Published: November, 2015| Cheryl Davis, Edited by Stephanie Avalon

The state of Colorado has had mandated court-ordered treatment for domestic violence offenders since 1987. Treatment is guided and evaluated through Standards overseen and monitored by The Colorado Domestic Violence Offender Management Board (DVOMB). Until 2010, Colorado’s treatment model was criticized as a one-size-fits-all, because regardless of abuse or criminal history, offenders were required to participate in a minimum of 36 weeks of programming.

In 2010, Colorado began implementing revised Standards and now employs a differentiated treatment model. This model is based on the Risk, Needs and Responsivity Principles1 which research has shown are effective in reducing general offender recidivism:

  1. Risk Principle: The level of service must be matched to the offender’s risk of reoffending.
  2. Needs Principle: Assess criminogenic needs (those dynamic risk factors associated with criminal behavior) and target those needs in treatment.
  3. Responsivity: Maximize the offender’s learning by providing cognitive behavioral treatment and tailoring the intervention to the learning style, motivation, abilities and strengths of the offender.

The Initial Evaluation: Identifying Risks and Needs

After an offender is sentenced, treatment providers conduct an initial evaluation. The evaluation gathers data on the offender that determines the assigned level of risk and recommended treatment plan. The standards require evaluations to include:

  • Assessment of domestic violence risk and screening for substance abuse, mental health and other needs that can impact treatment
  • Review of external sources of information such as police report, public victim impact statement, criminal history and other relevant evaluations
  • Interview with the offender to explore relationship history, psychosocial history, motivation, accountability and responsivity factors

Additionally, the evaluation assists in:

  • Determination of the level and nature of risk, including possible lethality, for future domestic violence
  • Identification of individual criminogenic factors/needs and strategies for managing them
  • Initial recommendations for treatment planning to include offender monitoring related to community and victim safety
  • Assessment of offender responsivity, accountability, and amenability to treatment

Risks and needs of offenders are identified by the Domestic Violence Risk and Needs Assessment (DVRNA). This instrument, currently involved in a validation study, is designed to assess risk of future domestic violence using numerous factors identified through empirical research. This instrument is also designed to identify degree of risk and therefore allow for treatment matching. There are 14 risk factor domains (see Risk Factor Domains, below) that comprise the DVRNA. Of these, 8 are dynamic, allowing for reassessment during treatment. The presence of each domain is scored as 1 providing a raw score of 0 to 14. Six domains are deemed significant or critical based on published research on dangerousness, lethality, and recidivism. Therefore, if any of these six are present, initial placement in moderate or high intensity treatment is required. All programming is intended to increase victim safety and reduce offender abuse and recidivism.

DVRNA Risk Factor Domains

Prior DV related incidents* Criminal history (non-DV related)* Prior completed or non-completed DV offender treatment
Drug/alcohol abuse*  Obsession with the victim Involvement with people who have a pro-criminal influence
Mental health issues* Safety concerns Separated from victim within last six months
Use and/or threatened use of weapons in current or past offense, or access to firearms* Violence toward family members, including child abuse Unemployed
Suicidal/homicidal* Attitudes that condone or support partner assault *denotes significant/critical risk factor resulting in automatic placement in treatment intensity level B or C.

Three Levels of Treatment Intensity

 The treatment plan assigns each offender to an initial level of treatment intensity: A (low), B (moderate), or C (high).

  • Level A (low intensity) treatment is for offenders who have a DVRNA raw score of zero or one with no significant or critical risk factors. At the time of their initial assessment, Level A offenders have not shown a pattern of ongoing abusive behavior. These offenders attend group clinical sessions once per week until they have reached completion.
  • Level B (moderate intensity) treatment is for offenders who have a raw score two to four on the DVRNA or at least one significant risk factor and are required to participate in weekly group clinical sessions as well as additional clinical intervention a least once a month. These offenders have an identified pattern of ongoing abusive behavior. They may have some criminal history in addition to substance abuse and/or mental health issues.
  • Level C (high intensity) treatment is for offenders who have a DVRNA raw score of five or higher or at least one critical risk factor and are considered high risk for reoffending. Level C offenders may be chronically unemployed, likely to have criminal histories, and/or generally have little in the way of a healthy social support system. Level C offenders are required to have two clinical contacts each week, one focused on domestic violence and another addressing other issues, such as substance abuse or mental health problems.

All levels include a minimum of two treatment plan reviews every two to three months. The reviews allow for increasing treatment intensity when risk factors emerge that were not identified initially. For example, suicidal ideation may not have been present at the initial evaluation. If this, or another risk factor, emerges during treatment the offender would be reassigned to a higher level to receive therapeutic help in addition to the groups. Similarly, as risks and needs are addressed and mitigated, intensity of treatment can be adjusted. If a therapist believes an offender has addressed an issue, that therapy may be concluded, thus reducing the level of intensity.

Length of Treatment and Completion Standards

The Colorado Standards no longer identify a set length of treatment. Treatment completion is determined by offender risk and progress in treatment. Offenders complete treatment successfully when they have met all required competencies and conditions of their treatment plan. Offenders are administratively discharged when circumstances such as medical leave, employment location transfer, military deployment or a clinical reason for a transfer occurs. Offenders are unsuccessfully discharged when they have not fulfilled one or more of their required competencies or conditions of their treatment plan.

Oversight by Multidisciplinary Treatment Teams

Treatment standards now require members of a local Multidisciplinary Treatment Team (MTT) to manage and oversee decisions about offender assignment to treatment levels and their recommended treatment plan, and make decisions on the timing and type of discharge. The MTT aims to reach consensus in making all of these decisions.

At a minimum, the MTT is made up of a treatment provider, the supervising criminal justice agency (such as probation), and the victim advocate who works with the treatment provider, along with other agency representatives when appropriate. Victim advocates are critical to the MTT and although they maintain victim confidentiality they provide important general insight on the best interests of victims.

Victim safety is further addressed with the requirement that all treatment providers have a victim advocate working with their program. In addition to being a member of the MTT, this advocate does outreach to the victim and provides the victim with a variety of information. This advocacy is victim driven and based on victim empowerment theory.

New Acts of Violence

New acts of violence are considered a violation of the offender contract and treatment plan, and are addressed on a case by case basis by the MTT. If the offender remains in treatment, the intensity of treatment is increased. In some cases the MTT may decide to discharge the offender from treatment, and probation may proceed with a revocation. The challenge comes when a victim reports an abusive incident to her advocate, but decides for her own protection that she doesn’t want the treatment provider or probation officer informed. In these cases, victim advocates continue to work with the victim to meet her needs. Alternately, a victim can allow the provider to be informed confidentially, and the provider will attempt to discreetly address the issue in treatment.

Study Finds DVRNA Classifications Linked to Program Completion Rates

The 2013 Tracking Offenders in Treatment Project looked at the distribution of offenders by treatment level at intake and discharge. The study found that few offenders (12%) are assigned to Level A at the beginning of treatment, and almost equal amounts of offenders are assigned to levels B and C, 42% and 47% respectively. At discharge, while the percentage of offenders in level A had not changed, the percentage of offenders in level B had increased, and level C offenders had decreased. The hypothesis is that offenders in level C had reduced their risk while in treatment and were moved to lower intensity treatment in level B.

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The study also looked at the length of treatment by risk level or level of treatment.  On average, lower risk offenders spend less time in treatment, 5.8 months on average, compared to 8 and 8.7 months for Level B and C respectively. Regarding completion of treatment, 89% of Level A offenders successfully completed treatment and 68% of Level B offenders successfully completed treatment.  However, less than half, only 48%, of Level C offenders completed the program.  Successful completion requires a consensus of the MTT that the offender has achieved what they call “core competencies” including acceptance of full responsibility for the violence. 

By tracking offenders in treatment this study found that the Standards pertaining to the DVRNA are implemented as planned. The DVRNA risk categories are separating the domestic violence offender population into meaningful risk groups as measured by treatment success rates and differential time in treatment by risk level is underway. Further study is needed to understand why offenders in Level C complete treatment at a lower rate than offenders in Level A or B.

Implementation Successes and Recommendations for Future Study

In 2015 researchers at the University of Colorado Denver and the University of Baltimore further studied the implementation of the Standards. In a February 2015 report, the researchers recognized five major achievements of this model. First, the Colorado Domestic Violence Offender Management Board’s commitment to research based models and programs was praised. Treatment for offenders in Colorado is no longer “one size fits all” but instead attempts to differentiate interventions using the risks, needs, and responsivity principles.  The DVRNA is empirically-based and guides offender placement into different treatment levels.  Multi-disciplinary treatment teams (MTTs) make decisions about treatment intensity placement and treatment outcomes.  Finally, victim advocacy has been incorporated into treatment by requiring that MTT’s include an advocate to represent the concerns of DV victims.

The researchers used a survey and follow up interviews with MTT members to answer questions about how well the new standards were being implemented. Among surveyed treatment providers the majority said that the 2010 Revised Domestic Violence Standards had been fully implemented into their treatment program. A majority of providers, 94%, agreed that offenders are assessed with the DVRNA prior to beginning treatment. When asked in follow-up interviews what were the most important critical risk factors identified by the DVRNA, the MTT members cited prior domestic violence as a top risk factor, and identified the threat of using weapons and suicidal/homicidal ideation as critical risk factors.

The report noted that offender assignment to the different treatment levels appeared to be working as planned. Few Level A or B offenders required reassignment to more intensive levels of treatment. They also found that 25% of offenders initially placed in Level C had been reassigned to Level B by discharge, supporting the model design of adjusting intensity of treatment when risk is mitigated.

Recommendations for the future included the continued monitoring and reassessment of offenders over the course of treatment, continued evaluation of the implementation of the standards, and additional research regarding intervention effectiveness. Enhanced training for criminal justice system personnel on the standards, and the development of standardized tools to measure an offender’s progress and change, were also recommended.

While these studies focus on the implementation of the new standards, the DVRNA is currently involved in a validation study which will include recidivism data. The DVOMB is also partnering with the University of Colorado Denver and the University of Baltimore which recently received funding to research the current treatment model.

For more information, please contact Cheryl Davis, cheryl.davis@state.co.us or 303-239-4456

1. Andrews, D.A., and Bonta, J. (1994). The psychology of criminal conduct. Cincinnati, OH: Anderson Publishing Co.