  • Language barriers, closures of contact points or the fact that social workers are only present on site to a limited extent due to the protective measures can make access to support services considerably more difficult.
  • Victims may also be reluctant to take advantage of support services for fear of contracting COVID-19.
  • Social distancing can limit the social contacts of individuals to such an extent that victims may not dare to seek help without the closeness and encouragement of caregivers. Similarly, caregivers, acquaintances, or outsiders, such as employers or educational staff, do not become aware of the problem and cannot act as supporters. On the other hand, neighbours are more alert and present and, due to the initial restrictions, must be considered a protective factor.

Light and dark field

During the COVID-19 pandemic, domestic violence was increasingly reported in EU countries.

Especially in cases of domestic violence, reports to the police are often received with some delay or not reported at all, and incidents more often reported by people victims relate to. However, the COVID-19-related restrictions prevented reporting because of the lack of social contacts. Therefore, more cases than usual may have gone undetected. As a result, it can be assumed that there are a high number of unreported cases.

This logic can explain why, in addition to an increase in reported cases of domestic violence in many areas, there was a decrease in numbers in others. This could be due to the fact that the perpetrator was always present at home so that the victim had no opportunity to call for help and/or report a crime without risking an escalation.


Domestic violence during the COVID-19 pandemic in EU countries

Each individual country has taken measures to support victims of domestic violence during the pandemic and to protect them from further violence.

National Action Plans

The document “The COVID-19 pandemic and intimate partner violence against women in the EU” offers a preliminary overview of the measures undertaken across the EU to support victims of violence during the Covid-19 outbreak (from March until the end of September 2020), identifies examples of promising practices and provides initial recommendations for the EU and Member States on how to better support victims during the pandemic, as well as in other potential crises.

Although more research is needed to fully assess the extent of the emerging challenges, the findings from this study can be used to further explore the issues and contribute to the development of governmental strategies on prevention of gender-based violence and on crisis preparedness.

The study found that the introduction of counterpandemic measures across the EU created at least seven main challenges for service providers:

  • Ensuring continuity of service delivery
  • Finding new ways of providing support
  • Meeting a surge in demand for services
  • Dealing with strain on service provider staff
  • Reaching victims
  • Identifying the risk level of victims
  • Inadequacy of funding.

All EU Member States implemented changes or established new measures to support and protect women victims of intimate partner violence and their children in response to Covid-19. However, comprehensive action plans specifically addressing the issue of intimate partner violence in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic or detailed guidance on emergency action were identified in few EU Member States. In addition, all these national policies and action plans were reactive responses that were developed and implemented after the Covid-19 outbreak, rarely accompanied by additional funding.

Only three Member States introduced action plans specifically to address issues relating to intimate partner violence in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic. Ireland, Spain and Lithuania are among the EU countries that have introduced a national action plan to tackle domestic violence during the pandemic. While Spain and Lithuania have strengthened coordination between their health, police and justice services, Ireland has gone one step further and has contributed €160,000 to support shelters and hotlines for victims of domestic violence. Irish courts have given priority to domestic violence cases and increased the number of remote hearings. The police also checked on women who have experienced violence in the past.

Legislation

New legislation or amendments to existing legislation in response to Covid-19 were adapted in 14 Member States. The most common type of legislative change was intended to ensure continuity of services to support women victims and their children, either specifically during lockdown or in emergency situations more generally. Legislation aiming to prevent victims from being trapped with perpetrators in the context of lockdown or quarantine was less common. Even where such legislation was introduced, Member States focused more on providing alternative accommodation to victims and ensuring no criminal liability for victims travelling despite lockdown orders than on removing the perpetrator from the home or changing police procedures or justice systems to continue criminal proceedings. Like national policies and action plans, most legislative or judicial interventions were introduced during lockdown and intended to be temporary.

In Latvia, Estonia, Slovakia and France, governments are now legally obliged to provide alternative shelters for women who are exposed to violence at home. Estonian courts are empowered to issue injunctions against violent partners to protect the victim from homelessness and bring the perpetrator to justice.

Awareness campaigns

Almost every EU country has conducted awareness campaigns to inform victims of domestic violence about available support. In Greece, Finland, and Portugal, for example, these were targeted specifically at refugees and people with a migrant background, while other countries targeted women from Roma communities, LGBTIQ+ women or people with hearing loss. Awareness campaigns can also encourage witnesses of domestic violence to support victims by providing clear guidance on how they can support victims.

Shaky support systems

Member States generally recognised the importance of increasing the availability of communication and support tools for victims throughout the Covid-19 pandemic. Thus more digital channels to help women victims of intimate partner violence to reach out for help were established. Examples include mobile phone apps, various forms of instant messaging service and new email services, with service providers increasing their hours of operation and their capacity to assist victims in different languages. However, measures offering tailored support to children affected by domestic violence were scarce.

The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed that support systems for victims of domestic violence are shaky in most EU countries. The staff of shelters and counselling centres were overwhelmed by the increased demand and the increased suffering of victims. They did not feel prepared for the situation of providing support from a distance and not being able to help the victims face-to-face. At the same time, they themselves had to adapt their work to the new situation (e.g. home office, reducing contacts, looking after children).

Conclusions
  • Very few Member States adopted a comprehensive national policy or action plan addressing potential spikes of intimate partner violence in the context of Covid-19
  • To ensure continuity of service delivery throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, legislation was used to classify victim support services as essential in a limited number of Member States
  • Legislative measures providing additional accommodation for victims were more common than those removing perpetrators
  • Shortages in shelter accommodation caused by Covid-19 restrictions sparked cross-sectoral initiatives
  • Lack of sufficient funding and guidance in Member States placed an additional burden on service providers
  • All Member States recognised the need to raise awareness of the risk of a spike in intimate partner violence in the context of the pandemic
  • There was a limited focus on providing specialised support for children and disadvantaged groups affected by intimate partner violence

Source: The COVID-19 pandemic and intimate partner violence in the EU.


Special role of police, health, and social sectors during the COVID-19 pandemic

Police
  • In times of lockdown and pandemic, the attention of the police is focused on compliance with and control of state-ordered measures.
  • Especially at the beginning of the lockdown, police forces may have refrained from expelling an offender from the home if he or she was in quarantine because it was unclear how to proceed in such cases.
Health sector
  • The attention of medical staff during the pandemic is mainly focused on pandemic-related medical interventions. Cases of domestic violence can thus be more easily overlooked. Victims of domestic violence are also afraid to go to hospital and catch COVID-19. In some cases, access to hospitals during a lockdown is only possible in severe acute cases.
Social sector
  • School closures took place in about 190 countries worldwide. Apart from the direct loss of education, there was also a loss of social contacts. Indicators and direct signs of domestic violence thus have a high risk of being overlooked.
  • In the social sector, appointments with clients can no longer take place in person. Many contact points had to close, and appointments were cancelled or greatly reduced.
  • NGOs, victim support and counselling services reported an increased demand for counselling and/or support. Further analysis is needed to obtain reliable data on which services are in high demand and need to be strengthened and which services are less in demand and may need to be better adapted to the existing situation.

Recommendations to combat and better detect domestic violence during the pandemic

The lockdown measures to contain COVID-19 in spring 2020 also brought the issue of domestic violence increasingly into the public and police attention.

It was reported in the media, in politics and by NGOs that under COVID-19 conditions, especially women and children experience increased violence. The Director of the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights has called on the states not only to protect women during the pandemic, but “to strengthen their measures to end violence against women in the future”. The European Institute for Gender Equality (EIGE) has also supported calls for the EU and its Member States to use the COVID-19 pandemic as an opportunity to step up their efforts to protect women’s rights (Source: https://eige.europa.eu/printpdf/news/eu-rights-and-equality-agency-heads-lets-step-our-efforts-end-domestic-violence).

The World Health Organisation (WHO) and UN women have underlined the importance of data collection during the COVID 19 pandemic, which is a crucial tool to mitigate adverse effects on women and girls affected by violence and to develop prevention strategies for future crises (Source: https://www.unwomen.de/aktuelles/corona-eine-krise-der-frauen.html; https://www.unwomen.de/fileadmin/user_upload/Corona/gender-equality-in-the-wake-of-covid-19-en.pdf). For the future, it is crucial that research provides immediate and longer-term policy and practical responses.

The following recommendations were formulated:

  • Law enforcement authorities must ensure that domestic violence incidents are given high priority and that the manifestations of violence associated with COVID-19 are addressed.
  • The health sector must always ensure that victims of domestic violence have access to sexual and reproductive health information and services.
  • Social sector support services should increasingly provide online crisis support services such as hotlines and chats. Emergency care/day care services should be extended to all families – not only to parents working in systemically important jobs.

Aiming to reduce violence against women in different crisis situations and including women-specific needs in emergency and recovery plans

  • Adopt national action plans to improve the long-term response to gender-based violence in times of crisis
  • Implement measures to protect victims and their children from perpetrators through rapid removal of the perpetrator

Improving access to support services and limiting the impact of Covid-19 – and other potential crisis situations – on the functionality of support services

  • Adopt national legislation to ensure that support services for women victims of intimate partner violence and their children are recognised as essential services during states of emergency
  • Introduce helplines and communication tools that provide victims with the means to discreetly access support in times of crisis
  • Provide additional funding to expand the capacity of support services to support women victims of intimate partner violence and their children in times of crisis
  • Update service providers’ procedures for risk assessment of victims to include remote service delivery rather than in-person settings only
  • Evaluate measures to protect women victims of intimate partner violence and their children in times of crisis to improve future action
  • Address the strain on service provider staff by adopting practices that support staff well-being
  • Use awareness-raising campaigns to inform victims about where and how to access support services in times of crisis
  • Provide comprehensive initial vocational and in-service training for professionals supporting victims of violence
  • Share knowledge and practices among the staff of support services to facilitate the effective delivery of remote counselling to women victims and their children

The Covid-19 Global Gender Response Tracker, jointly launched by UN Women and UNDP, provides a comprehensive overview of the political measures being taken worldwide.


How can victims of domestic violence be supported during a pandemic?
  • If victims of domestic violence do not want to turn to the police or help services because they do not trust state institutions or have already had bad experiences, the first step out of the violent situation can be taken with help lines or chats if this can be done safely at home. Further help is then possible.
  • It is important that victims are always made aware that the blame never lies with them and that what is happening is wrong. A clear statement and condemnation of domestic violence in the media – especially in times of pandemics – helps those affected to seek further support.
  • Concern about the economic consequences after separation can make it difficult for victims of domestic violence to find a way out of their situation: Some victims are financially dependent on their partner, for example because they are no longer able to go to paid work due to caring for family members and childcare, or because they were dismissed in the course of the COVID-19 pandemic. Some countries, like Germany, have a functioning system of assistance to alleviate financial hardship for victims of domestic violence after a separation. This is not the case in other countries.
  • Written information on violence in intimate relationships and domestic violence should be available in public space in the form of posters and brochures or leaflets which are made available in private areas such as washrooms (with appropriate warnings not to take them home if the perpetrator is there). Offering a QR code that leads to a website with further information can help here. The posters, brochures or leaflets should be aimed at female and male victims of domestic violence and not use stereotypes. The designation of concrete contact persons on site and the provision of telephone numbers of counselling centres or websites offering (anonymous) counselling can help victims of domestic violence to seek help.
  • In case of acute threat, the police emergency number should be called by victims. Name, address, further information and, if necessary, possession of a weapon of the perpetrator and emphasise that help is needed immediately should be given. Until the police arrives, victims and any children should take themselves to safety, for example to neighbours or shops.

What can perpetrators of violence do to change their behaviour?
  • Even during a pandemic, help is available for perpetrators of intimate partner violence in the form of online counselling, therapy and training programmes.


Risk Assessment and Safety Enhancement

Many victims who have been subjected to violence have fears about their safety. Other victims may not think they need a safety plan because they do not expect that the violence will happen again. Explain that domestic violence is not likely to stop on its own: It tends to continue and may over time become worse and happen more often.

Assessing and planning for safety is an ongoing process – it is not just a one-time conversation. You can help them by discussing their particular needs and situation and exploring their options and resources each time you see them, as their situation changes.


Risk Assessment

Victims face many risks to their immediate and ongoing safety. These risks will be specific to the individual circumstances of each victim. Risk assessment and management can reduce the level of risk. Best practice risk assessment and management includes consistent and coordinated approaches within and between social, health and justices service systems.

The clients should be helped to assess his or her immediate and future safety and that of his or her children. Risk assessment according to good practice includes

  • collecting relevant facts about the domestic situation
  • asking about the victim’s perception of risk
  • a professional judgement on current risk factors

The client may need to be referred to a specialised service for domestic violence. The strongest indicator for future risks/violence is the perpetrator’s current and past behaviour. The client may also be advised to go to the police to ensure even greater protection. However, since this is always accompanied by a report to the perpetrator and the victim is expected to reveal himself or herself to a wider circle of people, this advice must be weighed up very carefully!

It is important that the client is involved in a conversation about his or her risk perception and security management in the past. All plans that have been made must be documented for future reference! Copies should be given to the victims, if possible. At the same time, they should be made aware that the risk is that the perpetrator might find the document and that the violence will escalate.

Some victims will know when they are in immediate danger and are afraid to go home. If they are worried about their safety, take them seriously. This is your responsibility.

Other victims may need help thinking about their immediate risk. There are specific questions you can ask to see if it is safe for them to return to their home. It is important to find out if there is an immediate and likely risk of serious injury.

The internationally most frequently used risk assessment instruments can be found under Teaching Materials on the page risk assessment tools.


Communication with victims about safety measures and risk assessment

For an initial risk assessment this must be done at least: Talk to the victim in a private setting and to assess immediate concerns:

Questions to assess immediate risk of violence
  • Has the physical violence happened more often or gotten worse over the past 6 months?
  • Has he/she ever used a weapon or threatened you with a weapon?
  • Has he/she ever tried to strangle you?
  • Do you believe he/she would kill you?
  • Has he/she ever beaten you when you were pregnant?
  • Is he/she violently and constantly jealous of you?

Victims who answer “yes” to at least 3 of the following questions may be at especially high immediate risk of violence.

Making a safety plan

Even a victim who is not facing immediate serious risk could benefit from having a safety plan. If they have a plan, they will be better able to deal with the situation if violence suddenly occurs. The following elements are part of a safety plan and questions you can ask them to help them make a plan.

Safe place to go

“If you need to leave your home in a hurry, where could you go?”

Planning for children

“Would you go alone or take your children with you?”

Transport

“How will you get there?”

Items to take with you

“Do you need to take any documents, keys, money, clothes, or other things with you when you leave? What is essential?”

Financial

“Do you have access to money if you need to leave? Where is it kept? Can you get it in an emergency?”

Support of someone close by

“Is there a neighbour you can tell about the violence who can call the police or come with assistance for you if they hear sounds of violence coming from your home?”

Be careful in cases of honour-related violence.

It will usually not be possible to deal with all their concerns at the first meeting. Let them know that you are available to meet again to talk about other issues.

Do not expect them to make decisions immediately. It may seem frustrating if they do not seem to be taking steps to change their situation. However, they will need to take their time and do what they think is right for them. Always respect their wishes and decisions.


Information about the usage of risk assessment tools in Europe regarding the Social Sector

Risk Assessment procedures and response strategies in different European countries in the Social Sector

The social work sector is the FLR area where the use of formalized risk assessment tools is predominantly in place in many European countries. In Germany, formalized tools are only used in some locations. In Berlin, a standardised risk assessment tool (“Düsseldorfer Gefährdungseinschätzungsverfahren in Fällen häuslicher Gewalt – D-GEV”) is currently being used in one women’s shelter. In response to an inquiry to the institution that was involved in the development of the tool, it was confirmed that this instrument is used in the social sector in Düsseldorf, but also in individual institutions all over the federal state of North- Rhine Westfalia. Further, in Berlin, a translated version of Campbell’s Danger Assessment will probably be available next year; social institutions that will cooperate with the police in case discussions have agreed on using the tool once it is accessible. In Finland and in Portugal formalized tools are only used in some of the locations. The countries vary in the scope of their risk assessment tools, some of them developed local, individual protocols used by each FLR’s, others use standardized protocols, used nation-wide in all institutions with the same profile.

Shortcomings

The following shortcomings are mentioned by the participating countries in the IMPRODOVA project regarding risk assessment tools used in the social work sector.

Practical problems of implementation

  • DYRIAS is regarded as requiring too much time (it takes about 4 hours) for daily use (Austria).
  • In Berlin, the instrument is excellently suited for obtaining valuable information from which ideas for effective approaches often can be derived. However, the actual result is rather ignored, as the victim’s assessment is not taken into account. This is not problematic as the intended objective to systematically obtain information is definitely achieved. (Berlin, Germany). There is often a great gap between the perception of risk assessed by the social worker and by the victim. Some signs are evaluated very differently by the social worker and by the victim. These ambiguities lead social workers to neglect standardised risk assessment tools (Hanover, Germany).
  • Time consuming nature of the risk assessment (UMAR), too much paperwork (Portugal).
  • Lack of proper weight of the risk assessment results (APAV) by other FLR’s (Portugal).

Methodological shortcomings

  • Women’s shelters identified a missing tool for DV cases concerning forced marriages and specifically for family violence (Austria).
  • Although the victim’s own perspective of the risk is important, women are often traumatized and distressed when arriving into the shelters, which makes it difficult to use standardized tools for including the victim’s individual perception of risks (Austria).
  • Some FLR’s used the MARAC form not according to instructions; some professionals working in shelters believe that the form makes the risk assessment process too mechanical, thereby not beneficial when discussing the violence with the victim (Finland).
  • Risk assessment does not have a judicial weight, if there is no judicial decision (e.g. a permanent restriction order), regardless of the risk assessment results by FLRs there are no proper measures to protect the victim in the shelter from the perpetrator (Hungary).
  • Children’s opinions are not considered during the risk assessment process (Hungary).
  • Risk assessment criteria are too strict. The risk assessment process does not consider the previous history and context of violence, but only the actual violent action that took place. As a consequence, they may filter out some DV cases (do not give access to shelters) that are in fact high risk (Hungary).
  • Risk assessment tool is not detailed and sophisticated enough, which results in difficulties to decide on the level of risk (Slovenia).
  • There are discrepancies (lack of clarity) between the level of perceived risk among police officer and social work sector (Slovenia).
Suggested improvements

A problem mentioned by more countries’ interviewees is that formalized risk assessment tools can narrow the perception of frontline responders and may result in “tick boxing”, less sophisticated categorization of the risks. Professional expertise and the thorough knowledge about DV cannot be replaced by any risk assessment tools, and are essential for the proper use of tools. Thereby a great emphasis should be put on the risk-related trainings of FLR’s who are using the risk assessment tools. Slovenia suggests specifying the risk assessment tool further, while some Hungarian interviewees (directors of shelters) try to compensate the rigidity of the formal risk assessment tool used by the National Crisis Telephone Information Service, which often results in misdiagnosing situations by making decisions being contrary to the formal assessment.

Further information about risk assessment procedures in different European Countries can be found here:


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IMPRODOVA Checklist for risk assessment of domestic violence

Within the framework of a sub-project of the EU project IMPRODOVA, the partners developed a checklist for risk assessment in the case of domestic violence (D 3.3), which can be downloaded and printed out. In this way you have – in short form – all information at a glance when you need it.

IMPRODOVA Risk Assessment Integration Module

You can follow the whole risk assessment procedure for a specific case by downloading the following presentation. You will be introduced to Nora and learn a lot about the different roles of frontline responders.

You can check the Module online without using Powerpoint by clicking on this link:

If you want to use Powerpoint, please download the presentation by clicking this link: