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  • Writer's pictureClaire Verney

Why Only Domestic Abuse Experts Should be Used for Domestic Abuse Cases

It cannot be assumed that professionals such as psychologists, psychiatrists, or those with experience in other areas of child protection work, have the specialist knowledge and experience to assess the complex risks to children presented by domestic violence and abuse. In this post we discuss why.

Over the years DV-ACT experts have been approached by experts who have felt that, despite their expertise in mental health or social work, they were unable to carry out the instructions of the court and give a thorough assessment of the risk to children in domestic abuse cases. Our experts have also been instructed by the courts to carry out assessments even when one has already been provided by another expert. This was because the previous report either did not address the risks, or move the case on. In these cases, using the wrong expert led to further costs and delay, as well as potentially increasing the risks to the victims and their children.

Key competencies that all expert domestic abuse assessors need

Family courts often turn to an expert when a case is complex or has specific concerns that could put children at risk. Expert witnesses commissioned to provide domestic abuse assessments come from a variety of backgrounds including psychologists, psychiatrists, independent social workers and those with a background in child protection. In 2012, a coalition of leading domestic abuse agencies issued guidelines (Guidelines for the commissioning of expert domestic violence risk assessments), to assist those commissioning domestic violence assessments to identify an appropriate expert.

The guidance provided a list of key competencies that all expert domestic abuse assessors need to possess, including that assessors must; be familiar with the dominant themes in domestic violence research, have good working knowledge of the principles of risk assessment methodology, be familiar with the leading domestic violence risk assessment approaches, be familiar with treatment approaches for perpetrators, be aware of the risks to children and their resident carer associated with child contact, and crucially that the assessor should be able to evidence their expertise in working with domestic violence offenders in both assessment and treatment settings. For further details on these guidelines please visit our post - What is the Essential Criteria for Commissioning a Domestic Abuse Expert?

10 reasons why you should use a domestic abuse expert

The following points give further reasons why a domestic abuse expert should be used when commissioning a domestic abuse expert to carry out an assessment:

1. Domestic abuse dynamics - A domestic abuse expert will look at the perpetrators behaviour in the context of power and control, we know that domestic violence and abuse is not caused by mental illness or substance abuse, so relying on mental health experts for cases involving domestic violence or child sexual abuse fails to provide the necessary expertise. The causes of domestic abuse are a part of fundamental domestic violence dynamics, and professionals must be familiar with this vital knowledge, looking past the many myths around domestic abuse, and base their assessment on solid research.

2. Static and dynamic concerns - Static and dynamic concerns highlight potential risk factors which have consistently shown through research to be associated with perpetration of domestic violence. These concerns provide a baseline level of risk which must be established in order to measure the effectiveness of any interventions.

3. Risk and lethality - Paying attention to the factors associated with increased risk and lethality can provide an early warning about cases that require more resources and specialised expertise. There are specific types of behaviour (such as strangulation and sexual violence) that are associated with higher risks of lethality. It is imperative that an expert delivers a risk assessment based on this knowledge in order to assess the likelihood of potentially lethal behaviour.

4. Considering all types of abuse - An expert in domestic abuse will have the knowledge to understand that, whilst a history of violence or physical aggression in a relationship is a strong predictor for future assaults, individual acts of violence rarely occur in isolation and are more usually part of a pattern of ongoing physical aggression. It is therefore more important, when considering domestic violence risk assessment, to take full account of the range of physical aggression and abuse rather than just the high risk incidents.

With regards to coercive control, a high proportion of male abusers subject their partners to coercive control, using a range of behaviours which are more likely than other forms of non-physical abuse to lead to re-assault. Children living in the tense and abusive environment fostered by coercive control can suffer significant effects which is why non-violent forms of abuse must be considered in an assessment.

Men who perpetrate physical abuse in relationships also frequently subject their partners to sexual abuse. Sexual abuse within an abusive relationship is often linked to sexual refusal and other aspects of male dominance and entitlement. If a woman is living in fear of her partner, the question of her consent to any sexual activity with him should always be considered as problematic and the issue should be explored within assessments.

5. Use of drugs and alcohol - It is common for perpetrators of abuse to assert that their use of alcohol was the cause of their violent or abusive behaviour. There is no evidence that alcohol alone causes domestic violence but there is no doubt that alcohol plays a disinhibiting role. There is also a strong association between perpetrators’ past or current use of drugs and the risk of committing further acts of domestic abuse. Whereas the occasional recreational use of some drugs has been shown to have a negligible effect on abusive behaviour, the heavy use of illicit substances is associated with domestic violence recidivism. Certain drugs have also been shown to increase levels of arousal and aggression, making up to date knowledge on the way that alcohol and certain types of drug use increase risk in domestic abuse vital.

6. Post-separation violence & abuse - It is often incorrectly assumed that a perpetrator’s abuse will cease when their relationship with their partner ends. Research consistently indicates that the time period immediately before and after leaving an abusive relationship is a time of particular danger to female victims. Any assessment of risk must take this into account.

7. Presentation of the parents - Clinical impressions are not always helpful in domestic abuse, especially as some of the most controlling and dangerous men are able to present themselves very well and many abused women present with issues such as poor mental health or drug and alcohol abuse as a direct result of the abuse. With police evidence and independent witnesses notoriously difficult to come by, it is then necessary, when domestic violence is denied by one or both of the parties, to listen to the details of what is being said in assessment interviews and have the necessary skills and knowledge to ascertain the veracity of each parents account.

8. The effects on children - It has been well established by research over many years that when parents engage in domestic violence, it is directly or indirectly witnessed by a high percentage of their children. Parents are prone to minimise and deny the presence of their children during incidents of domestic violence, however, children are usually aware of the abuse and can give detailed accounts of violent behaviour that their parents had assumed they never witnessed. Exposure to domestic violence as a child can have a severe effect on the child’s well-being, making this knowledge vital in protecting children from harm.

9. Vulnerability and attachment - The research literature concerning vulnerability to domestic violence and abuse is not as extensive or reliable as that for risk. However, there is good evidence to suggest that certain factors contribute to a woman’s overall vulnerability to domestic violence and abuse. Only those who have current knowledge of the most up to date research in domestic abuse will be aware of these factors.

Another consideration when assessing victims of abuse is their attachment to the abuser. The practical barriers women face when leaving an abusive partner are widely recognised, but the emotional attachment a woman may have to her abuser is often misunderstood or overlooked completely. Yet an ongoing emotional attachment often outweighs any practical issues in a woman's decision to stay or leave her abusive partner.

10. Treatment viability - In order to make meaningful progress in treatment programmes it is important for the perpetrator to be able to address their own behaviour in an open honest way. Therefore, perpetrators who avoid culpability for their behaviour and discount its effects on victims are among those least likely to make progress and change. With regards to domestic violence treatment for victims, in order for treatment to be effective it is vital that the source of the danger and influence is removed. It is almost impossible to engage with meaningful treatment while a victim is still exposed to the risks. An assessor without this knowledge of domestic abuse treatment would be unable to make appropriate recommendations for domestic abuse treatment programmes and therefore, be unable to move the case on.


In a recent interview Sir Andrew McFarlane, the president of the High Court family division, outlined the considerable difficulties the family court was facing with allegations of domestic abuse being a major factor. "The number of days on which the family court now sits undertaking family work is 91,000 court-days a year. The best research we have is the allegations of domestic abuse are made in about 60% of all family cases." Alongside this pressure and the urgent need to bring cases to a close, there is the absolutely vital need to safeguard children from further violence and abuse either as a witness or through direct harm.

An analysis of serious case reviews for England shows that in the last 5 years at least four children have died because family courts granted access to parents with a known history of physical, emotional and sexual abuse. It also indicates that four further children had been sexually abused or seriously injured, or both. In all of the cases, social services had been aware of a history of domestic abuse allegations against the partner. In 2016 Women's Aid produced a devastating report 'Nineteen Child Homicides' detailing the stories behind child victims of domestic abuse homicide.

The Nineteen Child Homicides report “tells the stories of the cases of 19 children, all intentionally killed by a parent who was also a known perpetrator of domestic abuse. These killings were made possible through unsafe child contact arrangements, formal and informal. More than half of these child contact arrangements were ordered through the courts.”

When courts are relying on professionals to give much needed expert opinion it is vital that the expert is sufficiently qualified to look past the many myths prevalent in domestic abuse and give an assessment of the risks and vulnerabilities that will adequately safeguard the victim and their children. With the relentless pressure of child protection work and when the consequences of a misjudgment can be so devastating, those making the decisions to ensure the safety and well being of children need all the help they can get.

DV-ACT experts

DV-ACT assessments are based upon an analysis of empirically-derived risk indicators derived from multiple sources of information about the subject’s background, giving detailed consideration to both static and dynamic risk factors. All assessments include detailed and realistic risk management plans for the parents and the children involved. Our assessments are completed to incredibly swift timescales and are designed to move even the most complex cases on. to find out more about the types of assessments we offer for domestic and sexual abuse cases go to assessments.

The DV-ACT team comprises expert assessors with decades of experience in undertaking domestic abuse assessments and child protection interventions. A number of our team worked in the 1990’s to help develop the first risk assessment model currently used by organisations across the UK today. As well as this, the team pioneered the evidence based vulnerability assessment of mothers. Further information on the team and our expertise can be found on our meet the team page (CVs are available upon request to the practice manager).

To find out how our experts can help you please contact us. (Please note that DV-ACT are continuing to work throughout the Cornavirus pandemic visit our post how-are-dv-act-completing-assessments-during-coronavirus-crisis)

About us

DV-ACT are a team of domestic abuse experts, available throughout the UK, who provide assessments, consultancy and training to local authorities and the family courts. 

Our experts have decades of experience working directly with domestic abuse perpetrators and victims, as specialist assessors and as expert witnesses in the family courts.

​DV-ACT was formed with the aim of using our expertise to help safeguard children from abuse, this is at the heart of everything that we do.


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