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

Executive Summary

Children being exposed to family violence is a serious problem in Canada. Children may be at an increased risk of experiencing family violence during and post parental separation and divorce. This report addresses the risk factors that children face in the context of family violence and separating or divorcing parents. It is intended to help inform the development of enhanced policies and practices in the family law area in regards to risk assessment, risk management and collaboration amongst court-related professionals and community agencies such as child protection services. There is no doubt that children are at risk in situations of family violence for both psychological and physical harm including child homicide.

Separation and divorce may be a critical point in the discovery of child abuse and domestic violence. There may be an opportunity for a protective parent to make disclosures to professionals in the court system or various helping agencies for support. Separation may lead to assessments and interventions within the court system that screen for child abuse and domestic violence. On the other hand, separation may lead to an escalation of violence and the risk of abuse may continue if proper assessments and interventions are not put in place. A critical factor for abuse victims and their children is access to resources that ensure risk management and protection. Greater protection for parents who are victims of violence also means greater protection for their children.

This report provides a summary of the rapidly expanding literature in the field of family violence, with specific attention to factors that increase the risk of harm to children during the critical time of parental separation. The report also summarizes promising policies and practices for intervention and prevention as identified by Canadian experts and current research reports. This is a field that is exploding in discussion papers and research publications across Canada and around the world. The authors gathered feedback from a cross section of leaders from multiple disciplines working in the area of family violence. We sought their views on potential risk factors for children experiencing family violence during the time of parental separation or divorce that may not be clearly identified in the current literature. These leading experts were identified from the child maltreatment and domestic violence sectors and were asked to complete a brief interview/questionnaire regarding their views of the nature of risk factors, risk assessment tools and risk management strategies.

In this report, the term family violence includes child abuse and domestic violence. The general definition adopted is consistent with the Department of Justice website - "family violence is considered to be any form of abuse, mistreatment or neglect that a child or adult experiences from a family member, or from someone with whom they have an intimate relationship". The term "domestic violence" is used throughout this document and is defined as "a pattern of behaviour used by one person to gain power and control over another person with whom s/he has or has had an intimate relationship. This pattern of behaviour may include physical violence, sexual, emotional, and psychological intimidation, verbal abuse, stalking, and using electronic devices to harass and control".

The authors acknowledge that domestic violence victims may be women or men, but utilize a gendered analysis since women are disproportionately more likely to live in fear of their partners as well as suffer injuries and death than male victims. Statistics Canada (2013) indicated that in 2011, 69% of victims who reported family violence to the police were women or girls and 80% of victims who reported spousal violence were women. Additionally, Statistics Canada (2011a) has shown that women are about three times more likely to report more serious forms of domestic violence (e.g., to be sexually assaulted, strangled, threatened with a weapon) and are about three to four times more likely to be killed by a spouse.

The definition of "child abuse" includes several broad types of abuse such as physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional maltreatment and neglect/failure to provide for the child. Although exposure to domestic violence is a form of child maltreatment/abuse, we make separate reference throughout the report to literature dealing specifically with exposure to domestic violence.

Disclosures of abuse usually lead to investigations by child protection agencies and police services as well as family and criminal courts proceedings in relation to allegations of abuse. In the context of separation, the court and court-related professionals may operate with some skepticism about abuse allegations out of a concern for balancing child safety with protecting the accused parent from potential alienation and ensuring an ongoing relationship with the child(ren). In the words of the Chief Justice of Canada, Beverley McLachlin, what is needed is an "informed impartiality", which requires an ability to be introspective, open and empathetic; and an appreciation of the social context within which the matters at issue arose. This "informed impartiality" is especially needed in child abuse and domestic violence cases (Martinson & Jackson, 2012).

The systems that respond to family violence often have competing interests and mandates which may increase the risks that children or adult victims face. This problem is especially true of court systems. The issues are complex and multiple professionals and agencies may become involved in the assessment of child abuse and domestic violence. This report addresses many of these challenges.

Separation and divorce can be seen as an opportunity to end the violence and protect 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. One overarching theme within assessment and intervention strategies identified in this report is that greater protection for adult victims of violence means greater protection for the children. We propose a framework with which decisions can be made to match child risk during or post parental separation with various court and community interventions and safeguards. This framework includes the consideration of barriers to required services such as language, 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 can inform 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 including multiple and isolated court proceedings leading to inconsistent results. 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. New research is indicating that when an adult victim is assessed to be at high-risk for experiencing future violence, the children should also be considered at risk and safety plans and risk management strategies should not only focus on protecting the adult victim but also on protecting the children. 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.

Our literature review and discussions 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 particularly in the context of family 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 the country as reflected in our interviews with leading Canadian experts in the field.