In my experience, there is no issue more troubling in divorce cases than allegations of serious domestic violence. It is terrible. It pulls at your heart. It makes you doubt basic notions of human decency. And it motivates you to work harder than usual to protect your client from harm.
But, when is the danger the greatest? When is a person actually at risk of being the victim of a serious incident of domestic violence – either homicide or grievous bodily injury? Can we as attorneys rely on our client’s own assessment of danger in formulating case strategy? As to the last question, research suggests that the answer is a resounding “No.”
Research cited by Johns Hopkins University Professor Jacquelyn C. Campbell, PhD, RN, FAAN, one of the nation’s leading experts on domestic violence, shows that approximately one-half of all victims of serious domestic violence do not accurately perceive their own risk level. That’s right. One-half of all victims of serious incidents of domestic violence (murder or attempted murder) need help evaluating their level of risk.
What’s more, some of the risk factors commonly used by attorneys to predict the potential for serious domestic violence have been found not to be predictive of lethality. For example, a prior arrest for domestic violence is actually a protective factor when evaluating the potential for a future homicide.
Given these limitations, how do you assess a client’s risk of being seriously hurt? At our firm, we use a test called the Danger Assessment. It is series of questions developed by Professor Campbell at Johns Hopkins that helps us identify the most serious situations. We work through the questions with our clients to help give us a better understanding of their situation. It is not fool-proof, but it is an objective measure of the level of danger.
If you (or a family member) are contemplating divorce and have experienced domestic violence in your relationship, please contact one of the attorneys in our office for a free consultation.
by Robert W. Gadtke