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

Dynamics of Family Violence

Not all FV looks the same. Joan B. Kelly and Michael P. Johnson’s (2008) work explores various typologies of intimate partner abuse, ranging from what they call “situational couple violence,” where one or both partners engage in negative behaviour towards the other, but there is no fear of either by the other, to “coercive controlling violence,” where the abusive behaviour is perpetrated consistently by one partner against the other to such an extent that the victim partner lives in fear of the abusive partner, who holds most or all of the power and control in the relationship. Relationships of coercive controlling violence require the strongest legal interventions, both family and criminal.

Kelly and Johnson’s (2008) research shows that some typologies, including situational couple violence, have no particular gender dynamic, with both women and men engaging in this kind of behaviour. However, the coercive controlling typology, which is the one most likely to lead to serious physical injury, death and long-term psychological harm in heterosexual relationships is overwhelming perpetrated by men against women (Kelly & Johnson, 2008).

These findings are supported by the 2016 report of Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer:

In 2014, 131 Canadians died at the hand of a family member and there were 133,920 reported victims of dating or family violence, with the majority of victims being women.... Women are more likely than men to be killed by an intimate partner and more likely to experience sexual abuse, more severe and chronic forms of intimate partner violence (Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer, 2016, p. 16).

This research report reflects the gendered reality of FV, particularly the most serious forms of coercive controlling violence and murder.  Throughout this report we will use the word “woman” or “she/her” to refer to the person who is being subjected to abuse and the words “man” or “he/him/his” to refer to the person who is causing the abuse.  We acknowledge that men can be survivors of abuse perpetrated by their female partners and that FV occurs in both lesbian and gay male relationships as well (Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer, 2016).  If screening tools are to be used universally, they must be designed to work with people (women, men and those who situate themselves elsewhere on the gender identity continuum) in a variety of intimate partnerships and the language used should reflect this diversity.

It is important for FLPs to understand the different typologies of abuse and to know what typology/ies of abuse their client is dealing with so that they can identify appropriate legal remedies and processes that are suited to their client’s situation (Carey, 2011). Likewise, the tactics of abuse can vary from one relationship to another. Common tactics include: physical, sexual, emotional/psychological, social, verbal and financial abuse; but an abuser may also use the partner’s religion, race, ethnicity, age or other characteristics specific to her to intimidate and control her. Most abusers use multiple tactics over time and some of the most serious abuse -- with the longest-lasting effects on the survivor -- is not physical but psychological (Johnson & Dawson, 2011).

The power and control wheel (below), developed by the Duluth Abuse Intervention Program (Pence & Paymar, 2003), provides a helpful visual description of the various tactics of abuse (Domestic Abuse Intervention Programs, n.d).

Power and Control Wheel, © Domestic Abuse Intervention ProgramsFootnote 2

Image described below
Text version – Power and Control Wheel

The image is that of a wagon wheel circle. The words on the top part of the wheel say: Physical VIOLENCE Sexual. The words on the bottom part of the wheel repeat the words: Physical VIOLENCE Sexual
In the centre, it says: Power and Control.

There are 8 wedges, each one is described below.

  • Using Intimidation: Making her afraid by using looks, actions, gestures, smashing things, destroying her property, abusing pets, displaying weapons
  • Using Emotional Abuse: putting her down, making her feel bad about herself, calling her names, making her think that she is crazy, playing mind games, humiliating her, making her feel guilty
  • Using Isolation: Controlling what she does, who she sees and talks to, what she reads, where she goes, limiting her outside involvement, using jealousy to justify actions
  • Minimizing, denying and blaming: Making light of the abuse and not taking her concerns about it seriously, saying the abuse didn’t happen, shifting responsibility for abusive behaviour, saying she caused it
  • Using children: making her feel guilty about the children, using the children to relay messages, using visitation to harass her, threatening to take the children away
  • Using male privilege: treating her like a servant, making all the big decisions, acting like the ‘master of the castle’, being the one to define men’s and women’s roles
  • Using economic abuse: preventing her from getting or keeping a job, making her ask for money, giving her an allowance, taking her money, not letting her know about or have access to family income
  • Using coercion and threats: making and/or carrying out threats to do something to hurt her, threatening to leave her, to commit suicide, to report her to welfare, making her drop charges, making her do illegal things

Anyone working with FV survivors, including FLPs, also needs to understand the reality of post-separation abuse (Ornstein & Rickne, 2013). This is important because not only does abuse not end at the point of separation; it often escalates (Zeoli, Rivera, Sullivan & Kubiak, 2013).

The 2016 Annual Report of Ontario’s Domestic Violence Death Review Committee identifies, as it has in each previous report since 2003, actual or pending separation as the second highest risk factor for lethality, following closely behind the primary risk factor: a past history of domestic abuse (73%). Sixty-seven percent of the cases reviewed for the 2016 report involved a pending or recent separation (Office of the Chief Coroner Province of Ontario, 2017).

Post-separation abuse involves much more than risk of lethal harm, as the Duluth Abuse Intervention Program Post Separation Power and Control Wheel (below) illustrates (Domestic Abuse Intervention Programs, n.d).

Post Separation Power and Control Wheel

Image described below

Text version – Post Separation Power and Control Wheel

An image of a wagon wheel. The outside ring has the following statement twice: Prior physical and sexual violence, coercive and controlling behaviour against mother and child(ren)

The inner ring has the following statement twice: unrelenting focus on her

The centre of the wagon wheel says: post-separation power and control

There are 8 wedges, each one is described below:

  • Using Harassment & Intimidation: destroying things belonging to or related to her or the children, using children to justify breaking no-contact orders, threatening and stalking her, the children, making his presence known while staying conspicuously outside protection-order boundaries, abusing animals, using third parties to harass, threaten, coerce her
  • Undermining her ability to parent: disrupting children’s sleep, feeding patterns, withholding information about children’s social, emotional, physical needs, contradicting her rules for children, demanding visitation schedules at children’s expense
  • Discrediting her as a mother: using her social status against her – sexual identity, immigration, race, religion, education, income – inundating systems with false accusations of bad parenting, cheating, using drugs, being ‘crazy’, exploiting ‘children need a father’ to gain sympathy, isolating her from family, friends, practitioners, and other supporters
  • Withholding financial support: withholding child support, insurance, medical, basic-expense payments, using court action to take her money, resources, interfering with her ability to work, blocking access to money after separation
  • Endangering children: neglecting them when they’re with him, putting them in age-inappropriate emotional, physical situations, using violence in front of children
  • Disregarding children: ignoring school schedules, homework, ridiculing their needs, wants, fears, identities, forcing family members, new girlfriends or wives, other women to do his parenting work, treating them as younger or older than they are, enforcing strict gender roles
  • Disrupting her relationships with children: coercing them to ally with him, degrading her to them, using children as spies, isolating children from her, her from children
  • Using physical and sexual violence against mother and children: threatening to kill or kidnap the children, physically hurting her, abusing children physically, sexually, emotionally, threatening suicide, forcing sex as a condition for keeping the children safe or allowing her to see them, exposing children to pornography

Most abusers seek ways to reassert their power and control after their partner leaves them (Brownridge, 2006). Some believe they need to punish the woman for leaving. Others hope, on some level, that making life difficult for their former partner may drive her back to the relationship. The ex-partner’s motivation(s) will shape the kind(s) of abuse he engages in. For instance, an abuser who wants to reassert power and control is likely to engage in coercive behaviours. An abuser who wants to punish his former partner may be physically abusive. One who seeks to have his partner return may use financial abuse.

Further, specific tactics may change. Because the abuser no longer has access to his partner in the privacy of the home, he may not be able to engage in physical abuse as frequently as before. Instead, stalking and criminal harassment increase and threats become more common. The abuser may focus on the woman’s workplace -- somewhere he knows he can find her (Showalter, 2016). He may begin to focus on the children and emotionally manipulate them to take his side (Fotheringham, Dunbar & Hensley, 2013; Zeoli, et al., 2013).

As noted in the work of the Interdisciplinary Research Centre on Family Violence and Violence Against Women at Universite Laval, abuse after separation can have a serious impact -- physical, psychological and financial -- on both the woman and her children (Dubé et al., 2008).

Battered Women’s Support Services of Vancouver has explored the relationship between post-separation abuse and family court proceedings, noting a number of tactics an abuser might use to maintain his power and control over his former partner (Law, 2014).

Common legal bullying tactics include:

  1. Refusing to file court documents, filing documents late and filing incomplete or inaccurate documents, particularly with respect to financial information
  2. Self-representing when not necessary
  3. Bringing vexatious motions
  4. Refusing to follow court orders
  5. Delaying proceedings by seeking repeated adjournments or changing lawyers repeatedly
  6. Refusing to negotiate
  7. Drawing the children into the family law case
  8. Threatening and/or physically assaulting the woman during the family court process

(Abshoff & Lanthier, 2008; Bemiller, 2008; Coy, Scott, Tweedale, Perks, 2015; Martinson & Jackson, 2017).