Webinar presenter Sara Mahoney answered a number of your questions after her presentation, The Domestic Violence Pre-Sentencing Investigation: From Start to Finish. Here are some of her responses.
Audience Question: How relevant are perpetrator-admitted allegations of animal abuse to resulting and escalating towards domestic violence? Do you even ask that question during the interviews?
Sara Mahoney: That is an extremely relevant line of questioning in these cases. I do ask about animal abuse because that's not always in criminal history. DV offenders, especially ones that are extremely dangerous, have shown that they do kill and hurt animals – which is another form of control, showing that they're capable and it could be perceived as a warning.
Audience Question: Is Department of Motor Vehicle history useful for legal history and indicating license suspension for failure to pay child support?
Sara: The DMV thing, especially if you have somebody with a stalking history… getting that registration information about vehicle registered to that person could be helpful. They're smart and good at changing things up to keep everybody on their toes. But if you have an idea of what vehicle the offender has access to, that could help in a potential stalking case.
Audience Question: Are the criminogenic risk factors different for domestic violence offenders than they are for other offenders?
Sara: I can only speak for the generalized risk assessment used in New York which is the COMPAS. They differ, but they really do fall in line with the risk factors that are determined by just either the interviewing or the specialized risk assessment. They corroborate more than they are different. With the COMPAS, they don't ask questions about domestic violence offenders, there is no specialized line of questioning. But risk factors like criminal attitude is a big one I pay attention to in the generalized one. Anger, substance abuse, impulsivity, depression – I pick and see where they fall on. I found that they just add to the specialized assessments.
Audience Question: Are there specific domestic violence risk assessments that you recommend?
Sara: You can get a lot of good information from your generalized risk assessment, but I like the domestic violence screening instrument – the revised version. It speaks to the likelihood of the type of crimes this offender is most likely to commit. Someone who is more likely to commit a DV-related crime is the guy that should be on a specialized caseload. I'm also certified to administer the Danger Assessment. If the Victim's Advocates haven't gotten any contact with the victim, when the victim comes in to meet with me, I have the ability to go through that Danger Assessment and have an opportunity to talk a little bit about her potential risk considering her answers to that assessment.
Audience Question: Could you talk a little bit about what it means to override a score?
Sara: COMPAS gives you a level – low, mid, high. When the offender gets sentenced to probation supervision, if the specialized assessment is high risk and his generalized assessment is showing him a low risk, and you're reading through the report if you agree more with the specialized assessment result. I can go in and give a justification as to why I'll be supervising the offender as a high risk based on the reports and the victim's perception.
Audience Question: Do you have any suggestions on how to form a multi-disciplinary task force to try and help and ensure that those weapons are surrendered?
Sara: That would be like your high-risk teams. Ours is already developed as a regular domestic violence response team, and we're creating a high-risk team. It starts with identifying that this is an issue that people are people are passionate about. Talk to your other providers – your law enforcement officers, your advocacy agency, your district attorneys, your probation department, your batterers program… if you find that it is an issue and want a more coordinated way of handling these cases. Get in touch with other areas that have such teams established – and from there, create your blueprint on how these cases will be referred, streamlined, and done. Our team adopted a protocol, that could be part of your coordinated community responses protocol is that there's a set policy that is in that area and worked it out with the courts to issue the orders.
Audience Question: Do you run the risk of retraumatizing the victim by going through what they went through in such great detail?
Sara: That depends on the victim. Each time any part of the system talks about what's happened to the victim, you run the risk of revictimization. But if you're doing it in a way that is respectful to the victim and really denotes understanding and empathy, and is trauma-informed, you will get the victim's buy-in. If you're gentle in your line of questioning, they'll give it to you. It's all about delivery and positioning. Let the victim drive the interview.
Audience Question: If you have an abuser that is denying the abuse and gives maybe gives one-word, 'yes/no' answers to the interviewer, do you have some suggestions on how you might go further to prove the case?
Sara: Any other corroborating information that you can get from the police reports, talking to the arresting officers, or the investigators that have gone back, past incident reports… There are some guys that will be uncooperative, they're going to shut down and not participate. Those types have a strong level of denial, takes no responsibility, and doesn't appear to have a willingness to change his behavior. Someone who's in that much denial, my own opinion is, they still present a high risk to the victim and the community.
Audience Question: How long does it take you approximately to complete a domestic violence PSI report? And roughly, how many do you end up doing a month?
Sara: I'm from a smaller department, I do anywhere from four to six a month. I start the information gathering within the first couple of days that I get assigned the case. To do a thorough information gathering, it's several hours to do information gathering. Another hour and a half to two hours on just the offender portion, depending on how much information they're willing to give. Another hour to two hours working with the victim – depending on how much the victim is willing to talk. Writing it all up, a couple of hours. I try to write it from start to finish in one day. So, I will block out a 4 to 5-hour period to just hammer out that PSI.
Audience Question: Do you think that all domestic violence offenders should be automatically supervised at a high-risk level or whatever the most intensive is?
Sara: Not necessarily. There's no cookie-cutter one size fits all for offenders. The offenders on my caseload, they're individuals – they have trauma histories themselves a lot of the times. Some are first time offenders, some have been doing this all of their life in every relationship that they've ever had. That's why I consider what the victim feels about it, but I'm also watching my gut instinct too. You cannot say that just because they're a DV offender that it should be one-size fits all.
Click Here to View a Recording of Sara Mahoney's presentation, The Domestic Violence Pre-Sentencing Investigation: From Start to Finish.