Guidelines for Violence Risk Assessment

Predicting violence is notoriously very difficult. Nevertheless, sometimes counselors, social workers, psychologists and psychiatrists are faced with situations where they need to make estimates or predictions of violence potential. The material below is a short preview from Clinical Interviewing, 5th edition.

Research findings imply that therapists who hope to conduct accurate violence assessments should know actuarial violence prediction risk factors. However, as is often the case, scientific research doesn’t always parallel real-life situations faced by therapists. For example, while much of the actuarial violence research has been conducted on forensic or prison populations—with the designated outcome measure being violent recidivism—therapists typically face situations in schools, residential treatment centers, and private practice (Juhnke, Granello, & Granello, 2011). Consequently, although actuarial violence prediction risk factors may be helpful, they probably don’t generalize well to situations where a counselor is making a judgment about whether there’s duty to protect (and therefore warn) a shop teacher about a boy (who has never been incarcerated) who reports vivid images of slitting his shop teacher’s throat.

Given these limits, it’s best for us to call clinical interview-based assessments in school and agency settings violence assessment, rather than violence prediction. This distinction helps clarify the fact that what most clinicians do in general practice settings, including public and private schools, falls far short of scientific, actuarial-based violence prediction.

A Reasonable Approach to Violence Risk Assessment

Predicting violence is a challenging proposition. Despite the many shifting variables that change based on the specifics of any given situation and despite the low base rate, and therefore inherent unpredictability of violent behavior, this section provides general guidelines that may be helpful should you find yourself in a situation where violence assessment is necessary. Of course, in addition to this guide you should always pursue consultation and supervision support when working with potentially violent clients.

Table 12.2 includes a general guide to violence assessment. It doesn’t include common actuarial risk factors from two common instruments, the Violent Rate Appraisal Guide (Harris, Rice, & Quinsey, 1993) or the Psychopathy Checklist-Revised (Hare et al., 1990; Harpur, Hakstian, & Hare, 1988). If you find yourself intrigued with violence risk assessment you may want to explore a career in forensic psychology.

Table 12.2. A General Guide to Violence Assessment
The following checklist is offered as a general guide to conducting violence assessment. It should not be used as a substitute for actuarial prediction.
____1.  Ask direct and indirect questions about violent behavior history. Be especially alert to physical aggression and cruelty. If the violent behavior that’s being threatened is similar to a past violent behavior the risk of violence may be higher.

_____2. Because potentially violent individuals aren’t always honest about their violence history, you may need to ask collateral informants—someone other than the client—about the client’s history of violent behavior (assuming you have a release of information signed or have determined you have an ethical-legal responsibility to protect someone from harm).

____3.  You should listen for details that might help you identify potential victims. If the details are not forthcoming, you may need to ask specific questions in an effort to obtain those details. Identification of a specific victim increases violence risk (and provides you with information about whom you should warn).

____4. As clients talk about violent urges, you should listen for specifics about the plan. As needed, you may, through curious and indirect questioning, make efforts to further assess the specificity of the client’s violence plan. More specific plans are associated with increased violence risk.

____5. If clients don’t tell you about his or her access to a weapon or means for committing his or her planned violent act, you should ask. Similar to suicidal situations, access to lethal means increases violence risk.

____6. Historical information is doubly important. Generally speaking, the sooner violent behavior patterns began, the more likely they are to continue and clients raised in chaotic and violent environments (including gang involvement) are at higher risk for violence.

____7. Diagnostic information may be helpful. When looking at DSM diagnoses, the best violence predictors include items from list B** of the **DSM’s Antisocial Personality diagnostic criteria (see DSM-IV-TR**).

____8. Evaluate current cognitions. If clients have low expectations of being caught or of having consequences, risk may be higher.

____9. Consider substance use. Positive attitudes towards substance use and substance use when carrying weapons confer greater risk.

____10. Notice your intuition. Intuition isn’t a great predictor of anything, but if you have images of violence linked to a particular client, it’s reasonable to err on the conservative side and begin the process of warning potential victims.

**This information may change in the DSM-5


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