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

The Role of Trauma

Judith Herman introduced the concept of ongoing trauma in situations of violence against women in her groundbreaking 1992 book, Trauma and Recovery: the aftermath of violence from domestic abuse to political terror (Herman, 1992). In the 25 years since, her work has been further developed and expanded upon by other researchers and by practitioners (Moulding, 2016; Wilson, Fauci, Goodman, Mcleigh, & Spaulding, 2015). Of particular note in Canada is the work of Dr. Lori Haskell, who is a clinical psychologist in private practice as well as an associate professor in the psychiatry department at the University of Toronto (see Haskell & Randall, 2009).

Many FV survivors experience ongoing trauma, which can have a significant impact on their ability to engage effectively with their family law case (Bemiller, 2008). They may be reluctant to share the fact of their past abuse, unable to concentrate, struggle to understand and retain legal information and concepts, and find it challenging to make decisions about important matters such as custody and financial issues. It is not uncommon for someone dealing with trauma to either under- or over-identify risk of harm. High levels of emotion can also present challenges for a family court litigant. Ongoing trauma can interfere with the person’s ability to engage in effective negotiation, as is required when alternative dispute resolution processes, such as mediation, are used. This does not mean that these processes should not be used, just that attention needs to be paid to the impact of trauma.

As more is learned about trauma in cases of violence against women, many professionals have developed what has come to be called a “trauma-informed approach” to their practice (Learning Network, n.d.) Adopting Trauma-Informed Care (TIC) in the family violence context has involved reframing many essential practices engaged in by organizations/individuals working within the domestic violence sphere (e.g., empowerment, peer support) within a trauma-informed framework. It has also meant integrating new concepts (e.g., historical trauma) and approaches (e.g., psychoeducation) that attempt to support the trauma-related mental health needs of survivors (Wilson et al., 2015).