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

1. The prevalence and impact of family violence during parental separation and divorce

1.1 Prevalence

Throughout the past decade family violence has increasingly been described as an epidemic impacting children and families worldwide (Perry, 2009). The Canadian Incidence Study of Reported Child Abuse and Neglect-2008: Major Findings (CIS-2008), a national study that estimates the extent of reported child abuse in Canada based on data from child welfare authorities, estimated that 235, 842 investigations of child maltreatment were conducted across Canada in 2008 with over a third of the cases being substantiated (Trocmé, 2011). The types of child maltreatment found amongst the substantiated cases included exposure to domestic violence (34%), neglect (34%), physical abuse (20%), emotional maltreatment (9%), and sexual abuse (3%). Multiple forms of maltreatment were substantiated in 18% of the cases (Ma et al., 2013).

In a small proportion of child maltreatment cases, the violence can escalate to the point of filicide (a parent killing their child). In Canada during 2010, 3.8 per one million children and youth were victims of homicide (Statistics Canada, 2012). In Canada, between 2000 and 2010, parents committed over 90% of all child homicides (Statistics Canada, 2011). Those at the highest risk for being killed by a family member were infants under the age of one, followed by those ages one to three (Statistics Canada, 2013). Infants under the age of one were most commonly killed as a result of Shaken Baby Syndrome (Statistics Canada, 2013). Beating, strangulation and suffocation were the most common methods used against children ages one to six. Youth ages 12 to17 were most likely killed as the result of a stabbing by a family member. Infants and young children are more often killed by mothers with mental health histories including post-partum depression whereas fathers kill children more often in the context of a history of domestic violence and retaliation against their partner for the separation (Bourget et al 2007).

It is generally agreed that the reported rates of family violence are an underestimate of the actual cases. This underestimate is the result of a number of factors including, underreporting, lack of recognition of abuse, nondisclosure from children, as well as the inconsistency of a concrete definition of child exposure to family violence (Jaffe, Wolfe, & Campbell, 2012).

1.2 Harm related to separation/divorce

Separation/divorce may either mitigate or aggravate the harm that children may face.  In some circumstances, the separation may lead to safety and support for the child with the protective parent. Research has shown that an end to the violence can lead to a reduction in emotional and behavioral problems exhibited by children (Jaffe, Wolfe & Wilson, 1990; Jaffe, Poisson, & Cunningham, 2001). In other circumstances, depending on the involvement of the court system and community agencies, the child may have to spend time with an abusive parent unsupervised.  A separation may trigger an extended period of conflict and litigation over custody and access as well as support and other financial concerns (Jaffe, Wolfe & Campbell, 2012).

Although most separation and divorce disputes settle without prolonged litigation, those parents engaged in high conflict litigation often present with ongoing violence and mental health problems (Johnston, Roseby & Kuehnle, 2009).  Children’s ongoing exposure to this conflict, and potentially new threats of violence, will exacerbate children’s adjustment problems (Jaffe et al, 2008).  The impact of child maltreatment may depend in part on the severity and frequency of the abuse that children face as well as whether a separation leads to more violence or opportunities to be safe and begin to heal. Research suggests that some children may experience multiple forms of abuse during the period of separation and exposure to ongoing domestic violence (Johnston, Roseby & Kuehnle, 2009). There may also be cases that appear to settle with less conflict because one parent is hesitant to disclose child abuse or domestic violence for fear of aggravating the perpetrator.

Children may also be killed in the context of domestic violence during the separation between parents.  Separation can be the most dangerous time for not only adult victims of domestic violence but also for children.  Separation increases the risk for domestic homicide (killing an intimate partner) as well as retaliating filicide (deliberate murder of a child to cause harm and suffering to the other parent) or familicide (killing multiple members of the family).  These cases of familicide may represent situations where the perpetrator is very controlling, but also very dependent on family members (Ewing, 1997). Some authors have suggested that the perpetrator may be overwhelmed by shame and a sense that they have not lived up to their gender role expectations as a husband and father (Websdale, 2010).

[If the] perpetrator feels that his domination of the family is threatened, often by family members’ threats to leave and/or report his abuse to others, he may resort to homicidal violence in a misguided effort to maintain his control and prevent a complete rupture of the family unit. (Websdale, 2010, p. 135)

1.3 Impacts of exposure to family violence on children

Exposure to family violence by itself can have many negative impacts on children and adolescents that could manifest themselves as emotional and behavioural problems throughout their lives.  Extensive reviews of this literature have highlighted the potential harm that children may experience growing up with domestic violence (Wolfe, Crooks, Lee, McIntyre & Jaffe, 2003; Jaffe, Wolfe & Campbell, 2012). Table 1 provides an overview of the potential consequences of harm, as a result of family violence, for each developmental stage.  For a more detailed description of the impacts, see Appendix B.

Overview of potential consequences of harm as a result of family violence

Infants, toddlers, and preschoolers (ages 0-3)
  • infant mortality, preterm birth, and low birth weight
  • adverse neonatal outcomes from mother’s abuse of substances in order to cope with violence
  • parent experiencing violence forms unhealthy attachment with child due to heightened state of stress/anxiety
  • behavioural issues
  • social difficulties including difficulty in regulating emotions
  • Post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms
  • difficulty with empathy and verbal abilities
  • excessive irritability, aggression, temper tantrums, sleep disturbances, and emotional distress
  • resist comfort
  • adverse psychosomatic effects
  • impact neurocognitive development
  • filicide
  • physical injuries
School-age children (ages 4–12)
  • develop anti-social rationales for abusive behaviour
  • self-blame
  • internalizing behaviours (e.g., humiliation, shame, guilt, mistrust, low self-esteem)
  • anxiety and fear
  • difficulty with social skills
  • difficulties with emotional regulation
  • negative peer relations
  • depression
  • bullying
  • academic abilities compromised
  • filicide
  • physical injuries
Adolescents (ages 13-19)
  • depression
  • suicidal ideation
  • anxiety
  • aggression
  • social withdrawal
  • unhealthy attachments leading to difficulties forming healthy intimate relationships
  • distorted views of intimate relationships
  • lack of trust
  • heightened risk for violent behaviours toward peers or intimate partners
  • substance use
  • anger issues
  • long-term emotional distress
  • filicide
  • physical injuries
  • difficulties with emotional regulation
Impact into adulthood
  • risk of perpetrating violence in own families
  • depression
  • anxiety
  • dissociation
  • PTSD
  • difficulties in emotional regulation
  • decrease in parenting quality
  • low educational achievement
  • chronic diseases (e.g., liver disease, sexually transmitted diseases)
  • sleep disorders
  • substance abuse
Date modified: