How may colonialism factor into Indigenous youth risk for violence? Validation with the SAVRY in an Indigenous youth sample

How may colonialism factor into Indigenous youth risk for violence? Validation with the SAVRY in an Indigenous youth sample

The SAVRY provides an adequate assessment of violence in Indigenous male and female youth; however, more Indigenous culturally sensitive protocols, tools, and an awareness of the longstanding effects of colonialism are needed when working with Indigenous populations. This is the bottom line of a recently published article in Psychological Assessment. Below is a summary of the research and findings as well as a translation of this research into practice.

Featured Article | Psychological Assessment | 2020, Vol. 32, No.6, 584-607

Predictive Validity of the Structured Assessment of Violence Risk in
Youth (SAVRY) With Indigenous and Caucasian Female and Male
Adolescents on Probation


Nicole M. Muir, Simon Fraser University
Jodi L. Viljoen, Simon Fraser University
Melissa R. Johnson, Simon Fraser University
Dana M. Cochrane, Simon Fraser University
Billie Joe Rogers, Reciprocal Consulting, West Vancouver


Indigenous people and the courts have emphasized that it is important to examine whether scores from violence risk assessment tools are valid and appropriate for Indigenous youth. However, studies are scarce. Therefore, we examined the predictive validity of youth probation officers’ Structured Assessment of Violence Risk in Youth (SAVRY) ratings for 744 Canadian youth, including 299 Indigenous youth (219 male, 80 female), and 445 Caucasian youth (357 male, 88 female) in a prospective field study. The SAVRY summary risk ratings and risk total scores significantly predicted violent and any reoffending for Indigenous female and male youth with medium effect sizes. Relatively few significant differences in the predictive validity emerged for Indigenous and Caucasian youth. However, Historical, Protective, and Risk Total scores predicted any recidivism better for Caucasian males than Indigenous males. Also, Indigenous youth scored significantly higher on all risk domains than Caucasian youth. Opposite to predictions, the rates of false positives were higher for Caucasian youth than for Indigenous youth. Based on the results, the SAVRY appears to be a reasonable tool to use for assessing risk in Indigenous youth. However, assessors should take steps to ensure that they use the SAVRY in a culturally appropriate manner, such as considering cultural factors in case formulations and treatment planning as the SAVRY does not ground assessments in an understanding of factors such as colonialism. In addition, future research should examine culturally salient risk factors (e.g., discrimination) and examine potential causes of higher risk scores in Indigenous youth, particularly the role of both past and present-day colonialism.


predictive validity, Indigenous youth, SAVRY, females, reserves

Summary of the Research

“Indigenous youth make up around 8% of the Canadian population yet in 2017/2018, 48% of custody admissions and 39% of community admissions were Indigenous youth aged 12 to 17 (Department of Justice Canada, 2019). As such, their rate of incarceration is six times higher than their rate in the general youth population.” p.594

“The negative experiences of residential school continue to impact the physical and mental health of survivors, their offspring and their communities and are linked to poor educational attainment, substance use difficulties, suicide, and criminal behavior. In this respect, colonialism can be considered a determinant of overrepresentation in the justice system, or in other words, the “causes of causes” for offending. Systemic discrimination, marginalization, and disparities stemming from colonialism continue today; compared with non- Indigenous youth, Indigenous children and youth in Canada are provided with fewer services, and less funding and resources, particularly those youth who reside on reserves.” p.595

“The aim of the present study was to compare the predictive validity of SAVRY scores for Indigenous and Caucasian youth on probation (i.e., examine psychometric bias). To improve upon previous research, we (a) tested predictive validity separately for females and males, (b) tested whether predictive validity for Indigenous youth varied depending on whether youth lived on or off reserve, (c) examined not only indices of discrimination (e.g., AUCs) but also the positive and negative predictive power, and (d) tested mean differences in SAVRY Total and domain scores for Indigenous and Caucasian youth. Furthermore, we used a prospective field study design, in which YPOs assessed youth with the SAVRY.”p.596

“Indigenous females scored significantly higher than Caucasian females on the SAVRY Risk Total score and risk domains, but significantly lower on Protective Factors. For the SAVRY Risk Total score, effect size was in the large range while for risk domains, were in the small to medium ranges. Compared with Caucasian females, Indigenous females were also significantly more likely to be rated as High risk on the Violence SRR and were more likely to be charged with any and violent recidivism with all effect sizes being in the small range. A similar pattern of results was found with male youth. Indigenous males scored significantly higher than Caucasian males on the SAVRY Risk Total score and several risk domains (i.e., Historical, Social, Contextual) with effect sizes being in the small to medium range. During the follow-up period, Indigenous males were more likely to be charged with any and violent recidivism again, having small effect sizes.”pp.599-600

Indigenous adolescents were rated as having higher needs. As hypothesized by Indigenous consultees, Indigenous adolescents scored significantly higher on all SAVRY risk domains than Caucasian youth. In addition, consistent with other research, Indigenous youth had higher rates of subsequent charges than their Caucasian counterparts, though this difference did not reach significance for females.”p.603

SAVRY predicted reoffending in Indigenous and Caucasian youth. In general, the SAVRY significantly predicted violent and any recidivism among both Indigenous and Caucasian females and males. The SAVRY Summary Risk Rating for violence significantly predicted violent recidivism with AUCs ranging from .65 to .76. In addition, AUC scores for SAVRY Risk Total scores (that were calculated for research purposes but not used in professional practice) ranged from .63 to .73 for violent recidivism and .61 to .79 for any recidivism.”p.603

“Contrary to hypotheses, relatively few significant differences emerged in the predictive validity of SAVRY scores between Indigenous and Caucasian youth. Of the 24 differences in AUCs that were tested, only three (i.e., 12.5%) were significantly lower in Indigenous youth than Caucasian youth. Specifically, the Historical domain was a stronger predictor of any recidivism for Caucasian males than Indigenous males. This could be because the SAVRY does not capture historical risk factors related to colonialism (i.e., historical trauma).”p.603

Positive predictive power was higher in Indigenous than Caucasian youth. YPOs appeared to be more successful in identifying Indigenous youth who were high risk for reoffending than Caucasian youth who were high risk of reoffending. For instance, of the male and female youth YPOs rated as High risk for violence, 50–51% of Indigenous youth and 28–33% of Caucasian males were charged with subsequent violence. Contrary to expectations, rates of false positives were lower for Indigenous youth than Caucasian youth.”p.603

Predictive validity was comparable for Indigenous youth who lived on and off reserve. We found no significant differences in predictive validity across youth who had lived on versus off reserve, which may indicate that predictive validity is not substantially affected by place of residence or, potentially, levels of acculturation. In addition, whereas previous research indicated that crime rates on reserves were higher than for the rest of Canada, the current study did not find differences in recidivism or SAVRY Total scores for youth on versus off reserve.”p.603

Translating Research into Practice

“The higher risk scores and rates of recidivism found may relate to colonialism, which scholars have theorized to be a distal determinant of Indigenous overrepresentation in the justice system. It may also relate to ongoing marginalization and inequities. For instance, adequate health care is often lacking in Indigenous communities, which could lead to unaddressed needs. Discrimination could also contribute to heightened offending; prior research has found that Indigenous youth may engage in aggression in response to perceived discrimination.”p.603

“…historical factors may not be as effective at differentiating Indigenous males who do and do not reoffend either because Indigenous males, in general, had high scores on this scale (e.g., less variability in scores) or because YPOs had difficulty accurately rating these factors for Indigenous males. better for Caucasian than Indigenous males. Again, the Protective domain may not be capturing Indigenous protective factors such as extended family and Elder involvement, as noted by Indigenous consultees. Notably, once a Bonferroni correction was applied, these differences in predictive validity no longer reached significance.”p.603

“It is also possible that the higher predictive accuracy for High risk Indigenous youth stems from biases in the detection and measurement of reoffending. For instance, because Indigenous youth are rated and perceived as higher risk by probation officers and law enforcement, they may be monitored more closely, resulting in more charges (i.e., racial/ethnic profiling). This self-fulfilling prophecy effect has been well-documented in research on arrest rates for people of color in the United States.”p.603

“Indigenous youth tended to have higher needs regardless of whether they lived on a reserve. This could indicate that factors such as colonialism and ongoing marginalization and disparities affect all Indigenous youth regardless of where they live.”p.603

“Based on the results of this study, the SAVRY appears to be a reasonable tool to use in assessing risk for Indigenous youth, especially as few other violence risk assessment tools have been validated with this population. Although we did not directly examine colonialism, it is still an important consideration for both practice and future research. Evaluators should take additional steps to ensure that they use the SAVRY in a culturally appropriate manner because Indigenous people have experienced a long history of colonialism, harmful policies, marginalization, and ongoing inequities, which continue to affect Indigenous peoples today.”p.604

“As a first step, evaluators should complete relevant training, such as Indigenous cultural competency training. When interviewing Indigenous youth and their families, evaluators should work to create a culturally safe environment (e.g., seeking information about youths’ strengths in addition to vulnerabilities), and gather information about culturally relevant factors (e.g., youth’s cultural connectedness). These culturally relevant factors can be added to SAVRY assessments as case-specific factors.”p.604

“In making their risk judgments, evaluators should be careful not to assume that Indigenous youth pose a heightened risk for reoffending. Although, on average, Indigenous youth had somewhat higher risk ratings than Caucasian youth, there was enormous variability within Indigenous youth, and a sizable proportion was low risk. Evaluators should also be mindful that there are many cultural differences within Indigenous youth. For instance, there are over 600 Indigenous Nations in Canada.”p.604

“…evaluators should, in their reports and testimony, acknowledge that research on the use of the SAVRY with Indigenous youth is limited, particularly research that includes Indigenous consultation.”p.604

Evaluators can also aim to use a culturally informed approach in their case formulation…This contextual understanding can help broaden the scope of interventions for the youth and aid in focusing interventions on the root of the problem (e.g., experiences of discrimination), not just the symptoms (e.g., high risk for anger and aggression). Although models for cultural formulation of violence risk are lacking, one framework that may be helpful are the guidelines laid out in Gladue reports”p.604

“Finally, in developing treatment recommendations, evaluators should consider whether culturally specific interventions may be appropriate”p.604

Other Interesting Tidbits for Researchers and Clinicians

“In the present study, we sought to address the above gaps through a prospective field study with a provincial youth justice agency. In conducting this study, Indigenous peoples provided consultation and leadership. This emphasis on Indigenous community consultation is emphasized in numerous guidelines, such as the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, the Royal Commission on Aboriginal People, and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (2015). In the past, non-Indigenous researchers, “have disempowered communities, imposed stereotypes that reinforced internalized racism, and conducted research that benefited the careers of individual researchers or even science at large but brought no tangible benefit to the communities”. As such, the UNDRIP stresses “nothing about us without us,” meaning that research about Indigenous peoples must include Indigenous communities.”p.596

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Authored by Leila N. Wallach

Leila N. Wallach is a clinical psychology doctoral student at Palo Alto University. Her research and clinical interests focus on alternatives to incarceration, culture and trauma-informed care, policy in the juvenile justice system, and risk assessment for community offender management.

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