A need for stronger approaches to domestic violence screening with justice-involved couples was evident based on the implementation evaluation reviews of MFS-IP grantees. There were no uniform requirements for domestic violence screening, and the approach used by most grantees at the time of initial enrollment (asking incarcerated men if they abused their partners) rarely identified any couples at elevated risk. More promising strategies, implemented by fewer grantees, included:
- Interviewing incarcerated men about risk factors for potential abusiveness, rather than asking them to directly self-disclose (illegal) abusive behavior
- Conducting a separate domestic violence screening with each member of the enrolled or prospective couple
- Screening participants later during their program participation, once trust had been built with staff
“It’s a safety consideration. If you just used the Propensity for Abusiveness Scale with men, you’d miss 15% of [couples at elevated risk for domestic violence]. If you only used the Family Secret Scale with women, you’d miss about 12–13%.”
—former MFS-IP grantee (SD)
As might be expected, across all sites, screening approaches focused primarily on identifying men’s abuse of their female partners. However, given survey findings from this evaluation on the degree to which both members of the couple engage in violence, one-sided screening might not be adequate for couples in this population.
OFA required that all grantees develop a domestic violence protocol, but there were no uniform requirements for what that protocol would include. At sites that worked closely with a domestic violence partner or expert consultant, protocols included a description of risk screening and assessment procedures; services to be provided to individuals identified as being at elevated risk; and plans for responding to incidents of domestic violence that might occur during program participation. Other sites interpreted the “protocol” requirement differently, producing documents such as an MOU with a domestic violence agency partner or a description of educational content on domestic violence to be delivered to participants. A need for more guidance on the expected elements of a domestic violence protocol was evident. Ideally, a template provided by OFA could be customized by grantees with the help of a local domestic violence agency partner.
Regardless of their content, sites’ specific domestic violence protocols were rarely used, because few identified any couples as being at elevated risk for domestic violence during program participation. However, many incorporated domestic violence education into other program components delivered to men, women or couples. Sites used relationship or parenting education curricula that incorporated content on domestic violence, or added brief stand-alone modules for delivery by course instructors or by a domestic violence agency partner. This approach was aimed at preventing domestic violence among all participants and encouraging voluntary help-seeking among those who might be at risk for perpetration and/or victimization.
The strategy of relying on couples who were experiencing domestic violence to self-identify and self-refer for help proved inadequate. Grantees that took this approach (the overwhelming majority of MFS-IP sites) were often unaware of any need for domestic violence services among their participants. Yet one site that took a multi-component approach to screening and assessment found that almost half of its prospective program participants were at elevated risk for domestic violence and needed specialized services to address the abuse before they could safely participate in the MFS-IP program. These experiences suggest that a general preventive approach to domestic violence education must be paired with effectively identifying and serving those participants at elevated risk. This would include better screening (e.g., interviewing both members of a couple, screening for perpetration risk factors and not just perpetration history, and assessing domestic violence risk after staff-participant trust is built), as well as offering direct domestic violence response services (such as 26-week batterer intervention courses) and providing staff-assisted referrals to local partner agencies with which the grantee has an established relationship.