Major investigation and public protection

Understanding risk and vulnerability in the context of domestic abuse

Risk identification and assessment

Approaches to risk assessment

For general information on risk, see APP on risk.

Risk assessment is the process of estimating and regularly reviewing the likelihood and nature of a risk posed by a perpetrator to a particular victim, children or others. Professionals working with domestic abuse victims, eg, independent domestic violence advisors (IDVAs), may also be at risk of attack from the perpetrator. While such professionals have their own risk management processes, police personnel should ensure that all those supporting a victim are made aware if the police risk assessment concludes they are at high risk of harm.

There are three recognised approaches to risk assessment.

Unstructured clinical judgement

Grading of risk is based solely on the assessor’s opinion. This approach is flexible, but prone to the assessor’s personal biases. It lacks accountability, and is recognised as the least accurate.


Grading of risk is based solely on mathematical modelling of risk factors. This approach is used to make one-time predictions of the likelihood of abuse recurring. It is recognised as more accurate than unstructured judgement, but is inflexible and blind to specific contexts.

Structured professional judgment

Responsibility for grading risk sits ultimately with the assessor, but their judgement may be guided by a structured tool that includes relevant risk factors. This approach combines a degree of accountability with the flexibility to consider the wider context of specific cases.

Structured professional judgement is the most commonly used approach in England and Wales. This is based around a standard risk assessment tool that involves a risk identification interview with the victim. The assessor uses the information from the risk identification interview to help them grade the level of risk as either standard, medium, or high. Structured professional judgement models are not designed to predict risk of victimisation using cut-off scores.

Forces should avoid grading the level of risk solely on the number of ‘yes’ responses.

Standard risk assessment tools have limitations. Points to consider include:

  • There is limited evidence to support factors that predict future risk of domestic abuse. Where evidence does exist, it mostly identifies factors as being associated with domestic abuse rather than specifically predictive of abuse.
  • The majority of research on risk factors relating to domestic abuse concerns male to female abuse in heterosexual relationships. These risk factors may not encompass the range of circumstances and relationships that come under the definition of domestic abuse.
  • The accuracy of risk assessment tools can depend on the information provided by the victim – a victim may either refuse to answer questions or answer only a few, but the professional may still conclude that they are at high risk of harm.

Recommendation 6 of HMIC (2014) Everyone’s business: Improving the police response to domestic abuse required the College of Policing to consider the current approach to risk assessment and evaluate the effectiveness of existing risk assessment tools.

Following an initial assessment and consultation with representatives from across the police service and support sector, the College and the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) lead jointly endorsed HMIC’s position, which is that forces should, in the immediate term, continue to use their current arrangements for risk assessment and management. Most forces use the Domestic Abuse, Stalking, Harassment and Honour-Based Violence risk identification, assessment and management model (DASH). DASH is also used by partner agencies, providing a consistent approach. Forces that do not operate the DASH model should, however, feel comfortable continuing with their current arrangements, as the College has found no research or evaluation to support the adoption of any one particular risk assessment tool over another.

Some practical tips on risk assessment, based on interim research findings, can be found in the joint letter issued to forces by the College of Policing and the National Policing Lead on domestic abuse. This can be accessed on College Managed Learning Environment (MLE) by registered users.

Officers and/or staff using standard tools to carry out risk assessments that result in the grading of risk should be trained in their use. This includes first responders. Senior management is responsible for ensuring that appropriate training is provided to those carrying out risk assessments, and that the overall process is monitored by police domestic abuse supervisors. See training provision. Training on using the force risk assessment tools should comply with national training programmes.

Primary risk assessment

When investigating a domestic abuse incident, it is the responsibility of the attending officer or first responder to carry out a primary risk assessment at the first opportunity, usually at the scene. Officers and staff carrying out risk assessments should have a thorough knowledge of the possible risk factors for domestic abuse, including those in relation to certain groups of victims, and be skilful in applying these factors to individual cases, using professional judgement. Officers should record the presence of risk factors according to local procedures, and reach a decision on the level of risk. Primary risk assessment should underpin immediate safety planning measures to protect the victim and any children. Officers should notify supervisory and/or domestic abuse officers and other relevant support services of the need for further action in cases with significant identified risk factors.

In all cases officers must take the wider context of the relationship and any history of abuse into account, in addition to the nature of the specific incident. Officers should follow the initial risk identification and safety planning processes even where no criminal offence appears to have been committed. The incident may form part of a pattern of controlling or coercive behaviour. Risk identification and assessment should be integral to any police investigative response to domestic abuse.

Any secondary risk assessment will consider the grading given by the first responder. Some forces refer cases for secondary assessment or action by specialist officers only if they reach a certain level of risk. The first responder’s assessment of risk is, therefore, key to protecting the victim and preventing future harm. It may be the only risk assessment carried out in the case. If medium or high-risk cases are graded incorrectly as standard risk, they may not receive the intervention they require, which further increases the risk.

Victims should not be asked to sign risk assessments. Responsibility for protecting the victim rests with the police and other agencies – any system suggesting victim accountability should not be used.

It is important for officers and staff to recognise patterns indicative of controlling or coercive behaviour. The police service is often geared towards dealing with single incidents – in domestic abuse, the incident to which officers and/or staff have been called could be the latest in a series and it is vital for the safety of the victim that it is recognised as such.

Secondary risk assessment

Any risk assessment is a continuing and dynamic process and should be subject to frequent review to ensure it reflects any change in circumstances. Forces should be clear who is responsible at all times for the continuing assessment of risk. In principle, it should be the first responding officer, unless and until the case is handed over, whether to another officer in the case (OIC) or a specialist domestic abuse or public protection unit. Where responsibility for risk assessment is handed over to another officer or unit, the first responder is responsible for ensuring that the handover includes all relevant information that has been obtained regarding risk.

Secondary risk assessors should generate further risk assessments after locally agreed periods of time to ensure that risk factors are managed and are part of a risk management plan, where appropriate. Secondary risk assessment may be undertaken by trained police staff, specialist domestic abuse or public protection officers, or by IDVAs or trained voluntary sector staff. Secondary risk assessment in particular should consider all relevant information, including intelligence, the results of the initial investigation, and information from partner agencies.

Risk factors and vulnerabilities associated with domestic abuse

The term ‘violence’ is deliberately used in the following paragraphs, as much of the existing evidence base relates to the prediction of violence, for which abuse short of violence is itself a risk factor.

There is limited evidence to support the identification of factors that successfully predict risk of domestic violence. The majority of the evidence identifies factors that are associated with domestic violence but there is very little information relating to their accuracy as predictors.

Existing evidence reviews which focus on understanding what works in risk assessment suggest that the following factors are most strongly associated with domestic violence (but not necessarily predictive of it):

  • emotional and/or verbal abuse
  • forced sex.

Research also suggests that a victim’s own assessment of their risk is as accurate as some predictive tools. Most risk assessment tools include a question asking victims if they are frightened and what they are afraid of. Officers should carefully consider the victim’s own assessment of risk alongside all other relevant information, including previous history and their own observations and judgement.

In addition to the above factors, professional expertise suggests that the following factors relating to the suspect and/or victim may also be associated with risk of abuse.

Factors associated with the suspect

  • Previous physical assault by the suspect
  • Escalation and severity of violence, including use of weapons and attempts at strangulation
  • Child abuse by the suspect
  • Animal abuse by the suspect
  • Suspect’s possessiveness, jealousy or stalking behaviour
  • Threats or attempts at suicide by the suspect
  • Threats or fantasies of committing homicide by the suspect
  • Previous criminality or breach of civil or criminal court order or bail conditions by the suspect
  • Substance abuse by the suspect
  • Suspect’s mental ill health

Factors associated with the victim

  • Isolation of the victim (from friends or family)
  • Current or imminent separation from the suspect and child disputes
  • Pregnancy of the victim
  • Disability of the victim
  • Mental or physical health of the victim
  • Substance abuse

These factors are not exhaustive and each case will have its own set of considerations. Some of these may appear abstract or irrelevant if looked at individually but take on significance when the overall picture is examined.

Professional experience (including domestic homicide review findings) also suggests that an escalation in frequency of even minor incidents, or ‘rapid repeats’, may be indicative of an imminent escalation in the level of violence.

Particular issues affecting certain groups of victims

Certain victims may have specific needs or issues relating to their age, gender, sexual orientation, disability, cultural background, immigration status, or profession. Useful advice and further information on the needs of these victims is signposted below.

Victims from different cultural backgrounds

A person’s cultural background or immigration status may make them more vulnerable to domestic abuse and create barriers to leaving an abusive partner. Possible issues a victim may face include the fact that:

  • they may not speak much English or know where to turn to for help
  • they may be reliant on their partner or partner’s family for financial support and be isolated from people outside their immediate family or community
  • they may have an insecure immigration status and fear contact with the authorities
  • their right to remain may depend on their relationship with the abuser continuing
  • they may have been forced into marriage or be subjected to honour-based violence (HBV)
  • certain forms of domestic abuse, eg, between husband and wife or father/uncle and daughter/niece, may be accepted in some families or households and cultural background may be a factor – if it is considered normal by the victim, perpetrator and their community, the victim may not seek help or be aware of what help is available
  • the police in the victim’s country of origin may not enforce laws against domestic abuse effectively or at all, resulting in a lack of trust by victims
  • the police may be mistrusted by the community as a whole due to involvement in persecution in the country of origin
  • police attendance may be viewed as shameful, discouraging those involved as well as neighbours from calling the police.

Honour-based violence and abuse is most often a form of domestic abuse, although it may be condoned or reinforced by the wider community. At its core is the notion of bringing shame on the family and it is usually practised by close family members. As a distinct manifestation of domestic abuse, it generates its own set of issues. In particular:

  • officers should ensure that victims are offered sources of support from outside their family and community as these may pose a continued risk to the victim
  • custody officers should closely monitor detainee contact with other family and community members if HBV is suspected
  • suspected HBV must be central to any risk assessment and safety plan.

Officers should bear in mind that some distinct cultural groups originating wholly or partly in the UK can also adopt a particular way of life which may create additional barriers for victims of domestic abuse.

For example, women living in the Gypsy and Traveller community can face similar cultural issues to those listed above but may also face additional barriers to escaping an abusive partner due to the wider community’s nomadic way of life. Some of the reasons for this may be that:

  • those who choose to live nomadically may find it difficult to access mainstream services
  • inter-family feuds can mean that members of one family should not be housed where members of a feuding family are already living
  • as the community is scattered, it may be difficult for victims who are rehoused to keep their emergency location secret from the rest of their family.

Further advice and support can be found at Friends, Family and Travellers.

Victims with insecure immigration status

A victim with insecure immigration status might be married to a British citizen, in the UK on a visa, or in the country illegally. They may fear that contact with the authorities will result in them being returned to their country of origin, where they may be persecuted or ostracised for having a failed marriage. Under immigration rules current at the time of writing (Immigration Rules, Part 8, paragraph 287), if the victim came to the UK as the spouse or civil partner of someone who is already settled here, they cannot apply for indefinite leave to remain in the country in their own right (or consequently have access to benefits) until they have completed a two-year period as the spouse or civil partner of that person.

All of these concerns may keep a victim from reporting abuse to the police, a fact which the perpetrator may encourage as a way of maintaining control and further isolating the victim.

Immigration rules do, however, allow for a victim of domestic violence (the term used in the Rules) to apply independently of their spouse for indefinite leave to remain before the end of the minimum period if they can produce evidence that the relationship broke down as a result of domestic violence. Police officers and staff should be mindful of this when arranging referrals and developing safety plans for victims with insecure immigration status.

Male victims

A man who is a victim of domestic abuse may be reluctant to approach the police for many reasons, some of which are the same as for women victims, eg, fear of not being believed, belief the police will assume he has done something to provoke the situation, fear of losing access to children. Some of these fears may be intensified because of gender stereotypes and societal assumptions, eg, shame at not being perceived as a ‘real man’, belief the police will automatically assume the woman is the victim.

The charity Men’s Advice Line has produced a toolkit to aid professionals, including the police, working with male domestic abuse victims.

Not all domestic abuse services work with men, and it can be difficult to find refuge accommodation. The UK Gold Book, available through subscription, lists services for men as well as other groups. The ManKind Initiative also produces a directory of services for male victims of domestic abuse, known as the Oak Book. It is available by contacting the organisation.

Victims from lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) communities

LGBT people may be abused by their partners in specific ways that are connected to their sexual orientation or gender identity. Examples include:

  • threatening to ‘out’ a victim, ie, telling family or work colleagues about their sexual orientation or gender identity
  • threatening to ‘out’ a lesbian or gay parent/couple to social services, claiming that their children will then be taken away from them
  • threatening to disclose or make allegations about the victim’s HIV status or other sexually transmitted infection – while also possible in the heterosexual community, this is potentially more damaging to a person in the LGBT community
  • telling a victim that abuse is part of a ‘normal’ LGBT relationship
  • claiming that no one will help the victim because they are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender
  • criticising someone for not being, eg, a ‘real lesbian’ if they are currently in their first lesbian relationship after a series of heterosexual ones
  • forced marriage/HBV.

For further information see the Lesbian/Gay Power and Control Wheel.

Organisations that can assist LGBT victims of domestic abuse include:

For further information, see Barking and Dagenham, Domestic Violence: A resource for gay and bisexual men and Donovan, Barnes and Nixon, The Coral Project: Exploring Abusive Behaviours in Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and/or Transgender Relationships, Interim Report, September 2014.

Some police forces have Lesbian and Gay Liaison Officers (LAGLOs), police officers and staff who are dedicated to supporting lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender communities.

A small study looking at transgender people’s experiences of domestic abuse found high levels of abuse among those who responded. It also found very low levels of reporting and a lack of confidence in contacting the police, due in part to fear of revealing their trans status and of transphobia. Types of abuse experienced which focused on transgender identity included:

  • being stopped from being able to express their gender identity through their appearance (eg, clothes, hair, make-up)
  • being made to feel ashamed, guilty or wrong about their trans identity or background
  • being stopped from taking medication or having treatment (eg, hormones or surgery) that they needed to enable their physical bodies to more closely match their gender identity.

For further information on the study, see LGBT Domestic Abuse Project and Scottish Transgender Alliance, Out of sight, out of mind?

See also Office for National Statistics (2009) Trans Data Position Paper for a discussion of the difficulties in collecting reliable data concerning transgender people.

Victims with a disability

Victims with a long-term illness or disability, which includes physical, mental or learning disability, are particularly vulnerable to domestic abuse from partners, ex-partners and family members. Office of National Statistics analyses consistently show that both men and women with a long-term illness or disability are more likely to experience domestic abuse than those without. Data relating to 2013/2014 shows figures of 15.7% and 8.4% respectively for those with a long-term illness or disability, compared to 7.1% and 4.0% for those without (ONS 2015, Chapter 4: Violent Crime and Sexual Offences – Intimate Personal Violence and Serious Sexual Assault, Intimate violence in the last year by personal characteristics).

Victims with a disability may face particular difficulties in reporting abuse and accessing support services. These could include:

  • communication difficulties
  • concern that they will not be believed, particularly if they have known mental health issues
  • not recognising the behaviour as abusive
  • reluctance to report their abuser if that person is also their carer.

Safety planning must address their specific needs, eg, supplying appropriate equipment to alert the police of an incident if the person is hearing and speech-impaired.

See also CPS Domestic Abuse Guidelines for Prosecutors, Disability issues – mental and physical.

Victims from armed services families and emergency service/public service personnel

While there is no evidence that domestic abuse is more prevalent in military families than general society, such families do face unique factors in terms of impact on career, implications of loss of family accommodation, particular psychological stressors, and long periods of not being together as a family. Victims can find it difficult to confide in anyone because frequent relocation can prevent them from establishing relationships of trust. Consequently, families can feel that they face additional barriers to reporting domestic abuse and accessing support.

There is precedent for a protocol agreement between a police force and military police forces that sets out practical working arrangements and information-sharing practices for responding to domestic abuse incidents involving military families. This allows the civilian and military police forces to work together to support victims of domestic abuse.

The umbrella organisation for armed services families is COBSEO.

Confidential welfare support is available to service families affected by domestic abuse from the Army Welfare Service (AWS), the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Families Association (SSAFA), and Royal Navy, Royal Marines Welfare (RNRM Welfare). Unit welfare officers, chain of command and equivalent can assist with domestic abuse support, but this will not normally be confidential. Domestic abuse: guidance and support for the armed forces community is a useful resource for those experiencing armed forces domestic abuse as either victim or perpetrator, or providing support to those involved.

Emergency service personnel, ie, police, fire and ambulance staff, may be exposed to trauma that has an impact on their personal relationships in a similar way to military staff. Victims in a relationship with someone in these services may be concerned that they will not be believed, as may those whose partner is in a public service such as probation, UKBA, social services or the prison service.

Victims who are themselves employed in an emergency or public service may find it equally difficult to report domestic abuse. They may have a sense that their role, training and increased awareness of domestic abuse means that it should not happen to them. They may be worried about their partner being able to access personal information if they are both in the police service. See specific management considerations when dealing with police perpetrators of domestic abuse.

Teenagers and young persons

Teenagers and young persons may be vulnerable to domestic abuse from their peers but also from older or significantly older partners who may have groomed or conditioned them. They may have little experience of positive relationships, making it more difficult for them to identify abusive behaviour. Organisations like Victim Support can provide services within the school setting for children and young people to help them understand more about healthy relationships.

Teenagers and young persons may be vulnerable to peer pressure and gang associations. This may result in pressure to engage in sexual activity and sometimes sharing of partners between gang members.

Some of those teenagers and young persons who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender may also be susceptible to domestic abuse, not only in intimate partner relationships, but also from parents and other family members who may not accept their emerging sexual identity or choice of dress or appearance.

Victims of domestic abuse who are 16 or 17 years old are still children and therefore victims of child abuse as well as domestic abuse. Witnessing domestic abuse in the home may also amount to child neglect.

Similarly, if the domestic abuse perpetrator is under 18 years old, officers must ensure that appropriate agencies are involved in MARACs or relevant support, as the offender is still considered a child. Relevant agencies include youth offending teams (YOTs), schools, charities, and the Troubled Families programme.

Changes in how people communicate, including increased use of social media, now mean that social networking platforms may be a setting for domestic abuse either directly, eg, by sending abusive or harassing messages or distributing revenge pornography, or by forming part of a pattern of controlling behaviour, eg, monitoring or interfering with a victim’s social media accounts.

Familial abuse

Police officers are accustomed to dealing with intimate partner abuse, which is what is traditionally thought of as domestic abuse. Familial (non-intimate partner) abuse poses some different challenges in terms of finding the appropriate response. It can be less easily recognisable as domestic abuse, yet it falls within the definition and should be treated as such. Types of familial abuse are listed below, together with links to further advice and information.

Abuse of older people

As with other domestic relationships, older victims are often dependent on their abuser, whether this be an intimate partner or a family member. Unlike other such relationships, dependence generally increases with age for health reasons. This makes the prospect of the victim gaining independence from their abuser less likely than for other domestic abuse victims.

Abuse can occur where the abuser has taken on a carer role towards the older person. If the adult child or grandchild has formally taken on the role, abuse may result from tensions caused by the carer relationship or as a means of maintaining control. When the presenting issue seems to be abuse by the carer, officers should consider whether it also constitutes domestic abuse.

In some cases, a person with a certain illness or condition, eg, dementia, may also become uncharacteristically abusive to their familial carer. The carer may not recognise this as domestic abuse or may not report it because they feel it is not the person’s fault, but the difficult nature of the situation can sometimes result in mutual abuse. Where such tensions appear to be present, officers should consider consulting with Adult Services to identify appropriate support to keep both parties safe.

Some useful multi-agency case examples on responding to abuse and neglect can be found in Safeguarding Adults, A National Framework of Standards for good practice and outcomes in adult protection work produced by the Association of Directors of Social Services (ADASS).

Further information can be obtained from Action on Elder Abuse.

Child to parent abuse

Child (or adolescent) to parent abuse is generally used to refer to abuse of parents by teenage children. It can also apply to abuse of grandparents carrying out parental functions. Where the child is 16 or over, this behaviour falls within the definition of domestic abuse. The government definition does not expressly include foster parents, but similar considerations are likely to apply, particularly in long-term foster placements.

Child to parent abuse can, of course, be committed by adult children of any age on parents and grandparents, as well as by younger children. Where a child under 16 is abusing a parent or grandparent, officers should refer the matter to social services and investigate as appropriate.

In all cases, parents may be frightened, ashamed or simply not know how to effectively address the situation and should be offered support.

Although this type of domestic abuse is more likely to come to the attention of the police in families that are more widely involved with services, it can occur in all families. There is some evidence to suggest that exposure to violence at home, either between parents or towards the child, may make parent abuse more likely. Children may imitate the abusive behaviour of the perpetrator towards the other parent, or they may become violent towards the perpetrator to protect the abused parent. Sibling abuse may also occur alongside other abuse.

Further resources include Family Lives (formerly Parentline Plus), Respect and the Parent Abuse and Reconciliation Service (PAARS).

Sibling abuse

Sibling abuse may begin at any age, but falls within the definition of domestic abuse once both siblings turn 16. If the victim is 16 or 17 it is also child abuse. The dynamics are complex, which makes it difficult for officers to recognise and challenging to resolve. Although there is some evidence relating to sibling sexual abuse, there is little evidence on sibling abuse more generally.

Respect does not currently provide specifically targeted resources to address the issue of sibling abuse, but it is addressed within the wider remit of the Respect Young People’s Service Toolkit and associated training.

Checklist: Dealing with suspected familial abuse

This is domestic abuse. Build rapport, investigate, risk assess and safety plan as for any other domestic abuse incident.

Officers should:

  • take appropriate steps to make the victim and potential victims safe
  • speak to both parties to understand what the appropriate response might be
  • speak to other family members to better understand the familial context
  • acknowledge how difficult it may be for a victim to report a family member to the police
  • notify local authority children’s social care/adult social care as appropriate
  • signpost appropriate services (including IDVAs or equivalent)
  • keep in touch

If the abuse involves an older person, officers should also:

  • consider that the perpetrator may be struggling to cope with caring responsibilities and may need help
  • take into account the specific characteristics of the victim when safety planning, eg, whether they can reach the phone to call in an emergency or if they have mobility issues preventing them from leaving the property
  • consider if both the victim and the perpetrator have sufficient capacity for the criminal justice process (but do not assume they do not) – further enquiries may need to be made with medical professionals
  • remember that capacity may reduce over time (this can occur quickly in response to trauma) so an evidence-led case should be built even if the victim is initially supportive
  • consider the use of special measures for the victim, eg, an intermediary.

If the abuse involves a 16- or 17-year-old as either victim or perpetrator, officers should also:

  • consider whether there may be other forms of domestic abuse occurring in the household, eg, between parents
  • contact the relevant educational establishments for additional information on the child and their family
  • avoid making assumptions about the parent’s role in the abuse, eg, that they are to blame for their child’s behaviour towards them, that they are aware that sibling abuse is taking place, or that they are supportive of an abused child, as this may impact on safety planning or reinforce parental concerns or guilt.

Page last accessed 15 October 2021