Partnering with Victoria Police to better respond to family violence

Partnering with Victoria Police to better respond to family violence

National Science Week

National Science Week is Australia’s annual celebration of science and technology. Running each year in August, it is an opportunity to share new discoveries and be fascinated by the wondrous world we live in.

Fun fact: did you know that under the Mental Health Act 2014, Forensicare is required to conduct research into forensic behavioural science? It’s so that we can promote continuous improvement and innovation in mental health care.

So within Forensicare there is an exciting nexus between science and practice – with each informing the other. That’s why we’re celebrating National Science Week by bringing you this three-part series about the latest science led by the Centre for Forensic Behavioural Science (CFBS). The CFBS is operated by Swinburne University of Technology in partnership with Forensicare.

Improving the way Victoria Police respond to family violence incidents

Family violence is a disturbingly common issue in Victorian and wider Australian society that can have lifelong impacts for everyone involved.

One challenge police officers face when attending a family violence incident is deciding when to refer victims and perpetrators for further specialist police responses.

They want to ensure victims at greatest risk are referred to specialist police and family violence agencies for assessment and intervention, and that people using violence are appropriately monitored and referred to intervention programs, such as our own Problem Behaviour Program. Meanwhile, we also want to make the best use of the resources available to manage this issue and avoid overwhelming the sector with cases that don’t need further action.

For this reason, it is important we have accurate risk assessments.

Risk assessments in policing

The assessment of risk can be done in a number of different ways. One of the most common is to allow a police officer to use their experience and gut feeling to make a judgement, but studies suggest this has poor accuracy.

To address this, researchers around the world have developed and validated risk assessment tools to help police decide when to refer victims and perpetrators for further support. Until now, we didn’t have one specifically designed for and tested in the Victorian community.

About the VP-SAFvR research project

For the last five years, researchers at the Centre for Forensic Behavioural Science have been working with Victoria Police to develop and test the Victoria Police Screening Assessment for Family Violence Risk (or VP-SAFvR for short) – a tool to help police officers respond more effectively to family violence incidents.

The team began in 2015 by developing a statistical model to predict how likely it was that a family would report more family violence to police. They used police data from over 44,000 reports of family violence made in 2013-14, and followed-up each family in police databases to see who reported more family violence over 12 months. Then, they analysed all the risk factors collected by police at the time of the first report to work out what combination could most accurately identify families who went on to report more violence. They identified a “threshold score” on the VP-SAFvR that could correctly identify almost three-quarters of cases where further violence occurred while ruling out more than half of cases without another report.

The final model that became the VP-SAFvR was tested to make sure it worked consistently across different types of family violence, including those involving adolescents or children, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, where women were identified as perpetrating violence, and in different types of family relationships.

Testing the VP-SAFvR with Victoria Police in the community

Once a risk assessment had been developed in the lab environment, it was time to test it on the frontline. The team wanted to know – how successful would this tool be in the real world?

The team turned the statistical model into a paper and pen tool police officers could use to screen family violence cases when responding to an incident.

They aimed to make it quick to complete (10-15 mins), applicable to all types of family violence and easy for officers to use, including these without extensive training or expertise in family violence. It consists of 14 risk factors, each recorded as absent (0) or present with a weighted score of 1 or 2, which are added to a total score used to prioritise cases for further review.

They then conducted three studies to assess the VP-SAFvR with regards to the following:

  1. Reliability when used by different police officers
  2. Accuracy at predicting reoffenders and non-reoffenders
  3. Feasibility for police officers to use in their day-to-day work

This included a field study in two police divisions in Melbourne and follow-up surveys and focus groups with police officers, victims of family violence, and support workers from family violence sector agencies.

So, what were the findings?

The research found that the VP-SAFvR was an effective and practical tool to assist police officers in making more accurate decisions about which families should be referred for specialist review. Few screened-out cases reported further family violence, while most of those screened-in were at higher risk and so needed additional management.

In particular, the results showed:

  • The VP-SAFvR does a good job at screening out families who don’t require specialist police responses, meaning that police resources can be targeted to where they are needed most.
  • Different officers using the VP-SAFvR generally get similar results, meaning it is reliable and could be used across the whole state.
  • The majority of police officers found the tool easy and quick to use, however they identified some ways to improve it. Survivors of family violence and support sector workers were generally positive about the tool, highlighting that it helped police to ask relevant questions about family violence.
  • The VP-SAFvR is an effective first step in a tiered approach to police risk assessment and management of family violence.

Adjusting the assessment to be as effective as possible in all cases

While the VP-SAFvR consistently predicted further family violence across family relationships and demographic groups, it was less effective at predicting further violence involving same-sex couples and child perpetrators.

The team found that by lowering the “threshold score” to 3 (instead of 4 as was otherwise used) performance was improved to a level comparable with other groups. More research examining these groups and how to improve risk assessment for them is underway.

Where to next?

Police officers made recommendations about how to improve the format of the VP-SAFvR to ensure it was appropriate for all family relationships. They also suggested it be made available on handheld tablets to make it easier to complete at the scene of a family violence report.

An ongoing research collaboration between Victoria Police Family Violence Command and the CFBS led to the VP-SAFvR being rolled out across Victoria in July 2019 as the first part of a new tiered police response to family violence. The VP-SAFvR and other tools developed by the CFBS work with the statewide framework for family violence risk assessment and play a key role in ensuring that families are referred to Family Violence Investigation Units for review and risk management. During the pandemic, these tools have ensured that Victoria Police is able to identify and respond effectively to the highest risk cases as part of Operation Ribbon.

Congratulations to Dr Troy McEwan and the team! We hope that the development of the VP-SAFvR and other risk assessment tools continues to see victims and perpetrators of familiar violence getting the support they need and the eventual elimination of family violence across Australia.

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