SIMPLE STEPS Model for Suicide Risk Assessment

Introduction

The SIMPLE STEPS Model (McGlothlin, 2008) for suicide risk assessment provides a simple mnemonic similar to others like SADPERSONS (Patterson, et. al., 1983) or IS PATH WARM (from the American Association of Suicidology). Each of these is correlated with increasing suicide lethality and so this can be a useful short-hand to remember these items.

Suicide risk assessment on the crisis line is mostly concerned with imminent risk, and many suicide screeners designed for lay people may miss important variables in a goal to be simplistic; the SIMPLE STEPS model appears to avoid both of these traps, by providing an assessment tool simple enough to be used in the crisis line environment but comprehensive enough to be used by counsellors or therapists for ongoing monitoring of suicide risk.

Items in the SIMPLE STEPS Model

  • Suicidal – Is the individual expressing suicidal ideation?
  • Ideation – What is their suicidal intent?
  • Method – How detailed and accessible is their suicidal method?
  • Perturbation – How strong is their emotional pain
  • Loss – Have they experienced actual or perceived losses? (Relationships, material objects)
  • Earlier Attempts – What previous attempts has the individual experienced, what happened after those attempts?
  • Substance Use – Is the individual abusing drugs, alcohol, or other substances?
  • (Lack of) Troubleshooting Skills – Are they able to see alternatives or options other than suicide?
  • Emotions / Diagnosis – “Assessment of emotional attributes (hopelessness, helplessness, worthlessness, loneliness, agitation, depression, and impulsivity) and diagnoses commonly associated with completed suicide (e.g., substance abuse, mood disorders, personality disorders, etc.)” (McGlothlin, et. al., 2016)
  • (Lack of) Protective Factors – What is keeping this person safe from suicide? Who are their supports (internal such as personal values and external like people), resources and agencies
  • Stressors and Life Events – What has happened in their life to lead them to suicide?

Sharp readers will identify that these elements map very neatly onto the DCIB Model of Suicide Risk Assessment, but perhaps provide a better mnemonic in order to make sure that clinicians who do not have the DCIB in front of them are able to perform that assessment.

Validation of the SIMPLE STEPS Model

McGlothlin, et. al. (2016) used 13,000 calls over six years to a crisis line and correlated the SIMPLE STEPS items with the lethality risk present in that call. One limitation of this study is that it used self-reported (by the helpline worker taking the call) lethality rather than using another evidence-based risk assessment in order to compare with. I am satisfied that McGlothlin addressed this in his limitations section, where he noted the difficulty with using data collected in this manner.

References

McGlothlin, J. (2008). Developing clinical skills in suicide assessment, prevention and treatment.
Alexandria, VA: American Counseling Association

McGlothlin, J., Page, B., & Jager, K. (2016). Validation of the SIMPLE STEPS Model of Suicide Assessment. Journal Of Mental Health Counseling, 38(4), 298-307. doi:10.17744/mehc.38.4.02

Patterson, W.M., Dohn, H.H., Patterson, J. & Patterson, G.A. (1983). “Evaluation of suicidal patients: the SAD PERSONS scale.” Psychosomatics 24(4): 343–5, 348–9. doi:10.1016/S0033-3182(83)73213-5. PMID 6867245

Cite this article as: MacDonald, D.K., (2017), "SIMPLE STEPS Model for Suicide Risk Assessment," retrieved on May 29, 2017 from http://dustinkmacdonald.com/simple-steps-model-suicide-risk-assessment/.

 

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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 May 29, 2017 from http://dustinkmacdonald.com/level-care-utilization-system-locus/.
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Law Enforcement Suicide Prevention

Introduction

Organizations like the Tema Conter Memorial Trust in Canada and Reviving Responders in the US have highlighted the skyrocketing rate of suicide among first responders, including police officers, paramedics and firefighters. In 2015, there were over 100 suicides by law enforcement officers in the US. (Kulbarsh, 2016) They note the high incidence of PTSD among law enforcement officers and the stigma that prevents them from seeking support.

One way to reduce law enforcement suicide is through police academy training that provides all officers with suicide awareness training. This helps reduce the stigma of receiving mental health support and gives police the opportunity to act as peer supporters for their colleagues.

Overview of Curriculum

The material below comes from the Basic Course for Police Officers authored by the New Jersey Police Training Commission (2016). This 262-page manual provides a complete review of the curriculum that police officers in that state learn during their 24 weeks at the Academy.

One of the instructional units is named “Suicide Awareness and Prevention for the Law Enforcement Officer”. The description is as follows:

The trainee will understand the causes, symptoms, warning signs and risks associated
with officer suicide, and will identify appropriate intervention and prevention strategies
to effectively deal with this issue.

The outcomes of this module are as follows. Once completed, the police recruit will be able to:

  • Define suicide
  • Identify demographics associated with law enforcement suicide
  • Know stressors that contribute to suicide
  • Explain risk factors associated with suicide
  • Identify warning signs associated with suicide
  • Understand suicide myths
  • Explain and apply the AID LIFE acronym for intervening with suicide
  • Identify obstacles to effective suicide intervention
  • Note professional resources helpful to an officer
  • Identify strategies to prevention law enforcement suicide

The content from these modules is summarized below, but I’ve added references where appropriate to back up the un-cited information. The goal is to provide added-value and confirm the veracity of the material.

Defining Suicide

Suicide is defined as the intentional taking of one’s own life (Stedman, 2016).

Demographics of Law Enforcement Suicide

  • There are more deaths to police suicide than in the line-of-duty (Kulbarsh, 2016)
  • The police officer life expectancy is less than the general population (Violanti, 2013)
  • The suicide rate is approximately 14 deaths per 100,000 (Badge of Life, n.d.) compared to 13 per 100,000 in the general population (AFSP, 2014)
  • Although the curriculum maintains that the divorce rate is higher among police officers, the opposite is actually true. The divorce rate is slightly lower, at 14.47% versus 16.96% for all professions over the lifetime (Roufa, 2015)
  • The rate of substance abuse is higher among police officers (Cross & Ashley, 2004)

Stressors Contributing to Law Enforcement Suicide

In addition to the normal stressors such as depression, anxiety, substance abuse and relationship issues, the curriculum identifies some specific job-related stressors. These include:

  • Discipline issues (internal affairs and/or
    criminal investigations); and
  • Management issues (assignment – lack of promotion – supervision);
  • Retirement (loss of identity and sense of belonging).
  • Shift work;
  • Sleep deprivation;
  • Unfulfilled job expectations;

Risk Factors Associated with Law Enforcement Suicide

This section identifies historical, demographic risk factors that may increase suicide. These are listed below, and correspond to those in the SAD PERSONS Scale and the CPR Risk Assessment:

  • Knowledge of and access to lethal means;
  • Age;
  • Gender;
  • Ethnicity;
  • Previous history (self or family member);
  • Cumulative stressors;
  • Feeling of hopelessness and helplessness; and
  • Lack of intervention resources.

Warning Signs of Law Enforcement Suicide

Warning signs, as defined by the AAS (n.d.) are items that represent an imminent, increased risk (active factors) rather than the stable historical factors that don’t necessarily represent increased risk. For instance, being a male does not itself mean someone is suicidal, but being a man does increase the chances someone will die.

The warning signs listed in the curriculum (reproduced verbatim below) represent a mix of risk factors and AAS-type warning signs.

  • Depression:
    • Attitude of hopelessness and helplessness;
    • Unexplained changes in appetite, weight, appearance, and/or sleep habits;
    • Difficulty making decisions;
    • Difficulty concentrating;
    • Overly anxious;
  • Previous suicide attempt;
  • Increase in the use of alcoholic beverages;
  • Overly aggressive or violent behavior;
  • Any changes in mood or behavior that are out of the ordinary, including a neutral mood;
  • Changes in work habits;
  • Behavioral clues of suicidal thoughts:
    • Giving away possessions;
    • Making a will;
    • Talking about a long trip;
    • Sudden interest or disinterest in religion;
    • Substance abuse relapse; and
    • Taking inappropriate duty-related and personal risks.
  • Anger / irritability; and
  • Concern expressed by family / friends / colleagues about a specific individual;

Identifying Common Suicide Myths

The myths that are discussed here include:

  • People who talk about suicide won’t attempt
  • Talking about suicide with someone does not reduce their risk
  • Warning signs are not present before a person dies by suicide
  • Suicidal individuals must have a mental illness
  • Suicidal individuals are beyond help
  • Suicidal individuals are committed to dying

See my article on suicide myths for a more complete discussion of these

AID LIFE for Suicide Intervention

AID LIFE is an acronym that is given in the training for a simple intervention procedure. The steps in AID LIFE are as follows:

  • A – Ask if the individual is thinking about suicide
  • I – Intervene immediately. Listen and let the person know they are not alone.
  • D – Don’t keep their suicidal thoughts a secret. Seek assistance
  • L – Locate help. This can include a supervisor, chaplain, physician, or other members of their support network. (Including crisis workers or the Emergency Room.)
  • I – Inform the Chain of Command. This can help get important resources like counselling in place.
  • F – Find someone to stay with the individual. (Dustin’s note: I’m actually not a big fan of this one, it shows up in the Marine Corps suicide awareness program as well; this is more important for high-risk, imminent suicide than it is for someone who may be low or moderate risk.)
  • E – Expedite. Get help now, rather than delaying it.

Obstacles to Effective Suicide Intervention

These obstacles are reproduced directly from the manual and include a variety of police-specific and more general obstacles to effective intervention with police officers who are struggling with suicidal thoughts.

  • Fear of stigma, isolation, humiliation, suspension, job loss;
  • Fear of change in duty status;
  • The police culture; (seeking mental health support may be perceived as a character weakness)
  • Denial that there is a problem; (by the officer, peer officers, supervisors, the command staff)
  • Reluctance of the officer to seek help for fear of the officer losing control of the situation;
  • The officer’s fear that confidentiality will not be maintained;
  • The officer’s distrust of management;
  • Supervisors and peers who protect or shield a troubled officer; and
  • Lack of knowledge by a troubled individual about the availability of counseling resources, and concern about being able to afford such services.

Professional Resources for Law Enforcement Suicide

Although this is a New Jersey Police manual, the resources presented are general enough to be a good reference. The resources that are recommended include:

  • Crisis Line
  • Employer Assistance Program (EAP)
  • Faith-based support (e.g. Chaplain or Church official)
  • Hospital emergency room
  • Mental Health Counselling (in person or otherwise)
  • Peer Support (from another officer or supervisor)

Strategies to Prevent Law Enforcement Suicide

The following 4 strategies are generally recommended for preventing suicide by both law enforcement officers and the general public. They include:

  1. Understanding the risk factors and warning signs of law enforcement suicide
  2. Using available resources and building a support network
  3. Challenging the stigma in seeking support
  4. Using the AID LIFE mnemonic

Other Police Suicide Prevention Programs

Together for Life was developed by Psychologists as a comprehensive suicide prevention program in Montreal. This program includes a half-day training session for all officers, a confidential telephone helpline, a full-day training session in more in-depth techniques for supervisors and awareness materials. Mishara & Martin’s 2012 evaluation showed:

  • 99% of those who attended the sessions said they would recommend the sessions to a colleague
  • 84% of supervisors were aware of the program
  • Positive increases in knowledge of risk factors and warning signs, and how to intervene
  • A nearly 80% decrease in the rate of Montreal police suicides (versus no change in the rate of police suicides in other police services in Quebec)

Badge of Life: Psychological Survival for Police Officers (Levenson, O’Hara & Clark, 2010) makes “emotional self-care (ESC)” the focus of a series of training modules delivered to police officers, along with mental health screenings and the delivery of peer support by other officers and the use of Critical Incident Stress Debriefing (CISD).

Police Organization Providing Peer Assistance (POPPA) (Dowling, et. al., 2006) is a New York Police Department (NYPD) based program for preventing suicide. It combines a confidential helpline, support groups, printed suicide awareness and intervention materials distributed to all police officers, and tools to assess resiliency and stress. Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training (ASIST) is also provided yearly.

Additional Resources

The book Police Suicide: Tactics for Prevention provides a comprehensive review of police suicide causes and potential interventions to reduce suicidal behaviour in this group.

References

American Association of Suicidology. (n.d.) “Warning Signs | American Association of Suicidology” Retrieved on September 4, 2016 from http://www.suicidology.org/resources/warning-signs

American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP). (2014) “Suicide Statistics — AFSP” Retrieved on September 4, 2016 from https://afsp.org/about-suicide/suicide-statistics/

Badge of Life. (n.d.) Police Suicide Myths. Retrieved on September 4, 2016 from http://www.badgeoflife.com/myths/

Cross, C.L. & Ashley, L. (2004) Police Trauma and Addiction: Coping With the Dangers of the Job. FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin. 73(10) Retrieved on September 4, 2016 from https://www.ncjrs.gov/App/Publications/abstract.aspx?ID=207385

Dowling, F.G., Moynihan, G., Genet, B. & Lewis, J. (2006). A Peer-Based Assistance Program for Officers With the New York City Police Department: Report of the Effects of Sept. 11, 2001. American Journal Of Psychiatry: Official Journal Of The American Psychiatric Association, (1), 151. doi:10.1176/appi.ajp.163.1.151

Kulbarsh, P. (2016) “2015 Police Suicide Statistics” Officer.com. Retrieved on September 4, 2016 from http://www.officer.com/article/12156622/2015-police-suicide-statistics

Levenson Jr, R. L., O’Hara, A. F., & Clark Sr, R. (2010). The Badge of Life Psychological Survival for Police Officers Program. International Journal Of Emergency Mental Health & Human Resilience, 12(2), 95-101.

Mishara, B. L., & Martin, N. (2012). Effects of a comprehensive police suicide prevention program. Crisis: The Journal Of Crisis Intervention And Suicide Prevention, 33(3), 162-168. doi:10.1027/0227-5910/a000125

New Jersey Police Training Commission. (2016) Basic Course for Police Officers.

Roufa, T. (2015) “What is the Divorce Rate for Police Officers?” The Balance. Retrieved on September 4, 2016 from https://www.thebalance.com/what-is-the-divorce-rate-for-police-officers-974539

Stedman, T. (2016) Stedman’s Medical Dictionary (28th ed.). Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins.

Cite this article as: MacDonald, D.K., (2016), "Law Enforcement Suicide Prevention," retrieved on May 29, 2017 from http://dustinkmacdonald.com/law-enforcement-suicide-prevention/.
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Basic Homicide Risk Assessment

Introduction to Homicide Risk Assessment

All mental health professionals in the US and Canada have an ethical duty to warn, the requirement to warn someone who is at risk of harm of that harm. This leads clinicians to conduct homicide risk assessments to determine the level of danger to others.

In therapy or crisis intervention, the clinician is required to breach a client’s confidentiality in order to make notifications for both homicide risk and suicide. The homicide notification was codified in Tarasoff v. Regents of the University of California (1976), a famous case where a psychologist was held liable after failure to take adequate steps to protect a woman that a client had confessed the desire to kill, when he did.

Borum & Reddy (2001) enumerated a variety of steps to performing a homicide risk assessment in a Tarasoff-style risk assessment, which is differentiated from a more long-term risk assessment by a focus on on clinical judgement than on an examination of actuarial risk factors. The ACTION steps below are used to perform the assessment.

To start, it’s important to clarify the difference between making a threat, and posing a threat. Someone who says they wish to hurt someone may not pose intent or take action that demonstrates an actual risk. Preparatory behaviours help guide the risk assessment, and include selecting a target, choosing the method, time and place of violence, acquiring means, and so on.

The goals of the Tarasoff homicide risk assessment will be:

  1. Is the client headed towards a violent act?
  2. How fast is the client moving towards that act, and do opportunities exist for intervention?

ACTION Steps for Tarasoff Homicide Risk Assessment

Attitudes in support of violence

Is the client demonstrating any antisocial attitudes or beliefs? If the client is at risk of harming their partner, do they hold misogynistic or patriarchal beliefs? The goal here is to determine whether the client believes that violence is a justified or normal response to this situation. The more justified the client believes he or she is, the higher the risk of violence.

Borum & Reddy also identify other factors to explore under attitudes:

  • Hostile attribution bias
  • Violent fantasies
  • Expectations about success of violence
  • Whether the client feels it will accomplish their goal

Capacity to carry out threat

Does the client have access to the means, and the intellectual capacity to carry out a criminal, violent act? They also need access to the target and opportunity. Stalking often precedes violent acts (Meloy, 2002) and this can lead to an individual learning about the target’s schedule and whereabouts.

Thresholds crossed in progression of behaviour

Any presence of lawbreaking indicates a “willingness and ability to engage in antisocial behavior to accomplish one’s objective.” Additionally, any kind of plan and preparatory behaviours to achieve this plan should be explored.

Intent to act vs. threats alone

It’s important to clarify the difference between an actual intent to act versus simple threats. On the distress line, we clarify with callers who make violent comments whether they actually intend to harm the person they’re speaking about, or whether their comments are a result of frustration.

Questioning the client helps suss out their intent, in addition to any preparatory behaviours, alternative plans to accomplish their aim (that may or may not involve violence.) A client who believes there is no other way to meet their goals are more likely to turn to violence.

Other’s knowledge of the client

Knowing how others respond to the client’s planned actions will help assess their potential for action. If many people around them respond negatively to their plan they may be less likely to follow through. On the opposite side, if their supports provide little resistance this can increase risk. The client’s self-report can also help inform their attitudes.

Non-compliance with strategies to reduce risk

Is the client willing and interested in reducing their chance of committing a violent act? If they have previously breached legal requirements like parole or court orders, or demonstrate a willingness to do so in the future, this raises their risk.

Appreciating the gravity of their mental health status and desire for treatment may also be important.

Further Reading

See the original article by Borum & Reddy for a more detailed review of the risk factors and additional items, or a book like Clinician’s Guide to Violence Risk Assessment by Mills, Kroner & Morgan.

Bibliography

Borum, R. & Reddy, M. (2001) Assessing violence risk in tarasoff situations: A fact-based model of inquiry. Behavioral Sciences and the Law. 19:375-385. doi: 10.1002/bsl.447

Meloy, J. (2002). “Stalking and violence.” In J. Boon and L. Sheridan (eds.) Stalking and psychosexual obsession: Psychological perspectives for prevention, polcing, and treatment. West Sussex, UK: John Wiley & Sons, Ltd

Tarasoff v. Regents of the University of California, 131 Cal. Rptr. 14 (Cal. 1976)

Cite this article as: MacDonald, D.K., (2016), "Basic Homicide Risk Assessment," retrieved on May 29, 2017 from http://dustinkmacdonald.com/basic-homicide-risk-assessment/.

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Spousal Assault Risk Assessment (SARA)

Introduction to Spousal Assault Risk Assessment

The Spousal Assault Risk Assessment (SARA) by Kropp, Hart, Webster & Eaves (1995) is used to assess the risk of intimate partner violence. Their tool recognizes that intimate partner violence may occur without regard to gender (male on female, female on male, female on female, male on male, and any other combination including trans and non-binary individuals), marital status (married and commonlaw individuals may engage in intimate partner violence), and does not necessarily require physical injury.

What follows is a brief summary of how to administer and score the SARA. More comprehensive information can be found in the manual itself. The SARA may be administered by minimally trained individuals up to Forensic Psychologists and Psychiatrists.

The SARA is comprised of 20 items that to provide a framework of historic, static and dynamic risk factors that have been shown to increase risk.

Information Required Prior to Assessment

All available sources of information should be consulted before completing the SARA.  This should include:

  • Interviews with both the accused/perpetrator and the victim/survivor(s) with a goal of collecting the SARA items
  • Standard measures for substance abuse (drugs and alcohol), personality, and IQ if available; the SARA manual recommends the Michigan Alcoholism Screening Test (MAST) by Seltzer (1971) for alcohol, and the Drug Abuse Screening Test (Skinner, 1982) for drugs, and the Personality Assessment Inventory by Morey (1991) for personality
  • Police reports, court documents, criminal records, etc.
  • Interviews with relatives or children who may have been exposed to abuse
  • Interview with probation officers

Coding

All items in the SARA are scored based on a 3-point scale:

  • 0 = Absent
  • 1 = Subthreshold
  • 2 = Present

If there is not enough to code an item, it should be excluded, not coded as absent. For instance, if there is no information to confirm or deny a current substance abuse issue, this should be left blank and noted, not assumed to be absent.

Critical Items

Some items are considered critical items – if these are present then it is enough to assume that potential/actual victims are at risk. These items are coded on a 2-point scale:

  • 0 = Absent
  • 1 = Present

These items are chosen as critical items based on the evaluator’s judgement.

Summarizing Risk

The result of a risk assessment will usually address two issues:

  1. Is there risk to the partner?
  2. Is there risk to children/non-spouse/others?

This summary is coded on a 3-point scale,

  • 1 = Low
  • 2 = Moderate
  • 3 = High

Communicating Risk

Writing a risk assessment is outside the scope of this article but you may see the original guide for more detailed information or my blog post about documenting suicide risk assessments for more information.

Assessment Items and Risk Management

For more detailed rating criteria please consult the original guide. The coding has been omitted from this table in appreciation for the original author’s copyright.

Item Name Coding Risk Management Strategies
1 – Past Assault of Family Members Intensive supervision or monitoring
2 – Past Assault of Strangers or Acquaintances Intensive supervision or monitoring
3 – Past Violation of Conditional Release or Community Supervision Intensive supervision or monitoring
4 – Recent Relationship Problems Interpersonal treatment (individual or group)

Legal advice or dispute resolution

Vocational counselling

5 – Recent Employment Problems Interpersonal treatment (individual or group)

Vocational counselling

6 – Victim of and/or Witness to Family Violence as a Child or Adolescent None given in guide;Interpersonal treatment (individual or group)
7 – Recent Substance Abuse/Dependence  Court-ordered abstinence, drug testing

Alcohol/drug treatment

8 – Recent Suicidal or Homicidal Ideation/Intent Crisis counselling

Hospitalization

Psychotropic medication

Court-ordered weapons restrictions

9 – Recent Psychotic or Manic Symptoms Crisis counselling

Hospitalization

Psychotropic medication

Court-ordered weapons restrictions

10 – Personality Disorder with Anger, Impulsivity or Behavioural Instability Intensive supervision

Long-term individual therapy

Group treatment

Psycho-education

11 – Past Physical Assault None given in guide;

Intensive supervision or monitoring

12 – Past Sexual Assaut/Sexual Jealousy None given in guide;

Intensive supervision or monitoring

Long-term individual therapy

13 – Past Use of Weapons and/or Credible Threats of Death None given in guide;

Court-ordered weapons restrictions

14 – Recent Escalation in Frequency or Severity of Assault None given in guide;
15 – Past Violations of “No Contact” Orders Intensive supervision or monitoring
16 – Extreme Minimization or Denial of Spousal Assault History Intensive supervision

Long-term individual therapy

Group treatment

Psycho-education

17 – Attitudes That Condone or Support Spousal Assault Intensive supervision

Long-term individual therapy

Group treatment

Psycho-education

18 – Severe and/or Sexual Assault None given in guide; long-term individual therapy
19 – Use of Weapons and/or Credible Threats of Death None given in guide; long-term individual therapy

Court-ordered weapons restrictions

 

20 – Violation of “No Contact” order Intensive supervision or monitoring

Other Considerations

The SARA manual indicates a number of other risk factors which may be factored into the assessment at the expert judgement of the evaluator. Examples of these include:

  • Current emotional crisis
  • History of torturing or disfiguring intimate partners
  • Victim or witness of political persecution, torture, or violence
  • Sexual sadism
  • Easy access to firearms
  • Stalking
  • Recent loss of social support network

Bibliography

Kropp, PR., Hart, S.D., Webster, C.D. & Eaves, D. (1995) Manual for the Spousal Assault Risk Assessment Guide, 2nd ed., The British Columbia Institute Against Family Violence.

Morey, L.C. (1991) Personality Assessment Inventory Professional Manual. Odessa, FL: Psychological Assessment Resources, Inc.

Selzer, M. (1971) The Michigan Alcoholism Screening Test: The quest for a new diagnostic instrument. American Journal of Psychiatry, 127. 1653-1658.

Skinner, H.A. (1982) The Drug Abuse Screening Test. Addictive Behaviour. 7, 363-371.



Cite this article as: MacDonald, D.K., (2016), "Spousal Assault Risk Assessment (SARA)," retrieved on May 29, 2017 from http://dustinkmacdonald.com/spousal-assault-risk-assessment-sara-guide/.

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