Some risk assessment tools fail to “predict” the risk of reoffending for specific populations with adequate accuracy, perhaps due to the nuances of those variations applied to different populations in different locations at other times. As there is a collection of instruments that are well validated for various groups, selecting an assessment tool should ultimately be driven by the purpose of the evaluation.
What is Stalking?
Stalking is “unwanted and repeated communication, contact, or other conduct that deliberately or recklessly causes people to experience reasonable fear or concern for their safety or the safety of others known to them.” Although the legal definition of stalking varies by jurisdiction, common aspects include multiple acts of unwanted pursuit, a reasonable level of threat, and the victim experiencing fear.
Although stalking may not always lead to physical assault, victims of stalking endure a wide range of negative consequences, including emotional and psychological distress such as feelings of fear, humiliation, and depression, as well as adverse social and financial effects. Moreover, stalking has long been recognized as a social problem as victims are often forced to alter their lives, such as avoiding social activities, relocating residences, or changing employment.
Stalking offenders appear to be far more heterogeneous than early research had suggested. Yet, currently, there is little knowledge of mental health interventions helpful in reducing or eliminating stalking behavior. However, past research on stalking highlighted several characteristics that would appear to support DBT as an ideal intervention for this population.
Risk Assessment for Stalking
Risk assessment on stalking is relatively new. The recency of increased attention makes assessing and managing this behavior a challenging task to do effectively. However, a few instruments have been developed to assist professionals in managing this problematic behavior. In particular, the Stalking Assessment and Management (SAM) is a risk assessment instrument aimed at preventing future stalking behavior by assessing and managing offender and victim vulnerability factors.
Given the widespread use of violence risk assessment, it is essential that instruments used to assess risk be evidence-based and rigorously tested to ensure an appropriate standard of reliability and predictive validity. Structured Professional Judgment (SPJ) assessments provide the most individualized evaluation of risk and management needs (compared to clinical judgment and actuarial). A critical feature of the SAM and other SPJ tools is that they allow raters to observe ongoing changes through reassessments, which helps evaluators tailor their recommendations as necessary.
The Prevalence of Stalking
Few forms of abnormal behavior have aroused as much interest from criminal justice and mental health professionals over the past quarter century as stalking. Once considered a rare phenomenon limited to celebrities and public officials, the high frequency and often-severe repercussions of stalking behaviors are now well established.
- 8-20% of the U.S. and Canadian populations
- 75-80% of perpetrators are male; 75-80% of the victims are female
- 75% to 80% of stalkers had a previous relationship with the victim; 50% of which were romantic
The large volume of stalking offenses creates difficulty for law enforcement in determining which perpetrators pose a more significant threat to reoffend and which require more intensive intervention and management. It is essential that mental health professions aid in the prevention and assessment of stalking behaviors.
How is Risk of Stalking Different from General Violence Risk?
Evaluating the risk of stalking is a particularly unique task; therefore, an evaluation of general violence may be insufficient, and a more focused approach to assessing stalking behaviors is required. Some specific aspects of stalking that differ from regular violence are:
- The perpetrator is often someone known to the victim.
- Seemingly harmless behaviors, such as receiving gifts or an unexpected visit to the victim’s workplace, may appear threatening to a victim of stalking.
- Stalking is not a discrete event but is prolonged over time - ranging from two months to one year.
The SAM includes three domains, each including ten individual factors:
- Nature of Stalking Behavior: Assesses the stalker’s pattern of offending behavior to determine the level of seriousness
- Perpetrator Risk Factors: Evaluate the historical background and psychosocial adjustment of the offender
- Victim Vulnerability Factors: Consider the historical background and psychosocial adjustment of the victim
Professions that would benefit from using the SAM
The frequency, diversity, and severity of stalking cases make it difficult for police and other professionals to determine who has the greatest need for services and what services are needed most. Therefore, the SAM uses a structured professional judgment approach that assists decision-making across criminal justice, forensic mental health, courts, and other service providers.
- Criminal Justice (correctional and police officers): Assists decision-making about an offender’s sentencing, release, treatment, and management in the community.
- Forensic Mental Health: Aids in decisions regarding sentencing, release, and supervision conditions for individuals with stalking offenses.
- Victim Services: Identifying particular areas of difficulty for victims of stalking.
- Treatment Providers: Stalking recidivism and stalking-related violence can be reduced through effective intervention, measuring the change in offenders who have received an intervention.
SAM is appropriate for evaluating perpetrators who:
- Have exhibited stalking behavior in the past
- Are over the age of 18
- Have only one victim
Administration of the SAM
1. Individual factors are coded as:
- Current and Previous Presence
- Relevance for Future Risk
2. Identifying and describing risk scenarios for future stalking.
- The evaluator considers the nature, severity, imminence, frequency, and likelihood of potential future risk scenarios that the perpetrator may commit.These might reflect a repeat, a worst-case, or a twisted scenario.
3. Recommend management strategies for each of the risk scenarios identified.
- Evaluators are asked to identify monitoring, treatment, supervision, victim safety planning, and any case-specific considerations for risk management.
5. Rate risk for continued stalking and risk for serious physical harm.
6. Rate reasonableness for victim’s fear.
7. Rate the urgency of action required.
8. Evaluators then record the timeframe within which a re-assessment should be scheduled.
Pros and Cons of the SAM
- The items are comprehensive and sensitive to the diverse experiences reported by stalkers and victims of stalking.
- It is a valuable tool for police and mental health professionals.
- It has international support.
- It has good psychometrics.
- Risk factors were related to higher overall risk ratings.
- Risk factors were related to higher overall risk ratings.
- The SAM identifies stalking-specific factors that general violence measures fail to assess.
- Further research is required to establish the validity of the SAM more confidently; however, the extant findings remain promising.
- While it is strongly encouraged, evaluators are not required to complete a specific training program to use the SAM, so they may not be receiving equivalent knowledge and training essential to form accurate and informed decisions.
Users of the SAM are responsible for ensuring that their evaluation conforms to relevant laws, regulations, and policies. Therefore, to improve the consistency and usefulness of professional decisions, users should receive specialized training in stalking, administration, and interpretation of the SAM, and in professional decision-making regarding violence risk.
- While the effects of training require further investigation, research on the SAM demonstrates its utility and validity in assessing stalking in research and law enforcement settings.
- Evaluators using the SAM risk assessment tool should have experience with stalking offenders or victim populations, and have expertise in stalking.
- Mental health professionals are responsible for maintaining their competency to use risk assessment tools reliably and accurately.
- The ability to correctly use a given risk assessment tool and communicate the results of that assessment requires evaluators receive appropriate training and practice.