Ultimate Guide to Starting a Crisis Line

Introduction

Following up on my previous post Starting a Crisis Line or Hotline, I had some reader commentary asking about some more specific nuts and bolts for someone who is passionate and interested in starting a crisis line, hotline or helpline but doesn’t really know where to begin. Obviously, while it is best to bring in experienced individuals sometimes they simply aren’t available. For the purpose of this guide, I will describe the steps to create a fictional crisis line, the Southeast Iowa Crisis Center (SEICC), or “Seek.”

Throughout this article, I use “crisis line”, “helpline” and other terms interchangeably, except in the section “Deciding on Type of Service Provided” where I distinguish between the two.

Staffing a Steering Committee

The first step will be to decide on and form a Steering Committee. This will be a group of individuals who will be responsible for helping to bring your vision of a crisis line to life. Too few people and you may feel overwhelmed. Too many and you risk decision paralysis – not being able to make decisions because of too many disagreements. Perhaps 4-6 people is the optimal size for a Steering Committee.

If (or when) you form a nonprofit, you’ll need a Board of Directors. The members of your Steering Committee often make a suitable Board. Their tasks will include all of the items discussed below.

Choosing a Population and Coverage Area

You likely know this information before you begin, but it’s important to clearly define your population and coverage (or catchment) area as you work on your crisis line. You might choose to create your crisis line based on a specific age range (such as the Kids Help Phone for those 0-25), subject area (like the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network [RAINN]), geographic region (like Tennessee Statewide Mental Health Crisis Line) or job status such as the Veterans Crisis Line.

Some funders will only fund certain populations or programs but it’s important that you not get into the business of chasing funding by going against your mission – this could lead to you losing your nonprofit status or losing trust among your supporters.

Identifying Mission and Vision

The next step to starting a nonprofit or a new product is to define what you wish to create. An organization’s mission statement is short and punchy, describing what they do. This can be a tagline or slogan, but doesn’t have to be. Distress Centre Durham‘s mission statement is “Helping people in distress to cope.”

Vision is more long-term and describes an outcome. An example vision statement for Habitat for Humanity is “A world where everyone has a decent place to live.” You don’t necessarily have to publicize your visioning statement but your mission and vision will determine whether activities that you pursue are within your organization’s purview.

SEICC’s mission will be “Keeping Iowans safe with 24/7 emotional support”, while the vision will be “Nobody suffers alone.”

Parkinson’s Law of Triviality

There is a concept in management called Parkinson’s Law of Triviality. Essentially it states that organizations spend disproportionate amounts of time on easy-to-grasp issues while neglecting more important but more difficult ones. This is an important trap to avoid when considering things like your organization’s logo, or other elements that are pretty minor in the grand scheme of things.

Picking a Staffing Model

At this stage, you have identified a group of individuals that are going to help you build your crisis line. You’ve also decided on a mission and a vision. You need to decide whether you will use a model of volunteers supported by paid staff, a blended model, or all paid staff. There are pros and cons to each approach.

Volunteers, Staff Supported

Advantages of the volunteers-supported-by-staff model include it is easy to start and individuals can self-select as one or the other (either applying for a staff position in administration or a volunteer position providing direct service.) One downside to this model is that initially your administrative staff will probably have to cover shifts on the helpline until you all get experienced, and that it can be hard to ensure 100% coverage if your service gets popular.

Blended Model

A blended model involves a mix of paid staff and volunteers. This is a more common model in the United States than in Canada, which tends to use purely volunteers. The advantages are that you can attract a more credentialed staff who might hold multiple roles (e.g. a helpline manager might be responsible for 20 hours of helpline work and 20 hours of administration.)

The downsides are that this can make your volunteers uncomfortable, and increase the expenses you need to get your crisis line off the ground.

All Paid Staff

Using all paid staff is an emerging crisis line model. Some helplines like the Veteran’s Crisis Line have used this model for many years. With this model, you can ensure 100% coverage (because your staff are paid to be in the chair), but this will be very expensive. Although research shows that paying crisis line workers does not diminish their importance, it may make it harder for your callers to trust that they’re really interested in listening.

This can also increase the rate of burnout because paid workers are providing many more hours of support each week or month versus a volunteer.

Deciding on Type of Support Provided

It’s important to decide if you’re going to be a distress line, a crisis line, or both. Some organizations will break their services into two distinct phone numbers and lines, with specific caller concerns, while many others (like Distress Centre Durham) will provide all forms of support.

Despite the use of the name “distress line” or “crisis line”, an organization may take all types of calls. You’ll need to read the explanation of the service provided before making a decision about whether or not an agency really does limit or parcel out their support.

Distress Line

A distress line focuses on individuals who are struggling and need to talk to someone but who can still cope. Someone in distress can still think about potential solutions to their problem, is not struggling with high-risk suicide thoughts, and does not need safety planning.

Crisis Line

A crisis line provides support to individuals who are struggling with high-risk suicide, crisis situations (where they can’t think of what to do), or who are otherwise unsafe. Many crisis lines have access to mobile crisis units, may call ambulances to take callers to hospitals or otherwise access more intensive support.

Hours of Operation

Deciding on the hours of operations for a crisis line is an important element. Many crisis lines started as 4-hours a day, 7 days a week operations before moving to 12 or 24 hours. Other organizations started immediately with 24 hours.

Staffing Volume

You’ll need to calculate the amount of staff you need for your crisis line (whether paid or unpaid) once you’ve decided on your hours of operation. One way to do this is the Erlang C formulas that are used to staff call centres (which you can fill with dummy data based on crisis lines in other regions.)

If you’re paying your staff, this will be easier. It might be easier to start small and then build up as your service gets more well known and well supported.

Choosing a Location

Choosing a location for a new crisis line (or any nonprofit really) will depend most commonly on your finances. Many organizations get cheap or free space in an organization like a church starting off, before moving to an office. If you’re really tight on space you might even be able to set up in a large office in someone’s home.

The keys to choosing a location will include availability, security, convenience, and price. While price is obvious, I’ll speak about the others.

One advantage of a stand-alone building is you have 24/7 access to it. If you’re in another type of location you may find it difficult or impossible to access after-hours, which can complicate things. Security is also a factor, in that if you’re not advertising your crisis line location it shouldn’t be obvious where you’re located. While a far-away location might seem to be ideal for security, it complicates accessibility (distance travelled) for your volunteers and limits convenience.

Forming a Nonprofit (or not)

Choosing whether to incorporate is a challenging decision to make. Incorporation provides you with benefits like protection of your assets, tax exempt status (once you’re registered as a charity) and the ability to pursue formal funding. The downsides are that it takes work to form and maintain the nonprofit status.

Finding Sources of Funding

Initial sources of funding may come from your Steering Committee but eventually you’ll need to explore outside sources. When your crisis line has operated for 1-2 years you’ll likely be eligible to apply for formal funding grants such as those at the local, state and federal levels.

Other sources include corporate sponsorship, fundraising events and direct donations.

Developing Policies and Procedures

Policies and procedures are important for ensuring that your volunteers respond in a consistent way. Examples of policies and procedures that you may wish to develop:

  • Call Trace and Intervention
  • Callers as Volunteers
  • Confidentiality
  • Recruitment (Criminal Record Check)
  • Victims of Abuse (Reporting Child Abuse)

Call Trace and Intervention

A Call Trace and Intervention policy will describe under what circumstances you will initiate call trace (to try and find an individual’s address or other identifying information) and under what circumstances you will call police/911 for Active Rescue. Some crisis lines will never initiate Active Rescue, for instance the UK Samaritans, unless the caller requests it. Many crisis lines will always err on the side of caution.

Call Trace will depend on the technology available to your crisis line but may include use of 411 (for non-blocked numbers) or contacting 911 directly to pass available information to them.

Helplines will often describe their intervention policy on the lines as something to the effect of, “We only intervene in cases of imminent homicide, suicide, or disclose of child abuse.”

Callers as Volunteers

Callers to your helpline will usually result in the creation of a call report or other record of that conversation. If you recruit volunteers from the same area that you take calls from, it’s possible that someone who has previously called your line may become a volunteer – and therefore be able to read their call report.

For that reason, you may require that volunteers to your helpline must have not used your service in the amount of time that records are retained. For instance, at Distress Centre Durham call reports are retained for one year so volunteers must not have used the service in that time in order to be eligible.

Confidentiality

Confidentiality is at the core of emotional support. Creating a safe environment is key to helping callers discuss their issues openly. Confidentiality means that volunteers who disclose information about callers outside of the crisis line or make contact with them outside of the line can be dismissed.

Examples of violations of confidentiality:

  • Talking about callers to your friends or family
  • Posting information about callers on social media
  • Giving information from the crisis line to another agency without that caller’s permission

It’s important to establish a very high degree of confidentiality or else callers will quickly lose trust in the helpline.

Data Destruction

A data destruction policy includes information on when and how you’ll destroy data that you’ve collected, such as via call reports or caller profiles. The most important element is to include a timeline for how frequently you’ll destroy data – such as on a quarterly basis for data that is more than 12 months old.

Recruitment (Criminal Record Check)

A Criminal Record Check (CRC), known by other names like a Police Record Check (PRC) or a Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) Check describes a person’s record of criminal offenses. Many jursidictions include an option specifically for crimes against vulnerable individuals like children or seniors.

Many crisis lines will limit their volunteers only to those who have no criminal record, while some will allow – with approval – individuals who have certain types of non-violent offenses from many years ago.

Victims of Abuse

Nonprofit organizations are often legally required to report abuse, like child abuse or elder abuse. A policy explaining this will help callers better understand when they disclose child abuse, what the volunteer will do. In many crisis lines this means calling Child Protective Services (CPS) or a similar agency (like Children’s Aid Society in Ontario.)

You may also wish to include a statement about how your helpline takes a non-judgemental stance on abuse – not encouraging individuals to leave unless they’re ready to leave on their own.

Volunteers in Counselling or Therapy

Helpline work can be demanding and burnout can be a challenge. For this reason, it’s important to know when your volunteers are undergoing counselling or therapy. One way in which to do this is to have volunteers self-identify if they are receiving counselling or therapy and then giving them a letter to give to their therapist. That clinician will simply sign asserting that the work will not be harmful, and that can be filed away.

Volunteer Recruitment

Recruiting volunteers will depend on your local community. In some communities, United Way may operate a volunteer board online that you can submit your crisis line to. Universities or colleges may allow you to post flyers or distribute information to the students.

A good training class will be between 5 and 20 individuals, but recruiting throughout the year will be important for ensuring consistent service delivery.

Volunteer Screening

Screening involves determining if individuals possess the appropriate attitudes to be successful in helpline training. The American Association of Suicidology Crisis Center Certification identifies these attitudinal outcomes that individuals should experience by the conclusion of training:

  • Acceptance of persons different from oneself, and a non-judgmental response toward sensitive issues (e.g. not discussing suicidal ideation or abortion with a client in terms of its moral rightness or wrongness)
  • Balanced and realistic attitude toward self in the helper role (e.g. not expecting to “save” all potential suicides by one’s own single effort, or to solve all the problems of the distressed person)
  • A realistic and humane approach to death, dying, self-destructive behavior and other human issues
  • Coming to terms with one’s own feelings about death and dying insofar as these feelings might deter one from helping others.

Volunteer screening may include an application form that asks questions about the caller like:

  • Are there situations or topics (such as abuse or abortion) that may place you in a moral or ethical dillema?
  • What are your beliefs on suicide?
  • How do you feel you would talk to someone who is different from yourself?

The screening process does not have to rule out anyone yet, but may be helpful for prepping you on the interview.

Volunteer Interviewing

See also: Interviewing on a Suicide Hotline

The process of the volunteer interview will be to collect more information on the potential volunteer to make sure there is compatibility with your service. For instance, some individuals may only want to work with children or may not want to work with suicide – and your desires for your line may not align with that.

The interview is also an opportunity to see how someone is on the phone, and to help answer more of their questions about what the process looks like.

Volunteer Training

See also: Crisis Hotline Training Curriculum

Volunteer training is the process of teaching a volunteer the core skills that they need to be prepared for the helpline. Rather than reproducing material I’ve written about elsewhere, see the link above. From there you can find posts across my blog that will be useful for building a training program.

Training should run approximately 40 hours, with at least 24 hours of classroom training and 16 hours of supervised “on the phone” training being mentored by a shift supervisor or experienced volunteer before the newly trained volunteer is able to take shifts on their own.

You may find it helpful to bring on a therapist or counsellor to help you develop your initial helpline curriculum, or use a crisis line trainer from an area near you that doesn’t overlap with your catchment area.

Identifying Caller Issues

Caller Issues are the specific issues prevalent in your community that may lead you to develop training modules on them to prepare your volunteers. One example is in college towns where concerns over sexual assault or alcohol and drug abuse may be more prevalent.

The easiest way to do this is with effective helpline management software (see the next section.) With a detailed call report you will be able to pull statistics on exactly what your callers are discussing and this will help you fine-tune your training. Generally, the core elements of emotional support and crisis intervention will be exactly the same.

Helpline Management Software

In order to run a helpline you’ll need some form of helpline management software. I recommend iCarol, which my crisis line has used for several years. iCarol provides all the features you’d expect online helpline software to provide:

  • Shift Calendar so volunteers can sign up for shifts
  • Call Reports so volunteers can record details about their conversations
  • Chatboard for facilitating communication between staff and volunteers
  • Events Calendar
  • News

And a variety of other features, all designed with confidential helplines in mind.

Outcomes Measurement and Evaluation

See also: Methods of Evaluating Helplines and Hotlines

Outcomes Measurement and Evaluation describes the things that you will need to do in order to prove that your helpline is effective. One way in which to do this starts with your Basic Training program. Have your volunteers complete a pre and post training survey that includes questions about the perceived value of the training, their ability to display empathy and their understanding of crisis and suicide risk assessment. You’ll see their scores increase, demonstrating the knowledge transfer.

Another way to evaluate a Basic Training program is with a tool like the Suicide Intervention Response Inventory, which has volunteers rate how effective a series of statements are in providing emotional support. Their scores will change throughout training, indicating their increased skill.

On the phone calls themselves, your call reports can include space for Outcomes Measurement. This can include things like, “Callers says they feel better”, “Decreased distress and anxiety”, “Reduced isolation and loneliness.” These outcomes can be used to show what changes your callers experience throughout the call.

Joining Professional Associations

Finally you may wish to join professional associations like the Association of Crisis Workers or Crisis Lines in your area, or other professional groups that provide support to nonprofits. This will help you network, fundraise and attract volunteers to your organization.

Conclusion

As you can see, a lot goes into developing a crisis line – but it is not unmanageable. If you’ve decided to launch a crisis line, let me know in the comments! And please continue to ask questions if you’d like.

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Counselling and Therapy Credentials

Introduction

I’m about a year (8 courses in fact) away from wrapping up my Bachelor of Professional Arts in Human Services from Athabasca University. This has led me to explore potential graduate schools on my path to becoming a therapist in the future. One thing I’ve discovered is that there’s a lot of confusion around different credentials and what they entitle one to do.

This post is focused on Social Work, Psychology, and Counselling, with an added bonus of identifying distance learning schools where individuals may take these programs.

College Diplomas

College diplomas include 2-year Associates degrees in the United States and Colleges of Applied Arts and Technology CAAT) diplomas in Canada. Examples include:

  • Associates in Human Services
  • Associates in Social Work
  • Social Service Worker, an online version is available through Durham College
  • Community Service Worker

These are entry-level credentials to give you the basic skills to work in the social services. Some of these credentials, such as the Social Service Worker diploma, allow you registration into a professional college (e.g. the Ontario College of Social Workers and Social Service Workers) but most do not.

These programs provide training and experience in assessment (such as suicide risk assessment) and provide training in basic counselling skills but do not prepare students to diagnose or provide therapy.

Job titles for college diploma holders may be:

  • Intake Worker
  • Case Manager
  • Program Manager
  • Shelter Worker

Bachelor’s Degrees

Bachelor’s degrees are the 4-year degree most common in the US and Canada. A 4-year degree may be in Human Services, Psychology, or another discipline. If you earn a Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) you are usually eligible for registration with the appropriate Board of Social Work or College of Social Work. On the other hand, a credential in Psychology or Human Services will not entitle one to registration.

Job titles for Bachelor’s degree holders will be similar to college diploma holders, with the added component that Bachelor of Social Work holders are entitled to the protected job title “Social Worker.” Bachelor’s holders with training may perform assessments and other tasks.

Online programs include Athabasca University’s Bachelor of Professional Arts in Human Services, or Liberty University’s Bachelor of Science in Social Work program.

Bachelor of Professional Arts in Human Services

This is the program I’m completing at the moment. Because I completed a Social Service Worker (SSW) diploma from Durham College (see above), I received 2 years/20 courses of transfer credit towards the 4 year degree, requiring 20 courses to finish.

These courses can be completed online, with no specific semester start and end dates. Instead, if you pay your courses yourself you have 6 months in which to complete them; if you are receiving financial aid (such as through the Ontario Student Assistance Program) you have 13 weeks in which to complete each course.

The fee (approximately $600 CAD for a student in Alberta, $800 CAD for a student elsewhere in Canada and $1000 CAD for a student outside Canada) includes all the course materials including textbooks shipped to you to complete the course. This makes it a very economical option for a Bachelor’s degree.

Examples of courses in the BPA Human Services that are required:

  • Social Work and Human Services
  • Ideology and Policy Evolution
  • Critical Reflection for Practice
  • Professional Ethics
  • Practice and Policy in the Human Services

Master’s Degrees

Here’s where it starts to get complicated. There are a number of Master’s degrees that one may use to enter the counselling or therapy professions. These include a Master of Arts in Counselling Psychology, Master of Counselling, Master of Education in Counselling Psychology, Master of Education in School Psychology, Master of Social Work.

Master of Arts (MA) in Counselling Psychology

The MA in Counselling Psychology may be a practice degree, allowing one to register as a Licensed Mental Health Counsellor (LMHC) or it may be a step on to a PhD or PsyD in Clinical Psychology. Individuals may qualify for registration as Psychological Associates or in Alberta as Psychologists.

Examples of online programs includes Yorkville University‘s program, which is based out of New Brunswick.

Master of Counselling (MC)

The Master of Counselling degree is offered by Athabasca and provides similar training as other counselling degrees such as degrees in Counselling Psychology or other. Athabasca offers specializations in Art Therapy, Counselling Psychology and School Counselling.

Examples of courses taken in the MC degree include:

  • Models of Counselling and Client Change
  • Intervening to Faciliate Client Change
  • Devleoping a Working Alliance
  • Professional Ethics
  • Assessment Processes

This program qualifies for registration with the Alberta College of Psychologists.

Master of Education (MEd) in Counselling Psychology

The Master of Education (MEd) degree in Counselling Psychology is offered through a school’s Faculty of Education rather than a Faculty of Social Work or Faculty of Psychology. One example is University of Toronto’s MEd. This program is designed as a terminal degree to train counsellors and therapists. Courses in this program include:

  • Theories and Techniques of Counselling
  • Critical Multicultural Practice: Diversity Issues in Counselling
  • Group Work in Counselling
  • Ethical Issues in Professional Practice in Psychology
  • Career Counselling and Development: Transitions in Adulthood

Because these programs are in the Faculty of Education they are more likely to cover school counselling and be designed to train counsellors or therapists that work with students and young adults. One example of an online program is the University of Massachusetts–Boston’s MEd in School Counselling.

Master of Social Work (MSW)

The Master of Social Work is the terminal degree for Social Work practice in Canada and the United States. These programs are either one year (for individuals who have already completed a BSW) or two year (for individuals who have not completed a BSW.) These programs qualify for registration with organizations like the Ontario College of Social Workers and Social Service Workers (OCSWSSW) in Canada or a State’s Board of Social Work in the US.

MSW degrees can be focused on macro (community) social work, or micro (individual) social work. Macro social workers are employed in community development, program design, administration and other areas while micro, individual or clinical social workers are employed as counsellors, therapists and other clinical mental health professionals.

An example 2-year online MSW program is that available from the University of North Dakota. Courses in that program include:

  • Human Behavior in the Social Environment I
  • Generalist Practice with Individuals and Families
  • Generalist Practice with Communities and Organizations
  • Social Policy
  • Generalist Research Methods and Analysis

Doctorate Degrees

Doctoral degrees prepare individuals for advanced clinical practice in the fields of Psychology and Social Work. Doctorares usually involve a component of research and practice. Some degrees not listed here (such as the PhD in Social Work) have no practice component and are designed chiefly to train researchers.

Doctorate of Philosophy (PhD) in Clinical / Counselling Psychology

The PhD in Clinical Psychology or PhD in Counselling Psychology are designed to train professional Psychologists. These programs are usually 5-7 years in duration and involve the completion of a PhD dissertation, a book-length research project. In addition to learning these fundamental research skills, Psychologists also learn how to administer and interpret psychological assessments like IQ tests and how to deliver therapy.

These programs are among the most competitive to get into, often admitting 5-10 candidates among the 100+ that apply for admission.

The differences between Clinical Psychology and Counselling Psychology are minor, but Clinical Psychology tends to focus on individuals with more psychopathology than Counselling Psychology.

Examples of courses in the PhD in Clinical Psychology at Ryerson University:

  • Ethical Professional Issues in Clinical Psychology
  • Systems of Psychotherapy
  • Cognitive Neuroscience
  • Community Psychology
  • Mood Disorders

Doctorate of Psychology (PsyD)

The PsyD is a newer program than the PhD, emerging to meet needs of individuals who primarily want to practice therapy and assessment rather than work as scientists or researchers. PsyD programs are offered by a larger variety of educational venues, such as by professional schools of Psychology (like the Chicago School of Professional Psychology) rather than a university.

The PsyD involves learning to utilize research rather than produce it. Because students in a PhD program are creating researcher, they are “paid” to do so, by having their tuition subsidized (often free), and by being given a living stipend, while PsyD students more commonly have to “pay their way” through their program, upwards of $100,000.

Otherwise, PsyD and PhD graduates learn the same skills and are eligible for licensure in the same way – as long as their programs are accredited by the American Psychological Association (APA). Although there are online PsyD programs such as those offered by Walden University and Capella University these are not eligible for APA accreditation and therefore are unlikely to result in licensure.

Examples of courses available in the Chicago School of Professional Psychology’s PsyD program:

  • Biological Bases of Behavior
  • Health and Dysfunction
  • Cognitive Assessment
  • Cognitive Behavioral Theory and Therapy
  • Personality Assessment

Doctorate of Social Work (DSW)

The Doctorate of Social Work is the newest doctorate program. This program is similar to the PsyD in that it is a practice degree rather than a research degree. One example of a DSW is that offered by Tulane University in Louisiana. This program is available online but has significant tuition attached to it, up to $70,000.

Reflecting the existing education of their students (all of whom have an MSW or similar degree accredited by the CSWE) these programs are shorter than a PhD would be, often running 3 years versus the 5-7 years for a PhD or the 5 years for a PsyD.

Examples of courses in the Tulane DSW:

  • Historical Approaches to Social Welfare
  • Social Work Theory, Practice Models & Methods
  • Applied Social Statistics
  • Measuring Social Phenomena: Social and Economic Problems
  • Advanced Clinical Project Seminar

The goal of the DSW program is to train practitioners who are experts in policy analysis, program design and development or implementation of specific therapies.

Cite this article as: MacDonald, D.K., (2017), "Counselling and Therapy Credentials," retrieved on July 21, 2017 from http://dustinkmacdonald.com/counselling-therapy-credentials/.
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Using the Sex Offender Risk Appraisal Guide (SORAG)

Introduction

Following up on my article about how to use the Violence Risk Appraisal Guide (VRAG), this article reviews how to use a tool that is bundled with that tool, the Sex Offender Risk Appraisal Guide (SORAG). Like the VRAG, this is an actuarial tool that can be used to predict the risk of re-offending among sex offenders.

Before reading about the SORAG, it is helpful to review the VRAG post as many of the elements that are covered in that post are required before proceeding to the SORAG items. It is recommended that any completion of the SORAG be preceded by a completion of the VRAG as this will save you a significant amount of time.

Completing the SORAG

Like the VRAG, the first step is to complete the Childhood & Adolescent Taxon Scale (CATS) worksheet and the list of Conduct Disorder Symptoms.

Cormier-Lang Criminal History Scores

In order to answer item 5 on the SORAG, Criminal History Score for Non-Violent Offenses Prior to the Index Offense, it’s necessary to complete the Cormier-Lang Criminal History worksheet also provided on the SORAG. This worksheet is completed by filling out the number of non-violent offenses and applying the weight to them noted on the sheet.

Sex Offender Risk Appraisal Guide (SORAG) Items

The SORAG itself has 14 items that are similar to those found on the VRAG.

  1. Lived with both biological parents to age 16 (except for death of parent)
  2. Elementary School Maladjustment
  3. History of alcohol problems
  4. Marital status (at the time of or prior to index offense)
  5. Criminal history score for nonviolent offenses (from Cormier-Lang system)
  6. Criminal history score for violent offenses (from Cormier-Lang system)
  7. Number of previous convictions for sexual offenses (pertains to convictions known from all available documentation to be sexual offenses prior to the index offense)
  8. History of sex offenses only against girls under 14 (including index offenses; if offender was less than 5 years older than victim, always score +4)
  9. Failure on prior conditional release (includes parole or probation violation or revocation, failure to comply, bail violation, and any new arrest while on conditional release)
  10. Age at index
  11. 11. Meets DSM criteria for any personality disorder (must be made by appropriately licensed or certified professional)
  12. Meets DSM criteria for schizophrenia (must be made by appropriately licensed or certified professional)
  13. Phallometric test results
  14. 14. a. Psychopathy Checklist score (if available, otherwise use item 12.b. CATS score)
    14. b. CATS score (from the CATS worksheet)
    14. WEIGHT (Use the highest circled weight from 12 a. or 12 b.)

You’ll note that many of these items are available from the VRAG. The tool indicates where there are overlaps in order to save you time filling out the worksheets and tools.

Determining Risk Level of Sex Offenders

After completing the tool, you must take the total score of the SORAG and compare it to the below levels.

  • A score of -17 to +2 indicates an individual is at Low risk for re-offending
  • A score of +3 to +19 indicates an individual is at Medium risk for re-offending
  • A score of +20 to +34 indicates an individual is at High risk for re-offending

An individual who is on the border between these two levels should have that indicated. For instance, someone who scores at +1 or +2 should be noted as “Low-Medium Risk” to highlight that they are at the edge of the established risk level.

Recidivism Rates using the SORAG

Rather than grouping an individual into low, medium or high risk categories, it is often more illuminating to examine the recidivism rates. These come from Violent Offenders as well.

Probability of Recidivism
SORAG score 7 years 10 years
< − 9 0.07 0.09
−9 to -4 0.15 0.12
-3 to +2 0.23 0.39
+3 to +8 0.39 0.59
+9 to +14 0.45 0.59
+15 to +19 0.58 0.76
+20 to +24 0.58 0.80
+25 to +30 0.75 0.89
> +31 1.00 1.00

References

American Psychological Association. (2006) Quinsey, V.L., Harris, G.T., Rice, M.E. & Cormier, C.A. (2006) 2nd Ed. Violent Offenders: Appraising and Managing Risk. Washington D.C: American Psychological Association.

Cite this article as: MacDonald, D.K., (2017), "Using the Sex Offender Risk Appraisal Guide (SORAG)," retrieved on July 21, 2017 from http://dustinkmacdonald.com/using-sex-offender-risk-appraisal-guide-sorag/.
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Using the Violence Risk Appraisal Guide (VRAG)

Introduction

The Violence Risk Appraisal Guide (VRAG; Quinsey, Harris, Rice, & Cormier, 2006) is a tool that can be used to estimate statistically the risk of recidivism. It is comprised of 12 items that are associated with a risk of re-offending and is completed with all available information. You can download the full VRAG in PDF format. The Sexual Offender Risk Appraisal Guide (SORAG) is reviewed in another article.

The VRAG is an actuarial risk assessment, involving a mathematical technique applied to determines what factors were present in offenders who later went on to commit violent crimes. (Brown & Singh, 2014) This approach eliminates the bias found in unstructured judgement.

The VRAG has been examined in over 40 studies, and has been found effective even with individuals who have a lower IQ. (Camilleri & Quinsey, 2011)

Completing the VRAG

The first step to completing the VRAG is to complete the Childhood & Adolescent Taxon Scale. Below, where a request for information relates to an “index offense” that is the one that led to the individual entering the Criminal Justice system

Childhood & Adolescent Taxon Scale (CATS) Worksheet

This scale includes 8 items that are scored from 0 to 1, based on the coding guidelines provided. These items are:

  1. Elementary School Maladjustment
  2. Teenage Alcohol Problem
  3. Childhood Aggression Rating
  4. More Than 3 DSM Conduct Disorder Symptoms
  5. Ever suspended or expelled from school
  6. Arrested under the age of 16
  7. Lived with both biological parents to age 16 (except for death of parents)

Conduct Disorder Symptoms

Next, the assessor will complete the list of Conduct Disorder symptoms, circling those that occurred before age 16 except for items 13 and 15 which are before aged 16:

  • 1. Often bullied, threatened or intimidated others
  • 2. Often initiated physical fights
  • 3. Used a weapon that could cause serious physical harm to others (e.g., a bat, brick, broken bottle, knife, gun)
  • 4. Was physically cruel to people
  • 5. Was physically cruel to animals
  • 6. Stolen while confronting a victim (e.g., mugging, purse snatching, extortion, robbery)
  • 7. Forced someone into sexual activity
  • 8. Deliberately engaged in fire setting with the intention of causing serious damage
  • 9. Deliberately destroyed others’ property (other than by fire setting)
  • 10. Broken into someone else’s house, car, or building
  • 11. Often lied to obtain goods or favors or to avoid obligations (i.e., “cons” others)
  • 12. Stolen items of nontrivial value without confronting a victim (like shoplifting, theft, or forgery)
  • 13. Before [age] 13, stayed out late at night, despite parental prohibitions
  • 14. Ran away from home overnight (or longer) at least twice while living in parental or parental surrogate home (or once without returning for a lengthy period)
  • 15. Before [age] 13, was often truant from school

Cormier-Lang Criminal History Scores for Non-Violent Offenses

This scoring form allows you to answer item number 5 below, the Criminal History Score for Non-Violent Offenses Prior to the Index Offense. This score is developed by counting the number of non-violent offenses and applying a weight to them. For instance, bank robbery is counted x7 while Indecent Exposure is counted x2. So an individual who has two instances of Indecent Exposure and 1 instance of Bank Robbery would have (2×2 = 4) + (1×7 = 7) = 4+7 = 11.

Violence Risk Appraisal Guide (VRAG) Items

Next are the 12 VRAG items. The tool provides detailed coding instructions for each of these:

  1. Lived with both biological parents to age 16 (except for death of parent):
  2. Elementary School Maladjustment:
  3. History of alcohol problems
  4. Marital status (at the time of or prior to index offense):
  5. Criminal history score for nonviolent offenses prior to the index offense
  6. Failure on prior conditional release (includes parole or probation violation or revocation, failure to comply, bail violation, and any new arrest while on conditional release):
  7. Age at index offense
  8. Victim Injury (for index offense; the most serious is scored):
  9. Any female victim (for index offense)
  10. Meets DSM criteria for any personality disorder (must be made by appropriately licensed or certified professional)
  11. Meets DSM criteria for schizophrenia (must be made by appropriately licensed or certified professional)
  12. a. Psychopathy Checklist score (if available, otherwise use item 12.b. CATS score)
  13. (Technically 12b) bCATS score (from the CATS worksheet)

Scoring the VRAG

Determining Risk

Risk categories are provided in the VRAG manual. They are approximated here although more detail is available in the complete manual. For each score, if an individual is close to the next score you should list them as a combination of the two. For instance an individual whose score is -10, -9 or -8 would be listed as Low-Medium rather than just Low.

  • -24 to -8 is Low Risk
  • -7 to +13 is Medium Risk
  • +14 to +32 is High Risk

Determining Rate of Recidivism

The risk of recidivism is presented below, from the same manual (pages 283-286):

Probability of Recidivism
VRAG score 7 years 10 years
< −22 0.00 0.08
−21 to −15 0.08 0.10
−14 to −8 0.12 0.24
−7 to −1 0.17 0.31
0 to +6 0.35 0.48
+7 to +13 0.44 0.58
+14 to +20 0.55 0.64
+21 to +27 0.76 0.82
> +28 1.00 1.00

This is to be interpreted as a percentage. For instance a score of -10 is in the -14 to -8 category; therefore an individual would have a 7 year recidivism rate of 12% and a 10 year recidivism rate of 24%.

References

American Psychological Association. (2006) Quinsey, V.L., Harris, G.T., Rice, M.E. & Cormier, C.A. (2006) 2nd Ed. Violent Offenders: Appraising and Managing Risk. Washington D.C: American Psychological Association.

Brown, J. & Singh, J.P. (2014) Forensic Risk Assessment: A Beginner’s Guide. Archives of Forensic Psychology. 1(1). 49-59. Retrieved on January 20, 2017 from http://www.archivesofforensicpsychology.com/web/wp-content/uploads/2015/01/Brown-and-Singh1.pdf

Camilleri, J.A. & Quinsey, V.L. (2011) Appraising the risk of sexual and violent recidivism among intellectually disabled offenders. Psychology, Crime & Law. 17(1) 59-74

Cite this article as: MacDonald, D.K., (2017), "Using the Violence Risk Appraisal Guide (VRAG)," retrieved on July 21, 2017 from http://dustinkmacdonald.com/using-violence-risk-appraisal-guide-vrag/.
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Level of Care Utilization System (LOCUS)

Introduction

The Level of Care Utilization System or LOCUS tool has been designed by the American Association of Community Psychiatrists (2009) to allow staff who work on inpatient hospital environments with patients with psychiatric problems (such as emergency departments, psychiatric sections of general hospitals or in psychiatric hospitals) to determine the level of care that an individual should receive.

The LOCUS provides for six levels, ranging from the least intense (recovery maintenance, such as seeing a case manager once a month and having access to a 24-hour crisis line if needed) to the most intense (medically managed residential services such as being a hospital inpatient.)

Parameters

The LOCUS is based on a set of parameters that an individual is scored along. The level of care is determined based on the mix of parameters that each client has. These parameters are:

  1. Risk of Harm
  2. Functional Status
  3. Medical, Addictive and Psychiatric Co-morbidity
  4. Recovery Environment
  5. Treatment and Recovery History
  6. Engagement and Recovery Status

In most of these domains there are a number of states that are used to code the domain. For instance, “Risk of Harm” has five potential states from Minimal Risk of Harm to Extreme Risk of Harm. The exception is 4. Recovery Environment which has two subcomponents, Level of Stress and Level of Support.

The LOCUS manual provides detailed coding instructions to allow an individual to be assessed in a reliable, repeatable way.

Levels of Care

For each Level of Care, the manual provides for four categories, Care Environment, Clinical Services, Supportive Systems, and Crisis Stabilization and Prevention Services.

Care Environment describes where services are delivered and what facilities might need to be available. Clinical Services describes the type and number of clinical employees (nurses, etc.) and the types of therapies or treatments available. Supportive Services includes client access to things like case management, outreach and financial support, while Prevention Services include mobile crisis, crisis lines, and other access to services.

Scoring

Each of the levels includes specific individual scores required for a level, and also a composite score. The Composite Score overrides the individual scores to determine which level an individual is placed at if the Composite Score results in a more intense level of care.

Composite Scores

  • Level 1 – 10-13
  • Level 2 – 14-16
  • Level 3 – 17-19
  • Level 4 – 20-22
  • Level 5 – 23 – 27
  • Level 6 – 28+

Level 1 – Recovery Maintenance and Health Management

  • Risk of Harm: 2 or less
  • Functional Status: 2 or less
  • Co-morbidity: 2 or less
  • Level of Stress: Sum of Stress and Support less than 4
  • Level of Support: Sum of Stress and Support less than 4
  • Treatment & Recovery History: 2 or less
  • Engagement & Recovery Status: 2 or less

Level 2 – Low Intensity Community Based Services

  • Risk of Harm: 2 or less
  • Functional Status: 2 or less
  • Co-morbidity: 2 or less
  • Level of Stress: Sum of Stress and Support less than 5
  • Level of Support: Sum of Stress and Support less than 5
  • Treatment & Recovery History: 2 or less
  • Engagement & Recovery Status: 2 or less

Level 3 – High Intensity Community Based Services

  • Risk of Harm: 3 or less
  • Functional Status: 3 or less
  • Co-morbidity: 3 or less
  • Level of Stress: Sum of Stress and Support less than 5
  • Level of Support: Sum of Stress and Support less than 5
  • Treatment & Recovery History: 3 or less
  • Engagement & Recovery Status: 3 or less

Level 4 – Medically Monitored Non-Residential Services

  • Risk of Harm: 3 or less
  • Functional Status: 3 or less
  • Co-morbidity: 3 or less
  • Level of Stress: 3 or 4
  • Level of Support: 3 or less
  • Treatment & Recovery History: 3 or 4
  • Engagement & Recovery Status: 3 or 4

Level 5 – Medically Monitored Residential Services

  • Risk of Harm: If the score is 4 or higher – the client is automatically Level 5
  • Functional Status: If the score is 4 or higher – most clients are automatically Level 5
  • Co-morbidity: If the score is 4 or higher – most clients are automatically Level 5
  • Level of Stress: 4 or more in combination with a rating of 3 or higher on Risk of Harm, Functional Status or Co-morbidity
  • Level of Support: 4 or more in combination with a rating of 3 or higher on Risk of Harm, Functional Status or Co-morbidity
  • Treatment & Recovery History: 3 or more in combination with a rating of 3 or higher on Risk of Harm, Functional Status or Co-morbidity
  • Engagement & Recovery Status: 3 or more in combination with a rating of 3 or higher on Risk of Harm, Functional Status or Co-morbidity

Level 6 – Medically Managed Residential Services

  • Risk of Harm: If the score is 5 or higher – the client is automatically Level 6
  • Functional Status: If the score is 5 or higher – the client is automatically Level 6
  • Co-morbidity: If the score is 5 or higher the client is automatically Level 6
  • Level of Stress: 4 or more
  • Level of Support: 4 or more
  • Treatment & Recovery History: 4 or more
  • Engagement & Recovery Status: 4 or more

Given that there are a number of nuances in the exact scoring it’s recommended that an individual read or receive structured training in administration of the LOCUS. The LOCUS manual also provides a decision tree (not shown) to assist in making your determinations and a determination grid (shown below.)

Level of Care Determination Grid

LOCUS Level of Care Determination Grid

Research

Although the LOCUS is widely used, research is surprisingly limited.

The initial study validating the LOCUS was Sowers, George & Thomson (1999). Their study examined scores on the LOCUS and correlated them to expert decisions to see if the LOCUS matched that decision-making; their results indicated that it performed well in this function.

Kimura, Yagi & Toshizumi (2013) reviewed the LOCUS by comparing scores on it to the Global Assessment Scale (GAS) scores, a similar tool and examining the change of scores from admission to discharge. They found it a sensitive and effective tool for clinical use in Japan.

Ontario Shores, a large mental hospital in Whitby, ON implements the LOCUS along with the RAI tools as well.

References

American Association of Community Psychiatrists. (2009) LOCUS Level of Care Utilization System for Psychiatric and Addictions Services, Adult Version 2010. Retrieved on January 18, 2017 from http://cchealth.org/mentalhealth/pdf/LOCUS.pdf

Kimura, T., Yagi, F., & Yoshizumi, A. (2013). Application of Level of Care Utilization System for Psychiatric and Addiction Services (LOCUS) to Psychiatric Practice in Japan: A Preliminary Assessment of Validity and Sensitivity to Change. Community Mental Health Journal, 49(4), 477-491. doi:10.1007/s10597-012-9562-6

Sowers, W., George, C., & Thomson, K. R. (1999). Level of care utilization system for psychiatric and addiction services (LOCUS): a preliminary assessment of reliability and validity. Community Mental Health Journal, (6), 545.

Cite this article as: MacDonald, D.K., (2017), "Level of Care Utilization System (LOCUS)," retrieved on July 21, 2017 from http://dustinkmacdonald.com/level-care-utilization-system-locus/.
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