One in four women and one in ten men will experience physical violence, and/or stalking by an intimate partner during their lifetime. National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (2020). Given its unfortunate prevalence, most family law practitioners have worked or will work with a client who has experienced domestic violence at some level. In doing so, the ability to identify signs that an abuser is escalating can enable one to effectively advocate for the victim’s legal issue, and even more importantly- their personal safety.
The COVID-19 pandemic has burdened families with unique financial and emotional stressors throughout the past year. Stay-at-home orders trapped many domestic violence victims inside their homes with their abuser. Oftentimes, confinement lead to increased violence, but decreased reporting. As we begin the return back to pre-pandemic life, it is important to be able to identify whether domestic violence is present within family conflict and be aware of risk factors for increased danger.
Generally, legal professionals encounter a victim of domestic violence when they have recently left or are attempting to leave an abusive partner. This is the period of time when the risk of continuing or escalating violence is most significant. This risk is further increased if the victim and abuser previously lived together. Therefore, as professionals advising victims during this dangerous time, it is important to be aware of the indicators of worsening violence.
Most individuals experiencing domestic violence are reluctant to share information. But for family law practitioners, domestic violence must be taken into consideration as it affects so many aspects of the family. Custody, parenting time, division of assets, and the appropriateness of mediation, for example, are all impacted by the presence of domestic violence. However, victims often downplay the danger they are in, either knowingly or unknowingly. A victim may omit certain details or attempt to downplay the abuse for a variety of different reasons. They may feel embarrassed or ashamed. Particularly if the abuser is the main source of financial support, they may not want their partner to get in trouble. But often, the individual does not recognize the severity or danger of the violence they are experiencing. The ability to recognize warning signs that an abuser is escalating can help a practitioner inform the client about their risk of danger.
While sometimes it may be clear that a victim is at an increased risk of ongoing violence, there are several indicators that are easy to overlook. The following are a few of the subtle signs that a victim may be at increased risk for future harm.
1. Threats of Suicide
Serious physical injuries or escalating physical violence is a relatively overt sign that a victim may be in increased danger. However, an abuser threatening to commit suicide can pose just as serious a risk. When an abuser threatens to commit suicide, it is generally coupled with a demand and/or shame to the victim. For example, an abuser may say “If you leave me, I will kill myself” or “You’re going to make me kill myself”. This is a method of control. The message to the victim is “if you do not do what I say, you will be responsible”. In an effort to prevent the suicide, a victim may become more compliant with their abuser. They may be less likely to report ongoing violence or follow through with legal action out of fear that the abuser will end their own life. Further, even absent an explicit threat to the victim, when an abuser threatens suicide, there is an increased risk of homicide. Therefore, victims should be aware that although the abuser may have only threatened suicide, a threat of homicide could be implied beneath the surface. Extra precaution and safety planning are crucial in such a circumstance.
An abuser’s threats of suicide could also indicate a mental health concern, which should be taken into consideration when assessing risk. A mental health diagnosis on its own does not indicate nor correlate with violent behavior. However, if an abuser has a mental health concern that they are not addressing and/or are not complying with treatment, this could exacerbate the danger already present to the victim.
Domestic violence and firearms are a dangerous combination. Firearms are often used to control, threaten, and intimidate victims. When an abuser uses a firearm, whether it is actually fired or used to threaten, the risk to that victim’s life dramatically increases. A victim who is threatened or assaulted with a firearm is twenty times more likely to be the victim of a homicide than when a firearm was not used. Stop the Killing: Potential Use of a Questionnaire that Predicts the Likelihood that a Victim of Intimate Partner Violence Will Be Murdered By Her Partner, 24 Wis. J.L. Gender & Society 277.
The actual use of a firearm is likely to stand out as indicating danger to the victim. However, even when a firearm is not used or threatened, the mere presence of a firearm is significant. Contrary to a common misconception, a victim’s access to a firearm generally does not increase their safety. In fact, it often increases their risk. The simple presence of a firearm in the home increases the homicide risk by a factor of eight. Stop the Killing, 24 Wis. J.L. Gender & Society 277.
3. Non-Fatal Strangulation
Strangulation is one the best predictors for the subsequent homicide of domestic violence victims. If an abuser strangles their victim, the risk that that victim will later be killed by that person increases by about 750% (Gael Strack, American Bar Association, What Civil Attorneys Need to Know About Strangulation). An incident of strangulation does not always result in death as “[m]ost abusers do not strangle to kill- they strangle to show they can kill” (On the Edge of Homicide: Strangulation as a Prelude, Criminal Justice by the American Bar Association). Therefore, it is crucial to recognize if a client has been strangled and inform them of their risk.
However, victims often do not report that they were “strangled”. They may say they were choked. By its actual meaning, choking refers to an internal obstruction of the upper airway (such as a piece of food stuck in the throat); however, when a victim says “choked”, they typically mean “strangled”. A victim may also describe being “pinned against the wall” or “held down”. At first glance, phrases like these do not necessarily indicate strangulation. However, follow up questions are critical in order to detect strangulation. Additional inquiry may reveal that the abuser placed a body part or an object on the victim’s neck in order to hold or pin them down. If that is the case, strangulation has occurred, but the victim is not likely to recognize it.
By no means is the above list exhaustive. Research has identified several other factors that could indicate a victim is at increased risk, such as the abuser’s unemployment, a child in the home that is not biologically related to the abuser, and the abuser’s abuse of alcohol or drugs (Jacquelyn Campbell, et al, The Danger Assessment: Validation of a Lethality Risk Assessment Instrument for Intimate Partner Femicide). Victims are generally reluctant to volunteer this information unless directly asked. Therefore, being aware of these red flags is important.
Awareness of the risk factors in an abusive relationship can be a matter of life or death. Risk to a victim is fluid and should be consistently monitored and re-examined. Recognizing the risk factors allows practitioners to help their clients understand the gravity of their situation. While victims ultimately know their abuser best, being able to inform clients of their increased danger is significant. Research indicates that nearly one-half of women who experienced an attempt on their lives did not realize the level of danger they faced. Equipping victims with the knowledge to appreciate their situation allows for more effective safety planning and legal advocacy.
Haley Martinelli is a staff attorney at The Legal Aid Society of Cleveland. She represents low-income victims of domestic violence in civil protection order cases, divorces, child custody disputes, and related family law matters. Haley has been a member of the CMBA since 2017.