What You Don’t Know Can Hurt You: The importance of family violence screening tools for family law practitioners

Setting the Context

Defining Family Violence

No universally shared definition of FV exists. However, as the examples below illustrate, most definitions contain similar key elements: FV is behaviour within the family in which one family member abuses or neglects another or other member(s) of the family.

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 (Department of Justice, 2017).

Domestic and family violence occurs when someone tries to control their partner or other family members in ways that can intimidate or oppress them (Australian Government, Australian Law Reform Commission, 2011, p. 3).

Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer’s Report on the State of Public Health in Canada states:

Family violence is an important public health issue…. Some Canadian families are experiencing unhealthy conflict, abuse and violence that have the potential to affect their health. Known collectively as family violence, it takes many forms, ranges in severity and includes neglect as well as physical, sexual, emotional and financial abuse (Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer, 2016, p. 3).

The Government of Canada’s National Clearinghouse on Family Violence uses the term “family violence” broadly to encompass various forms of abuse:

… within a range of intimate relationships, including those between parent and child; caregiver and client; adult child and parent; siblings; and intimate partners in dating, marital or common law relationships … (Novac, 2006, p. 1)

to include physical assault, psychological or emotional abuse, sexualized abuse, neglect, deprivation and financial exploitation.

The term “family violence” is often adopted as a broader term to acknowledge the range of people who may experience violence, including children (Murray & Powell, 2009). However, gender neutral language like “family violence” is contested because it does not acknowledge that women (and their children) are the primary victims of these forms of violence (Murray & Powell, 2009). Feminist constructions of family and domestic violence emphasize the role of gender and power in abusive relationships (Berns, 2001; Htun & Weldon, 2012).

The United Nations brings this gendered analysis to its FV definition, focusing on men as perpetrators of violence against girls and women and recognizing that:

… violence against women is one of the crucial social mechanisms by which women are forced into a subordinate position compared with men (United Nations Children’s Fund, 2001, p. 2).

This perspective is evident in a number of United Nations’ publications (see Handbook for Legislation on Violence against Women, United Nations, 2010; and Domestic Violence Against Women and Girls, United Nations Children’s Fund, 2001).

Terms such as intimate partner abuse, elder abuse, child abuse or woman abuse are often used as a more specific reference to the kind of relationship between the abuser and the victim of the abuse.

As our understanding of gender and what constitutes a family-like relationship evolves, so does our understanding of what the term “family violence” encapsulates. For example, Statistics Canada (2012), in its publication, Family Violence in Canada: A Statistical Profile 2010, for the first time included violence in dating relationships as part of the profile. In the past, this publication had only considered abuse involving spouses (married, common-law, separated and divorced), children and youth under 18, and those aged 65 or older (Statistics Canada, 2012).

This research into FVSTs focuses on intimate partner to intimate partner abuse. Abuse is serious in any form and in every relationship; however, when FLPs are screening adult clients in the context of initial consultations, partner abuse will most often be the focus of the screening. This is because of a recognition that intimate partner violence can continue, and even escalate, after a couple’s intimate relationship has dissolved (Laing, 2017).

Even in this context, a FLP may become aware of other forms of abuse (particularly child abuse) as a result of the screening process or because of comments made by the client or due to legal issues that arise (e.g., child protection involvement). At such a point, or if the practitioner has been retained to represent a child, it may be necessary to turn to tools designed specifically to screen for child abuse. An examination of such tools goes beyond the scope of this research.Footnote 1