Tag Archives: dangerousness

Adding a counselor’s voice to law enforcement work

By Bethany Bray March 17, 2016

For Gregory Moffatt, counseling and crime solving go hand in hand.

Moffatt, a licensed professional counselor (LPC), runs a private practice in which he specializes in working with children who have experienced physical or sexual abuse. He is also a professor of counseling at Point University in West Point, Georgia.

The other half of his career, however, is a little more unconventional. He’s a risk assessment and psychological consultant for businesses, schools and law enforcement agencies. Moffatt has done everything from assisting with hostage situations and unsolved cold case investigations to teaching at the FBI National Academy in Quantico, Virginia. In addition to providing training and consultation, he evaluates police officers who have been involved in a duty-related shooting to determine if they’re ready to return to active work on the force.

He’s also filming on-camera commentary as a psychological consultant for a new cable television show on hostage situations. The program, titled “Deadly Demands,” premiers March 21 on Investigation Discovery, a network of the Discovery Channel.

After years of working with corporations and law enforcement agencies, Moffatt is often the person they call to evaluate unusual situations, such as when an employee is making co-workers uneasy or

Gregory Moffatt, LPC and professor of counseling at Point University in West Point, Georgia

Gregory Moffatt, LPC and professor of counseling at Point University

a case arises that doesn’t fit the norm. It’s not a niche that he initially set out to carve for himself, but rather one that he entered “through the back door,” he says.

When Moffatt first started teaching at Point University more than three decades ago, he was the only professional counselor on campus. One day, the university’s administration approached him and asked for his help with a situation involving a student who was stalking another student.

“Stalking laws weren’t in place. Back then, even the term [stalking] wasn’t an everyday term,” says Moffatt, an American Counseling Association member. “Back then, hardly anyone did work in violence risk assessment.”

As he got involved in the case, Moffatt started researching risk assessment methods, which grew into a personal area of interest. He eventually established his own consulting business, through which he provides workplace violence assessment and training. The FBI contacted him to provide training at its academy in Quantico after he published an article in an academic journal on violence risk and assessment.

Law enforcement agencies are good at lots of things, but threat assessment isn’t always one of them, Moffatt says. That’s where his skills as a professional counselor can help fill in the “why” of a situation, he says.

Moffatt uses his counselor training to look at a specific situation’s “collection of evidence,” he says. For instance, how does the person tell his or her story? What indicators can be found in the language the person uses? What does his or her past behavior indicate? What coping skills does the person have?

“My job is to tell them [a company or law enforcement], ‘This is what I think; this is what you’re looking for,’” Moffatt says. “The question for us, in mental health, when someone’s sitting in our office is, ‘Is this person a risk?’ Sometimes the answer is yes. … How many coping skills does he [the client] have in his toolbox? If it’s a pretty empty toolbox, then I’m worried.”

For example, Moffatt was contacted by local law enforcement to evaluate the threat level of some letters a judge was receiving in the mail. Officials suspected the letters were being written by a man who had come through the judge’s courtroom for a minor infraction, he says.

Moffatt looked at the man’s behavior history (he had brandished a firearm in the past but never fired at anyone) and the language used in the letters. His counselor training helped him pick up clues — for example, symptoms of delusion and other things that would make a person unpredictable — to determine that the man was a “big talker,” but that the letters were most likely a way of “puffing out his chest” rather than an actual threat.

“I thought there was a very low possibility that he would shoot this judge. Years later, nothing has come of it,” Moffatt says.

Today, he works regularly with the Atlanta Police Department’s cold case squad and writes a regular column on children’s and family issues for The Citizen, a newspaper distributed in Fayette County, Georgia.

Moffatt says he is drawn to the sometimes gritty specialty of crime and violence assessment because he likes being part of the solution and helping to bring some closure to the victims of crimes.

“The world is not made up [solely] of bad guys and good guys,” he says. “If you go to any prison in the country, you will find a small percentage [of the inmates who] are horrible and need to stay locked up for the rest of their lives. The rest are human beings who have made a mistake. The hardest part about our job [as counselors] is to have compassion. We can take people, in any condition, and help them become more functional.”

 

Q+A: Gregory Moffatt

 

You encourage all counselors to learn more about risk assessment, whether through reading, professional development, trainings, etc. Why do you feel this particular topic is important for counselors to know?

Risk assessment is necessary in any clinical context. Violence happens in homes, schools, workplaces, on the bus, on the street and in the synagogue/cathedral. Assessing for violent behavior against others is just as important as assessing for suicide risk, [which is] something we do regularly. You don’t have to specialize in workplace violence or school violence for this to be part of your assessment toolbox.

 

Do law enforcement professionals often think of or turn to psychologists first when looking for help with mental health expertise? From your perspective, what can a professional counselor offer in this area that is different than other helping professions?

Actually, I don’t think most law enforcement people know the difference. Even when they do, they often have limited or no budgets for outside consultation. Professional counselors are cheaper than psychologists, typically. Counselors are just as competent to offer fitness for duty interventions/assessments, post-shooting intervention, violence intervention/anger management and other common needs in law enforcement as any psychologist — assuming, as always, that one is trained to deal with that population. This training is readily available to LPCs.

 

What suggestions would you give to counselors looking to help or make a connection with their local law enforcement or violence prevention agencies?

Law enforcement agencies are notoriously fraternal, and even agency to agency there is little cooperation. A given agency believes it is better than any other agency, and going outside law enforcement is seen as a negative. However, developing relationships and bringing skills to the table — especially if it is cost-effective — is the way in the door over time.

 

What are some of the main takeaways that you’ve gleaned from your work with law enforcement and risk assessment that you want professional counselors to know?

Behavioral/mental health issues are present in all corners of life. Finding a way to apply your interests in mental health in specific climates — e.g., schools, law enforcement, court — is what makes one’s career fascinating and rewarding. I look back on 30 years of work — opening doors, looking for opportunities and taking those opportunities — and I couldn’t be happier. I’ve helped hundreds of children, written hundreds of articles and numerous books, spoken to thousands of audiences and helped put many bad guys in jail — hence, making the world safer and people happier. Who could ask for more?

 

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Read more about Gregory Moffat’s work and find a list of suggested resources on trauma, violence, parenting and other topics at his website, gregmoffatt.com

 

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Bethany Bray is a staff writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at bbray@counseling.org

 

Follow Counseling Today on Twitter @ACA_CTonline and on Facebook at facebook.com/CounselingToday.

Behind the Book: Harm to Others: The Assessment and Treatment of Dangerousness

By Bethany Bray June 9, 2015

The most effective solution to rampage violence, such as school or workplace shootings, is early, easy and frequent access to care for potential perpetrators, says Brian Van Brunt, author of Harm to Others: The Assessment and Treatment of Dangerousness.

Counselors play an integral part in this care, through identifying individuals who are at-risk and Depositphotos_31165405_sproviding treatment to move those individuals off the pathway of violence. These two skill sets – assessment and treatment of dangerousness – are essential, yet often lacking in counselor training and education programs, Van Brunt says.

In order to accurately identify individuals who pose a threat, counselors must work against the assumption that mental illness is often coupled with dangerousness or violence.

“Clinical staff typically are asked to assess individuals with mental health disorders who pose a potential for risk to others,” Van Brunt writes in the book introduction. “… ‘Harm to others,’ in other words, is focused more on mental health motivating causes that drive individuals to violence. However, the problem lately has been that many of the individuals being dropped off at the counselor’s office (particularly in K-12 and higher education settings) are making threats or posing a threat to others but have no indication of mental health problems … Although mental illness may be an important contributing factor in any of these [clients], the core of any assessment must be based on threat assessment principals, not clinical pathology.”

Van Brunt, the senior vice president of the National Center for Higher Education Risk Management Group, has a doctoral degree in counseling supervision and education. He is past president of the American College Counseling Association (ACCA), a division of the American Counseling Association.

 

Counseling Today caught up with Van Brunt to talk about his book, Harm to Others, and the importance of the assessment and treatment of dangerousness.

 

What do you hope counselors take away from the book about this topic?

I think there is a dearth of training in our field when looking at the assessment and treatment of those who represent a harm to others. Many graduate and doctoral programs teach suicide assessment and risk assessment, but few focus on the assessment of dangerousness in a way that is based on workplace violence literature. Simply stated, we are well prepared to assess a psychotic patient who is hallucinating and make a determination around commitment or hospitalization, but not prepared very well to assess the high school student who threatens to “go all Columbine” if they don’t have a grade on their final paper changed from a D to a C.

My book provides counselors clear and practical guidance on the fundamentals of how to conduct a violence risk assessment. Harm to Others closes the knowledge gap for new and seasoned clinicians being asked to conduct these kinds of assessments and work with challenging, hostile and difficult patients.

 

In your opinion, what makes professional counselors a “good fit” for violence assessment and training? What unique skills do they bring to the table?

I’d suggest a willingness to learn about how to do this important work in a research-supported manner. In my experience, an enthusiasm to learn more about violence and risk assessments is much more critical than an advanced academic degree. Many in the threat assessment community come from law enforcement or counseling backgrounds and have learned how to complete risk and threat assessments through on-the-job training, individual scholarship through workplace violence books and articles, and training through organizations such as the Association of Threat Assessment Professionals (ATAP) and the National Behavioral Intervention Team Association (NaBITA). But the underlying connection for a “good fit” tends to be a willingness to devote the time and energy to this scholarship.

This can create a bit of a challenge since there is no current licensure or certification standard when it comes to violence risk or threat assessment, so there is no objective standard of what makes a good threat assessment that exists in the law enforcement or psychology field at this time. As with clinical licensure and certification, a focus on research-informed practice, adherence to ethical standards found in both psychology and law enforcement, individual supervision and hands-on experience would be the four pillars I would suggest when preparing to do this kind of work.

I would also suggest the ability to build rapport and lower an individual’s defenses is critical in this work. Forming an attachment with the person who is being assessed is key to obtaining accurate data in order to build a valid risk or threat assessment. Crisis and emergency clinicians, those who work with personality disorders in their client caseload, family therapist and those who assess and treat teenagers often have skills in developing rapport and connection in difficult and adverse conditions.

 

 

What are some misconceptions you feel counselors have about dangerousness in clients?

I think one of the biggest problems that leads to misconceptions is an over-reliance on mental health diagnosis when it comes to assessing or treating dangerousness. There is an assumption that mental health problems such as depression, autism spectrum disorders (ASDs), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or anxiety leads to dangerousness or violence. This is one of the reasons I stress a solid overview and study in the field of threat and violence risk assessment. This is a problem beyond mental health concerns. And this distinction is often a difficult one for the public or untrained clinician to always appreciate. For example, the diagnosis of depression isn’t a central risk factor for targeted violence; instead we look at hopelessness and desperation. The diagnosis of ASD isn’t the concern; it’s the potential accompanying social isolation that prevents the assessment of the escalating threat.

There is also the distinction between ‘being a threat’ and ‘making a threat.’ This is often a source of difficulty for those new to this work. While direct threats are always cause for concern, the follow up assessment of the lethality of this threat becomes paramount. While all of us understand we would be concerned with someone at work who tells his supervisor “I’m going to come into work tomorrow with a katana sword and go all Kill Bill (the Quentin Tarantino films about an assassin) on you,” the real assessment here comes in understanding issues of weapons access, action and time imperative, fixation and focus on target and similar risk factors. I reference many of these factors in Harm to Others and refer frequently to the giants in the field such as Reid Meloy; Stephen Hart; Mary Ellen O’Toole; Michael Gelles and James Turner; and Frederick Calhoun and Stephen Weston to help counselors develop a deeper understanding of the questions they should be asking when assessing or treating a potentially violent client.

 

 

Do you feel today’s counselors are coming out of graduate school with adequate training/knowledge of violence assessment and treatment?

Unfortunately, the answer is no.

There are a number of excellent programs out there such as George Mason University’s forensic program chaired by Mary Ellen O’Toole and Alliant International University’s program under Eric Hickey in California, but assessing and treating potential dangerousness in clients is an issue that hasn’t yet been included in most psychology graduate programs. There certainly is a focus on crisis counseling, assessing suicidality, conducting mental health assessments and assessing and treating violence in higher risk clients with bi-polar, substance abuse, or psychotic disorders, but none of this really gets to the underlying core of work on violence and risk assessment that exists in the professional literature on workplace violence.

 

What would you want all counselor practitioners — marriage counselors, addictions counselors, mental health counselors, etc. — to know about violence assessment and treatment?

Well, first, I would suggest an understanding that these are two different skill sets. Assessing a potential threat is different than on-going therapy and treatment with a potentially violent or dangerous client.

Second, I would want all licensed clinicians to at least have a basic understanding of the risk factors related to targeted or rampage violence. If I was in a room of counselors and I asked what the risk factors were for suicide, I would quickly get a response. They would tell me being a male, age 18 to 22 years old. They would talk about lethality, access to means, prior attempts, situational stressors and having a plan. Suicide risk factors are well taught and well understood not only by clinicians; even the lay public has a foundational knowledge of what to look for if they were concerned about a potential friend or colleague who might be suicidal.

When it comes to risk factors that indicate a potential for harm to others, I think most clinicians draw a blank. They may guess at social isolation or wearing all black. They may suggest an anti-social tendency or disenfranchisement. They may talk about being on medication or playing violent video games. But few clinicians have a good understanding of what risk factors are supported by literature to better understand the risk of rampage or targeted violence. In Harm to Others, I provide several lists of these risk factors with practical examples of how to assess and mitigate these items to help prevent future violence.

While we do not excel at predicting violence; this remains a holy grail for the violence risk and threat assessment field. While we will never develop an accurate model of violence predication, we can certainly identify risk factors and prevent violence. Think of the risk factors of a heart attack. We understand these well: lack of exercise, being obese, hereditary factors, poor diet, and smoking. Each of these risk factors are targeted by public health prevention and education programs to reduce the risk of a heart attack. Yet, we can’t predict a heart attack. This is how we should think about identifying the risk factors for rampage or targeted violence. Our goal becomes prevention and intervention, rather than predication.

 

In the book introduction, you write, “The most effective solution to rampage violence is early, easy and frequent access to care for potential perpetrators.” In your opinion, how can counselors play a role in this access to care?

Quite frankly, we need to become that care. The reality is those who most need to be in counseling to change the path to violence they are on are the least likely to show up and remain connected to care.

It reminds me of the streetlight effect — the old story about the drunk man looking for his keys. It goes like this: A policeman sees a drunk man searching for something under a streetlight and asks what the drunk has lost. He says he lost his keys and they both look under the streetlight together. After a few minutes the policeman asks if he is sure he lost them here, and the drunk replies, no, and that he lost them in the park. The policeman asks why he is searching here, and the drunk replies, “this is where the light is.”

Most of us spend our time providing therapy with those clients who voluntarily come in for treatment, but those in real need, those who have lost hope and find their only solace by sitting alone andSecurity business man avoid danger risk planning these kind of horrific attacks, are not connected to care. Our mental health system fails them under the guise of individual rights. We do not have an adequate step between voluntary outpatient care and involuntary inpatient commitments.

We need a mental health system in the United States that functions more like our child protective service system. When a child is found at risk, an investigation occurs and a caseworker is assigned. The case remains open until the risk is mitigated. We don’t have a system like that for violence risk to others. Too many times we end up shaking our heads saying things like “Well, we all are concerned, but there is nothing we can do until the person breaks the law or threatens someone.” We say, “They need to be in counseling, but they aren’t an acute danger to themselves or others, so we can’t mandate or force the issues.” We need to address this gap. Without the ability to require care once the risk factors are identified, there is little hope to reduce targeted violence.

And of course, this raises the specter of Big Brother. The recent National Security Agency (NSA) scandal doesn’t help matters much either. Yet, we are willing to take away individual rights of parents when a child is at risk. I struggle with why we don’t have a similar mechanism in place when there is an individual who has many of the risk factors, yet hasn’t broken any laws or doesn’t meet commitment criteria. We need to address this Goldilocks problem when the porridge is neither too hot nor too cold. How do we attend to the student everyone is concerned about, but hasn’t yet broken the law or school conduct code?

 

 

What advice would you give to a counselor who wants to work on/improve their violence assessment and treatment skills? What resources would you point them toward?

There are three trainings that I would recommend for a counselor looking to improve their skills in violence risk assessment.

  • The Association of Threat Assessment Professionals was the place I started my journey in the area of threat assessment. They offer an amazing conference each August in Anaheim, California.
  • My organization, NaBITA also offers detailed training in violence risk and threat assessment and we hold our conference annually; this fall it is in San Antonio.
  • Stephen Hart also offers a wonderful set of trainings and workshops on the topic of Structured Professional Judgment (SPJ) through the company Proactive Resolutions.

If attending a conference or training is outside of your budget, I would suggest the following three books that have been very useful in my personal training and experience in violence risk and threat assessment.

  • The first is Reid Meloy and Jens Hoffmann’s International Handbook of Threat Assessment (2013). This collection of articles provides the reader with a sound overview of the current state of the field.
  • The second book is by Michael Gelles and James Turner: Threat Assessment: A Risk Management Approach (2003). This book is a very accessible starting place for those interested in the process of threat assessment.
  • The final book would be Mary Ellen O’Toole’s book Dangerous Instincts (2012). This text offers uncanny insight into the world of identifying and assessing threat.

 

What inspired you to write this book?

I’ve written several other books that circled this topic. Ending Campus Violence: Prevention Strategies and New Approaches to Prevention (2012) was written to a college and university administration and student affairs audience. A Faculty Guide to Disruptive and Dangerous Behavior in the Classroom (2013) was written to faculty who wanted better guidance on managing classroom behavior and identifying dangerous students.

This book, Harm to Others came from frequent requests (I’ve received) at trainings from counselors and psychologists around the country who are being asked to conduct violence risk assessments on their clients. This book provides them with a practical guide full of examples and additional resources to better assess and work with dangerous individuals.

 

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About the author

 

Brian Van Brunt is president of the National Behavioral Intervention Team Association and senior vice president of the Pennsylvania-based National Center for Higher Education Risk Management (NCHERM) Group, a law and consulting firm that addresses risk management issues in educational settings. An author of several books, he is a frequent speaker and trainer on issues of threat assessment, mental health and crisis management across the globe.

Van Brunt has a doctoral degree in counseling supervision and education from the University of Sarasota/Argosy and a master’s degree in counseling and psychological services from Salem State University in Massachusetts.

 

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Branding-Box_Van-BruntHarm to Others: The Assessment of Treatment of Dangerousness is available from the American Counseling Association bookstore at counseling.org/publications/bookstore or by calling 800-422-2648 x 222

 

 

 

 

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For more information

Brian Van Brunt was also interviewed for a recent American Counseling Association podcast, titled “Harm to others.” Listen to the hour-long podcast here: counseling.org/knowledge-center/podcasts/docs/default-source/aca-podcasts/ht052—harm-to-others

 

 

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Bethany Bray is a staff writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at bbray@counseling.org

 

Follow Counseling Today on Twitter @ACA_CTonline and on Facebook: facebook.com/CounselingToday