Risk Factors for Children in Situations of Family Violence in the Context of Separation and Divorce

8. Summary

Children face many risks to their psychological and physical well-being in the context of family violence and separating parents. These risks must be well understood to inform the development of enhanced policy and practices in regards to risk assessment, management and collaboration amongst court-related professionals and community agencies such as child protection services.

Separation and divorce can be seen as an opportunity to end the violence and protect the children but only if the risks are properly assessed, adequate custody and access arrangements are made, and resources are provided to the family.  This report describes the prevalence and impact of family violence on children and identifies factors that increase a child’s risk of harm during parental separation and divorce. We also identify potential protective factors that should be considered when conducting risk assessments, risk management, and safety planning. Of particular note are risk assessment strategies for children in separating and divorced families experiencing violence as well as critical points of intervention during separation and divorce.

We propose a model to guide judges, lawyers and court-related professionals to consider when looking at potential harm to children based on their vulnerabilities as well as the risks that parents may present. Findings of risk can lead to court mandated interventions and safeguards in determining parental access to their children. This analysis requires consideration of barriers to required services such as language and cultural barriers as well as poverty.

Our review highlights the many factors that increase children’s risk of harm to their psychological and physical well-being (e.g., exposure to domestic violence; history of maltreatment; parental stress; social isolation of the family; inadequate resources and support)   in the context of family violence and separating parents. These risks must be well understood to inform the development of enhanced policy and practices in regards to risk assessment, management and collaboration amongst court-related professionals and community agencies. The implications of our findings are best understood as an approach that promotes safety for children across Canada living with violence and abuse in their home and dealing with parental separation. These strategies address some of the challenges in the field including a lack of awareness of the impact of family violence on children which requires enhanced professional education on child risk – especially on the impact of domestic violence and links between domestic violence and child abuse across all service sectors including the justice system and court-related services.

There are also challenges in developing guidelines to identify major child risk factors and red-flag cases within criminal justice, child protection and family law proceedings. There is often a lack of coordination across sectors and even within the justice system to address the risks that children face. Innovative practices are developing to triage family violence cases before the family court to prioritize child safety, interim parenting plans and community treatment or interventions. There are promising practices and models in the justice system such as an integrated domestic violence court which provides a higher level of judicial case management through a “one family – one court” approach to deal with all family and criminal court proceedings. Promising practices need to be better evaluated and expanded across Canada.

This literature review and consultation with experts across Canada suggest that a major challenge rests with competing ideas on appropriate risk assessment tools to assess child risk for psychological and physical harm including child homicide. The domestic violence and child abuse areas have unique histories that led to the development of different risk assessment tools that may fall short in assessing both child and adult risk of lethal violence. To address these issues, there is a need for more research on assessment strategies, promising case management strategies as well as information sharing and collaboration between criminal courts and family courts. There is a good foundation for progress in this field in our finding that there is a network of academic, community and government partners willing to move this agenda forward across Canada as reflected by our experts.  As an example, 30 academic, government, and community agencies partnered together to create the Canadian Domestic Homicide Prevention Initiative to ensure that updated information on domestic homicide, including children killed in the context of domestic violence, is shared on a national and international level.

The authors hope that the framework presented in this paper will stimulate enhanced training, research and practice across Canada to reduce child risk in the context of separation and family violence. Progress in this field will require a renewed commitment to pursue these challenges issues across disciplines and service providers.

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