There are no plans to replace the tool used to determine the risk factor of domestic violence victims once they file a police report, despite recent criticism, according to a social welfare spokesperson.
A court last week heard how femicide victim Bernice Cassar – whose husband is charged with her murder – underwent a risk assessment after she filed a police report last May 8, alleging that her husband placed a knife against her neck. Her level of risk was judged by social workers to be medium. Six months later she was shot dead on her way to work.
The spokesperson, as well as voluntary organisations that work with victims of domestic violence, stressed that focus has to be placed on the way the tool is used and results are interpreted rather than on the tool itself.
The tool, known as the DASH system – Domestic Abuse, Stalking and Honour Risk Identification – has faced criticism ever since it was introduced in Malta in 2018 when the Gender-Based and Domestic Violence Act was enacted.
More recently, a report that looked into domestic violence in Malta recommended looking into adopting “other risk assessment tools besides the currently used DASH (2009) to provide a more objective evaluation and prediction of risk”.
Initial complaints were that too many cases were judged to be high risk
Initially, magistrates, prosecutors, defence lawyers and the police complained that many cases are being ranked as “high risk”, overloading the system.
Professionals flagged the fact that the tool could be easily abused by people wishing to “blow up” their report.
But, on the other side of the spectrum, victims at high risk who were under stress when going through the assessment could get a lower score since results depended on their replies at the time.
The report, ‘Perpetrators of Domestic Violence: Statistics and Perceptions of Risk Factors for Harmful Behaviour’, was carried out by the Faculty for Social Well-being after being commissioned by the tourism ministry and supported by the office of the wife of the prime minister.
A spokesperson for the Foundation for Social Welfare Services (FSWS) explained that DASH is a voluntary tool that domestic violence victims are offered and the police should not to rely solely on the results since these depend on the data offered by the victim, which may not be complete for various reasons.
“The use of DASH is fully in line with the Istanbul Convention of the Council of Europe. The convention emphasises that states shall take the necessary legislative or other measures to ensure an assessment of the risk, the seriousness of the situation and the risk of repeated violence is carried out by all relevant authorities.
“In this scenario, the DASH 2009 is the risk assessment tool that Malta has adopted,” the foundation spokesperson explained.
How does DASH work?
The DASH risk assessment is done by risk assessors who are trained in using the tool.
The checklist compiles details of the alleged abuse experienced by the victim through 27 questions, with focus being given to the reporting incident as well as past incidents, the foundation said.
The score is based on the total number of ‘yes’ ticks following the disclosures made by the alleged victim.
One to nine ‘yes’ ticks result in a standard risk, while 10 to 13 results in medium risk and 14 ticks or more indicate a high risk.
The assessment then identifies the risk factors experienced by the alleged victim and the risk assessors’ professional judgement is noted, the spokesperson said.
Why is it used?
The DASH is a victim-focused tool used to identify the risk of harm. It is not an investigative tool and should not be used as the basis of a criminal investigation but it complements such investigation.
The results of the risk assessment should not be quoted in isolation but should be accompanied by the outcome of criminal investigations.
“The risk factors included in DASH are evidence-based and drawn from extensive research and analysis by leading academics in the field.
“Risk assessors are trained in using DASH as this is crucial to understanding what the risk factors are and how they apply in each situation and what needs to be done to keep the victim safe. Needless to say, such a tool is obviously used only when the risk assessors are notified of an incident,” the spokesperson said.
Why would a ‘high’ risk have ranked ‘medium’?
The risk identification and assessment tool reflects the disclosures made by the alleged victim and a ‘standard’ or ‘medium’ risk score will not reflect any abusive incidents the victim failed to mention or minimised in their account.
“Risk identification and assessment is not a predictive process and there is no existing accurate procedure to calculate or foresee which cases may possibly in the future result in homicide or further assault and harm,” the spokesperson said.
“In the case of Ms Bernice Cassar, a risk assessment was carried out on the 8th of May 2022, which resulted in medium risk.
“This was the only instance when FSWS were asked to carry out a DASH assessment. Despite this result, the FSWS risk assessors offered Mrs Cassar temporary accommodation in a domestic violence shelter, which she, however, refused.”
The tool should be used as an indicator and not as the basis upon which the police and professionals ought to rely on
When is it used?
As Chapter 589 of the Laws of Malta outlines, once an alleged victim of domestic violence or gender-based violence files a report with the gender-based violence and domestic violence police unit, the police offer the alleged victim the possibility of having the DASH risk assessment done by the domestic violence risk assessment service of Aġenzija Appoġġ.
An alleged victim may choose to opt out of doing the risk assessment and, in that case, a waiver is signed.
The domestic violence risk assessment service responds to all requests made by the police and its assessors go to the police headquarters, in Floriana, to carry out risk assessment.
The original copy of the filled DASH risk assessment tool is passed on to the police to submit alongside the pressed charges, the spokesperson said.
Abuse and interpretation
Criminologist Corinne Cutajar carried out a report titled ‘Deadly affairs: How does domestic femicide occur in Malta?’
In this dissertation, she analysed the risk assessment system in place within the context of preventing femicide locally.
Her study among criminal justice professionals found that Maltese lawyers believe the tool is not being used in the correct way and “some are abusing it by reporting things that are untrue”.
In practice, the ‘yes/no’ statements should lead to an objective measure of risk posed to domestic violence victims, however, the additional aspects of the assessment requiring the risk assessor’s professional judgement are more subjective.
Police officers interviewed by Cutajar also raised doubts on the way the assessments are being conducted as risk assessors may not be trained to ‘detect lies’.
Cutajar concluded that conducting specific assessments on the perpetrator of domestic violence would further help curb the chance of femicide.
In a recent interview with Times of Malta, police superintendent Johann Fenech, who heads the vice squad, said the tool alone did not provide an accurate assessment.
The police do not rely on the score but carry out their own background checks and investigations to determine how urgently to treat a case.
“There were times when the DASH score was low but the risk was high and vice versa,” he said.
“When doing a risk assessment following a police report, victims, at times, either do not feel comfortable to disclose certain incidents”
Fine-tuning the way the tool is used
Voluntary organisations that work with victims of domestic violence agreed that the problem lay with the way the tool was used.
Julianne Grima, from Victim Support Malta, said: “Assessments are all well and good but it is the interpretation of that information that is crucial along with an assessment of the verbal and non-verbal information we receive from the victim and the alleged perpetrator.”
Women’s Rights Foundation founder Lara Dimitrijevic said DASH in principle is an important and welcome tool to assess the risk a person may be facing within an intimate partner context.
However, the tool should be used as an indicator and not as the basis upon which the police and professionals ought to rely on.
“From experience, victims have often disclosed that, when doing a risk assessment following a police report, they, at times, either do not feel comfortable to disclose certain incidents or, at the time and in the state of shock they are in, do not come forward with past incidents and threats,” she said.
“This, of course, is a natural process whereby body and mind shut down as a form of protection and should never be interpreted as not wanting to cooperate.
“The law further states that, whenever a risk assessment is done, it is incumbent upon the police to further investigate and, upon due consideration, determine whether there is ‘a serious risk of harm’ following which they may arrest or, as the law provides, at the very least ask the courts for the issuance of a temporary protection order,” Dimitrijevic added.