Lethality Indicators

Change in relationship status

Fatality reviews revealed that simply leaving an abusive relationship does not always lead to safety. Despite this, the public discourse around the issue of intimate partner violence often revolves around the question, “Why doesn’t she just leave?” In addition to relaying a sentiment of victim blame, that question fails to account for the serious risk facing victims who decide to flee an abusive relationship.

Although studies show victims who leave an abusive relationship do eventually become more safe, statistically speaking, the risk of lethal violence actually increases for victims at the three-month and one-year mark after leaving the relationship (Campbell, 2017). Victims are at the highest risk of being killed by their abusive partners when they separate from them; both rates of, and severity of, physical abuse increase during periods of separation and divorce (Zeoli et al., 2013).

The majority of fatal incidents reviewed by the Project involved current or former intimate partners who were in a long-standing relationship. In just under half of reviewed cases, the relationship had ended or the couple had separated. However, this data does not accurately relay the anecdotal information which has been revealed through the fatality review process: that almost all victims were contemplating leaving the relationship or taking steps to do so.

A victim’s steps to gain independence may signal to the perpetrator that he is losing control over the victim. Some examples of steps taken by victims in reviewed cases included accepting a new job, increasing social activities, saving money, and changing locks on doors. In some cases, victims had an unspoken desire to leave the relationship and were in the early planning stages of assessing resources and options available to them. All steps towards independence and separating, even less obvious steps, can trigger an increase in the severity of the abuse.

Understanding the risk factors which signal an increased risk for serious injury or death for domestic violence victims is imperative. Not only does it shape the services and interventions provided for victims and perpetrators, but it can help inform safety plans for victims. Beyond that, communities intent on addressing the problem of domestic violence are most effective when they consider these risk factors as they develop strategic initiatives to combat abuse.