A Q&A with Mary Ann Campbell on developing a risk assessment tool to prevent domestic violence

This story is the seventh in a ten-part series on innovation and resiliency in Saint John, published by Enterprise Saint John in advance of the Walrus Talks, an evening of artful conversation on innovation with eight leading thinkers and doers taking place in Saint John on October 26th. For more information, or for tickets, visit the Walrus Talks website. For more information on Enterprise Saint John initiatives, check out the True Growth website.


Mary Ann Campbell is a clinical psychologist and professor at the University of New Brunswick Saint John. Born in Nova Scotia, she completed her master’s degree at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, then returned to Dalhousie for her PhD. When a job opportunity came up at UNB, she jumped at the chance to not only be back in the Maritimes, but also to be part of a new team breaking ground in implementing an evidence-based tool to help deal with domestic violence in the province. As the director of the Centre for Criminal Justice Studies, she continues her evidence-based approach to informing real world practice in the police field. She sat down with me in her office to talk about some of the work she’s been doing.

Can you tell me a little bit about the risk assessment tool you’re working on putting into practice?

We have been working with the Department of Public Safety on their intimate partner violence agenda. This came out of a round table on crime prevention and public safety that the Government of New Brunswick initiated in December 2012 that had three major priority areas. One of those was being more strategic about how we respond to intimate partner violence. Independent of that, one of my graduate students, Angela Totten, who is now a crime analyst at the Saint John Police Force, conducted a study for her master’s thesis that looked at a particular risk assessment tool that could be used by police officers to help them decide how best to respond to a particular type of dispute call.

So if you’re a police officer and you get a call of a domestic dispute, you’re not sure what’s going on, when you arrive at that situation and you determine that it is former or current intimate partner violence, this risk tool is something they could use. The more of these risk factors that are present, the higher likelihood there is that this person or suspect will potentially harm this victim or somebody else again. So it kind of changes how you might respond to this situation.

So, Angela looked at a series of domestic dispute cases and scored this instrument from the available police records and then tracked them over a four-year period to determine how well it predicted subsequent events. And it did its job. It was more reliable than chance, better than what most of us would do. We were able to then use that data to support our position to adopt this risk assessment instrument provincially. So every police agency in New Brunswick including RCMP and municipal officers are all trained now. So that’s kind of how the research can inform the practise.

Before this risk assessment tool was in place, what was the NBPF generally doing?

It depended on the organization; there were some organizations that were using a different risk tool, something different that relied a lot more heavily on their judgement, and not all officers were comfortable with that discretion, because it's harder to defend that in court. But with this risk tool, it's counted, a checklist, and a certain number has been identified as being relevant to a higher risk, moderate risk or low risk situation. So they liked it better. We've done a survey of the police officers in New Brunswick to ask them about their thoughts on risk assessment, and one of the reservations that came up with this other tool was that it was too subjective and they didn't feel comfortable relying on it. Other organizations were using checklists of things to think about, but it really wasn't necessarily designed by researchers or supported by evidence.

I would say the only exception was probably in Moncton where we have a domestic violence court that allows the officers working in that jurisdiction to be more knowledgeable. Other places were doing nothing different than they would for any other call that they had. So this creates some consistency across the province in terms of how any organization responds to domestic violence. It also creates an easier venue for sharing of information, if you have clients that move from one police jurisdiction to another, information can be more readily shared because we're all speaking the same language. There’s always room for discretion, because there's always something different about each case, but it certainly puts more structure on the decision making so things aren't missed.

You say this risk assessment tool came from Ontario. Had this been researched and followed in Ontario as well?

The Ontario Provincial Police have all adopted the use of the ODARA, and it's been used there at least since 2004. Nova Scotia also uses this instrument; they've adopted it province-wide as well. It's one of the tools that is specifically designed to be used by police officers and can be scored based on the information they normally would collect. It doesn't require advanced mental health skills or assessment skills; this is information you'd normally acquire as part of your process, maybe a couple extra questions. This is why it's novel for New Brunswick to adopt it in the sense of everybody getting on board, but it's certainly had some good evidence behind it to take us forward with the decision to use it. It still needs to have some more work done, which we're going to be looking at too, in terms of its relevance to specific sub-populations, such as female perpetrators of domestic violence, and minority groups and things like that, but it's still a step in the right direction.

What is the relevance of this research and this work in Saint John?

Well, I’d say I’m very lucky to be within a region that doesn't have a lot of people that do what I do, so there's a lot of openness from the community and the government partners to work with me on things. I've in particular developed excellent networking connections with the Saint John Police Force and the Department of Public Safety so that we have a very collaborative relationship. When knowledge is needed, we provide knowledge. When evidence is required, we provide some research to help inform the policy decision-making that needs to happen, so it's become a very synergetic kind of relationship. My students get to do excellent real world research while we also get to inform the practise of what the professionals are doing in the criminal justice field. This isn't something that would have been easy for me to do in other jurisdictions. I think that this region in particular is very open to innovation. That’s what happens when you're not a financially rich province, you have to find more efficient and effective ways to do things, and that creates great opportunities for research.

What do you think the role of innovation is in Saint John?

The role of innovation, I would say, is to move us forward. It's essential to helping us grow as a city, and as a community. As long as we continue to evolve, we will always exist. When we become stagnant, don't try to enhance things, don't try to improve things, then you get irrelevant very quickly, I think, in terms of drawing future generations to the Saint John area, in terms of enhancing the quality of services that we have available to the people that live here that use our services. These things are essential areas for growth and it's what keeps you moving forward, so innovation is essential, and it keeps you engaged and interested as well. Because there's always something new around the corner.

Do you have any advice to people who have seen a problem in the community and are thinking about solving it in a new way?

I encourage it, because often we keep going around in circles and having new perspectives and new points of view shakes you up and creates those opportunities that you haven’t realized are there. I think you have to connect with people that are in the areas that you want to facilitate the change in, because sometimes your ideas are not as new as you think they are and you want to make sure you understand what's been tried before, why it hasn't been successful, and what new spin you might have to present. It's always good to understand the history before you move forward with your innovation to make sure it is innovative because people want real solutions and opportunities and not a rehash of what's already been, that's when you'll lose interest. I think you make your connections; you're open to hearing the stories of what was, so you can make the space you need to figure out what can be.

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