What are “red flags” in intimate partner violence?

Law enforcement is regularly on the front line in making decisions about the likelihood of imminent violence. In the case of domestic violence police need to key in on specific behaviors that can signal elevated levels of risk to victims and children. Why?  Because over half of all cases of domestic are not reported to police.  As a result, front line responders need to be aware of both tangible and less obvious indicators of risk know as red flags.  Red flags may be predictive of future violence.  “As the totality of these red flags come into focus it becomes incumbent upon each of us to take action on behalf of those most at risk – as we are mandated to do in cases of child and elder abuse” (Sefton, 2011).

Past behavior is thought to be the best predictor of future behavior.  The history of a prior order of protection should signal to police the proclivity for violence.  This information is readily available to the street officer via the mobile data terminal seated next to him in his cruiser.  In Massachusetts, police are privy to prior protection orders and whether or not a suspect ever violated those orders.  Special care for victims may be needed in cases where suspects repeatedly violate DV “stay away” orders.  Arguably these facts should bear greater weight when determining bail conditions than criminal record alone for those arrested for intimate partner abuse.  Unfortunately, in most cases, they are not.

Victim safety should be the first consideration in any treatment plan involving spousal abuse.  Police officers have significant latitude when making decisions about disposing of cases domestic abuse.  Recommendations should include a review of the frequency, severity, and potential risk factors in the case, and consider the need for a victim safety plan.  Police may be the first in a line of many to recommend the safety plan for a battered and abused family member.  They regularly make decisions about risk based on what they see at the scene.  Red flags sometimes jump out when they interview the parties involved e.g. bruises, scratches, burn marks.  All too often decisions about “risk” are based upon what transpired prior to arrival rather than in consideration of what might happen once officers leave.  Risk factors must be included into police officer discretion.

In respect to victims of domestic violence, it is vital that red flags and risk factors become the first of its kind “road map” to reduce harm to families who find themselves in the cross hairs and assure that victims and their safety plans are not abandoned or ignored.

  1. Sefton, M (2011) Risk Assessment. Retrieved January 27, 2012. http://www.enddvh.blogspot.com

Intimate Partner Violence

“Despite receiving some mental health counseling, it is apparent, in retrospect that the degree of violence and anger possessed by the abuser was not realized”, according to the chief medical examiner in Maine following the 2011 domestic violence homicide in Dexter, Maine. Red flag behaviors are those that give off clues to the degree of risk posed to victims who have been abused. The abuser in this tragic case exhibited quite typical behaviors that raised the degree of risk to the victim exponentially. Some police officers verbalized a fear for the victim well before she was murdered by her husband.

Police and domestic violence experts need greater understanding of pre-incident behavior and red flags. These factors then become decision points for prosecutors who must decide conditions of release, including bail. The case described in Maine was researched by a team of current and former police officers with experience and training in domestic violence (Allanach,R., Gagan, B. Laughlin, J., Sefton, M. 2011). The findings of this research was published in a report of Psychological Autopsy of the Domestic Violence Homicide in Dexter, Maine submitted to the Domestic Violence Homicide Review Panel in Augusta, Maine in November 2011.

Underpinnings of school massacre

The school massacre in Newtown, CT may never be understood to the satisfaction of behavioral scientists and those who lost their loved ones alike. According to analysis posted in the New York Post, the perpetrator planned his actions well before the murders. Experts argue this degree of planning is the act of someone who is organized and probably has intact sanity. This is the part that has people confused and wondering how could any sane person murder children in cold blood?

As the days and weeks pass more is becoming known about Adam Lanza the perpetrator of the Sandy Hook school shooting and despicable malefactor. The paper described a pattern of compulsive video gaming where hours upon hours of violent fantasy may have been the harbinger of the terminal rage that culminated on that day in his suicidal rampage. What sort of monster was Adam Lanza?

Everyone you speak to has his own theory about what could trigger an event as lugubrious and hateful as this. Some attribute his action to the poor attachment he had with his mother – the first victim and teacher at Sandy Hook. Others wish to blame a developmental disorder in the autism spectrum as the underpinning cause because Lanza did not make eye contact or socialize with others.

The psychological autopsy is an in depth analysis of the terminal event and the days and weeks that proceeded it. The study includes interview data from friends, family members, doctors, members of law enforcement and anyone else with first hand knowledge of Lanza and his emotional comportment leading up to the murders. Like its forensic counterpart, psychological examiners seek to uncover the motives, behaviors, and emotions that homogenized into the worst school shooting in U.S. history. We may never understand what triggered the events of December 14 but the psychological autopsy will provide a comprehensive analysis of the complex and competing psychic forces at work in the mind of the killer. The importance of this may not immediately be appreciated but the recently published psychological autopsy of the killer in the Dexter, Maine homicides has brought determinable and conclusive knowledge as to the precursory events that were apparent to many well before the terminal event. It has also contributed to the body of knowledge about domestic violence and domestic violence homicide that arguable belies the facts of the Sandy Hook killings.

The NY Post story identified patterns of functioning that may underlie the monstrous behavior. Adam Lanza was socially withdrawn and isolated which conjures up speculation about the negative impact of video games. His first killing was an act of matricide – killing of the mother. The divorce of his parents in 2008 raises the specter of divorce and its impact on adolescent mental health. Very little has been reported on Lanza’s relationship with his biological father. Clearly the senior Mr. Lanza was well established and could provide for his son yet there was no apparent emotional attachment.

Adam Lanza was home schooled.  Critics of home schooling may assume that Lanza was undersocialized and attribute this to the kind of person he became. Meanwhile, armchair psychologists want to blame schizophrenia, social avoidance, autism, or personality disorder as the cause of Lanza’s emotional perturbation and its eventual cataclysmic finale.

What would prevent Lanza’s apparently affluent parents from getting the treatment their son so obviously needed? Both were highly educated and money was not a barrier to accessing mental health care. Had Lanza been in treatment for his socially avoidant lifestyle? Arguably, parental apathy must be considered when one learns about the constellation of family relationships that comprised the life of Adam Lanza. We may never know why Lanza first killed his mother in an act of matricide – the sole human being with whom he had any regular contact. Perhaps he blamed her for the emotionally barren existence he lived. In a previous blog, Michael Sefton, Ph.D. argued that domestic violence, and one might argue mass murder, is not the product of poverty nor the inculpation of firearms – but a host of factors incompatible with emotional health that must be studied.

It now becomes the responsibility of the state of Connecticut to investigate the events of one of the worst days in human history. There is no responsible person to prosecute – he is deceased. Some may wish to turn the page on Sandy Hook – raze the building and bury all of its untold horrors. It would be imprudent to summarily raze Sandy Hook and bury its truths without first learning what might have saved the 26 souls who perished on that day. This was done in Maine following a 2011 domestic violence homicide and brought forth some valuable knowledge about preincident behavior. Most perpetrators project red flag behaviors that forewarn their actions which sometimes become triggered by apparently benign events.

The psychological autopsy of the recent Dexter, Maine homicides suggested that social media may have marginalized the killer in such a way that his exclusion from his son’s 8th grade commencement triggered the slaughter of his two children and estranged spouse in June 2011. Likewise, it was quite obvious that Adam Lanza was experiencing life in the margins and used the killing of 26 innocent people to manifest the alienation and resentment it caused for him. Did he grow up without the emotional attachment to others so that killing his mother was like turning off a television set or video game – stopping the random noise that interfered with his perseverating fantasy and stripping him of needed emotional ballast?

We may never know what event triggered his growing frustration and pent up rage resulting in the Sandy Hook killings. It is important that we do all that we can for the victims, their families and society to uncover those factors that contributed to the man’s behavior and understand without a doubt the sequence of events that led up to the unconscionable actions taken by Adam Lanza. Only then can we begin to turn the page on Sandy Hook and only then can the healing begin.