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Understanding risk frameworks

  • Your service might be the first place a person impacted by domestic, family or sexual violence contacts for support
  • Understanding risk indicators is an important part of responding to the individuals’ unique circumstances appropriately
  • Risk Assessment Frameworks contain a multi-level process for responding to domestic, family, and sexual violence.

What are Risk Assessment Frameworks?

Risk Assessment Frameworks have been developed to help professionals provide an integrated response to disclosures of domestic and family violence.

Practitioners and agencies can find it beneficial to use a particular framework to guide their practice. A number of evidence-based risk frameworks have been developed in Australia, which include tools for screening, assessing risk, safety planning and risk management. In some States and Territories, there are mandated Risk Assessment Frameworks that have been developed and are utilised across the service sector for consistency of practice. While adopting a framework can help guide practice, assessing risk is specialist work and requires particular skills and knowledge, therefore States and Territories with mandated frameworks often provide training on their processes for front line workers (or organisations working in this space provide this training for their staff).

Practitioners benefit from knowing about risk assessment approaches. A part of this is recognising and responding to the 'red flags' that signal when risk of serious harm or lethality due to domestic, family and sexual violence is high. Training in the use of risk frameworks from qualified training providers is always recommended.

Understanding risk

It is important to acknowledge that when we talk about ‘Risk Assessments’ and ‘Risk Factors’, we are referring to an assessment and understanding of the risk of domestic, family and sexual violence that an individual or family may be or has been exposed to.

This informs what referral options, safety planning, and professional support may be beneficial ongoing. Risk factors refers to the actions and patterns of behaviour that the person using violence utilises to enforce power and control over the other person/s. They are dynamic, change depending on circumstance, and are attributed to the person’s use of violence.

Risk indicators are not associated with the behaviours and actions of the person impacted by violence, as we understand that it is not their responsibility to stop the violence and accountability rests with the person making the choice to use violence within relationships. There are, however, needs and personal circumstances unique to the person impacted by violence that might increase their vulnerability to harm or lethality, or increase their needs for supports to stay safe at that given time (for example, they may be pregnant, or may need the use of an interpreter, there may be visa status concerns that increase barriers to support services to consider among other things).

Understanding risk factors is an important part of responding appropriately to disclosures of domestic and family violence.

Risk frameworks contain a multi-leveled process for responding to disclosures of domestic and family violence. All workers should familiarise themselves with their organisation’s risk framework and the key indicators of domestic and family violence they refer to as being cause for serious safety concerns. However, as with any assessment process, the key to understanding risk is the individuals understanding of their own risk and fears for safety. Risk assessments must be informed by the person experiencing violence, and are not a tool or process “done to” the individual. Rather, they are “completed with” them.

The first step is screening, to identify that domestic, family and/or sexual violence is occurring. Asking some general questions about the presence of risk factors and the level of fear the individual may be experiencing for themselves or the safety of children can help inform what questions are then asked to develop more understanding of the situation.

This is followed by a full and comprehensive risk assessment, best undertaken by specialist domestic and family violence services.

Safety planning is an important component that takes place at various intervals of engagement, and constantly changes to suit the current needs of the person impacted by violence to help mitigate against risk of harm. While there are robust safety planning tools available online, again, this is an area that we recommend be undertaken with the support of a specialist service.

Screening, risk assessment and safety planning tools form the basis of responding to domestic and family violence. It’s important to understand that these tools are linked and should be seen as part of an ongoing response process. They should not be used as stand-alone tools or documents, instead they should support the approach outlined in the frameworks relevant to each State, Territory, and organisation.

Tools for understanding risk factors

  • Screening is an informal process that aims to open up a conversation about domestic and family violence. It should create an atmosphere in which the person using the service feels supported to discuss what is happening for them and self-disclose based on their level of comfort.
    • See the Screening content for more information on this step
  • Risk Assessments are more in-depth and systematic than screening. They should be used when domestic or family violence is suspected or reported. Risk assessment tools provide a structured way of finding out about the risks women, children and families may be facing when experiencing domestic or family violence. While an understanding of the process is beneficial for all workers, a full risk assessment should only be carried out by a specialist service
  • Safety Planning can help improve the safety of a person living with violence or who has recently left a violent situation. Safety planning needs to take into account a person’s individual situation and unique circumstances or current presenting needs.

Understanding risk indicators is important to assist with connecting people impacted by violence to the appropriate services that can provide specialist support, including comprehensive safety planning.  In other instances, when the risk is imminent and the individuals current safety is threatened, the best course of action is following your organisations risk escalation process and calling the police.

Risk Assessment Frameworks

Each state and territory in Australia has processes for risk screening and assessment, and tools to assist with safety planning. Becoming familiar with these documents is a useful way to gain an understanding of risk and safety. The frameworks can be used in many different work environments, with some states and territories dictating what the process should look like based on your role and what sector you come from (for example, health). 

Services can use these models as a starting point for developing an evidence-based approach to risk screening and assessment. Where a state or territory does not have a framework, training with a specialist domestic and family violence training provider can also help with developing responses to domestic and family violence.