13 ways to predict whether a domestic violence offender will assault again

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On March 8, 1996, Randy Iles shot and killed his estranged wife, Arlene May, in the Ontario, Canada, community of Oshawa. It was his third marriage, with the others ending in cases of child abduction, stalking, threatening with a weapon, and custody disputes. He had a criminal history of indecent exposure, harassing phone calls, violating probation and possessing stolen property.

Witnesses later said the physical violence started when May was pregnant, and it continued after she delivered a stillborn baby. May reported the assaults to police, but the court, unaware of a warrant out for his arrest in a neighboring jurisdiction, granted Iles bail. According to a coroner’s inquiry, the court also forbid him from contacting May or possessing firearms, but he continued to threaten May’s life, and a certificate enabling him to buy firearms was never seized by authorities.

In the end, Iles purchased a gun and drove to May’s home, where he waited for her. When she arrived, he forced her into the house and barricaded her three children into a closet for hours. Eventually, Iles let them go and told them to call police at the corner store. The last time the children saw their mother, she was sitting on the bed, crying, telling them to go. Iles shot and killed May and then himself.

If police had been able to use what’s now called the Ontario Domestic Assault Risk Assessment, a questionnaire used to determine the risk whether someone will reoffend, they should have been able to determine in about 10 minutes that Iles was in the highest risk category for assaulting again. It’s likely the court would have held him in jail, instead of releasing him on bail, and he would have been unable to kill May.

The risk assessment, commonly called ODARA, was developed in response to May’s killing and the killing of another woman in Ontario — and now it’s coming to Maine. The Ontario Provincial Police and the Waypoint Centre for Mental Health Care in Ontario reviewed 589 domestic violence cases, followed up for an average of five years, and completed a statistical analysis to determine the factors that most often led to repeat assaults.

They identified 13 factors that are most predictive of future violence: having a prior history of domestic assault or a criminal record, previously being sentenced to 30 days or more in jail, past failure to abide by release conditions, threatening to harm or kill the victim, confining the victim, having a victim fear future assaults, having more than one child in the home, having the victim’s biological child be from a previous partner, assaulting a non-domestic partner in the past, exhibiting at least two examples of substance abuse, assaulting the victim when she was pregnant, and barriers to victim support.

ODARA’s predictive accuracy is 77 percent, and it has been independently tested and validated. If police get a low score of zero for an offender, it means there’s about a 5 percent chance the person will commit another assault that would come to the attention of police within an average of five years. A high score of more than 7 means there’s a 70 percent chance an abusive partner will commit another assault within five years. Only about 6 percent of offenders receive the most extreme designation.

Several Maine police departments already are using ODARA, but they all will be required to do so as of Jan. 1, 2015 — the result of legislation passed in 2012. Maine is the first state as a whole to require its use. Police will fill out the 13-step form using information obtained during the course of their regular investigations and generate a final ODARA score indicating the likelihood of recidivism. Police then will provide the information to bail commissioners, who will use it to help determine an appropriate bail. It may also be used to help decide an offender’s jail sentence.

Risk assessments in general aren’t new. Police often are gauging risk, and they largely know what the risk factors are. But the new questionnaire is important because it will be a standard part of every domestic violence arrest. It will allow police, judges, attorneys and bail commissioners — who are all being trained on its use — to have a shared language about the dangers they are seeing. Advocates will be able to use the information to better help victims plan for their safety.

Importantly, it moves Maine toward a model where the emphasis is on keeping offenders away from victims rather than forcing victims to rearrange their lives because someone hurt them. It’s another valuable tool to help hold offenders accountable and keep the public safe.

Erin Rhoda

About Erin Rhoda

Erin Rhoda is editor of Maine Focus, a journalism and community engagement initiative by the Bangor Daily News.