Assessing Lethality

Partner violence often escalates in severity and frequency over time (Pagelow, 1981, 1997). Intimate violence may end in death. Approximately 4000 women are killed by their spouses or lovers each year (U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Statistics, 1994, as cited in Stahly, 1996). The rates of spouse and partner homicides have remained consistently high over time. In 1992,41 percent of the homicides of women (when the offender was identified) were committed by a husband or boyfriend (Bachman & Saltzman, 1996). Walker (1995) and Stahly (1996) state that women are at especially high risk for severe violence and homicide when they are leaving or have just left their abusive partner.

It is important to recognize the potential lethality of partner maltreatment for both legal and clinical reasons. Browne (1987) compared battered women who killed their partners with others who did not. She identified some patterns present prior to partner homicide: the men abused alcohol and/or drugs; the men made threats to kill their partners; the physical attacks increased in frequency and the women sustained severe injuries; and the women were likely to have been raped or forced into other sexual acts by the male partner. Similarly, Gelles, Lackner, and Wolfner (1994) used the literature to identify 10 risk factors that are associated with severe violence. Risk factors associated with the male are: age between 18 and 30 years; unemployment; use of illicit drugs; having a high school education or less, and/or a blue collar job; and being raised in a home with domestic violence. Relationship characteristics related to severe violence include: the male and female have different religious backgrounds; the male and female cohabitate; the male or female uses severe violence toward children in the home; and the total family income is below the poverty line.

Hart (1992) suggests a checklist to assess the lethality of the abuser or situation. Based on a literature review her checklist includes: threats or fantasies of homicide or suicide; weapon possession and use; escalation of personal risk; stalking; extreme depression and alco hol binges; separation violence and threats; and ideas about ownership and centrality of the partner. Other instruments have been developed to assess for lethality. The Danger Assessment Instrument (Campbell, 1986; 1995) is administered by nurses to assess battered women's risk of killing or being killed. A second instrument has been developed by Sonkin, Martin, and Walker (1985). Assessment for lethality, however, may be misleading; we may not have the knowledge base to accurately assess for lethality (Gondolf, 1988; Gondolf & Hart, 1994; Hart & Gondolf, 1994).

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