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

Identification of Screening Tools

Following receipt of screening tools identified by the Department of Justice, we conducted an academic and grey literature search for additional FVSTs used in family law, mediation, legal aid, health care, violence against women, child welfare, domestic violence research, and other relevant sectors and settings. Key search terms (Figure 1) and relevant search parameters (Table 1) were developed to ensure a comprehensive review of available tools. Academic databases and search engines were selected to ensure coverage across disciplines and professions (e.g., PsycINFO, ProQuest, Medline, WestlawNext, Lexis Advance Quicklaw, Google, Google Scholar). A total of 86 screening tools were included in the analysis.Footnote 6

Data sources for the identification of FVSTs included:

  1. Academic peer-reviewed literature (including development and psychometric evaluation of tools; empirical studies using a screening tool)
  2. Grey literature (including tools used by organizations such as law firms and governments; unpublished tools)
  3. Reference lists of published articles included in review
  4. Informational interviews with Working Group members

Figure 1. Academic and Grey Literature Search Terms

Image described below

Text version – Academic and Grey Literature Search Terms

This image is of a box with the image of a magnifying glass. The title is Search Terms. There is a list of words:

  • Family violence
  • Screening Tool
  • Domestic violence
  • Assessment Tool
  • Intimate Partner Violence
  • Screening
  • Intimate Partner Abuse
  • Intake
  • Woman Abuse
Table 1. FVST Search Parameters


Inclusion Criteria Exclusion Criteria

Published between 1985 and 2017

Published before 1985


Canada, US, UK/Western Europe, Australia

Country other than Canada, US, UK/Western Europe, Australia

Language & Accessibility

Published in English and accessible/available

Published in language other than English or not accessible/available


The purpose of the tool is to screen for family violence (i.e., domestic or intimate partner violence against an adult) 

The purpose of the tool is to screen for abuse outside of family context or intimate relationship; or only child/adolescent/elder abuse

Tool is focused solely on risk assessment or safety planning

Analysis of Screening Tools and Literature

A mixed-method analysis of the screening tools and accompanying literature (when available) identified qualitative similarities and differences between the FVSTs (e.g., question order, format/style of tool) and quantitative differences (e.g., content frequency counts).

A research tool was developed to pull out the pertinent information from each screening tool in a systematic and consistent way. The research tool was set up in Microsoft Excel (Supplementary Document) and each FVST was recorded in a separate row. The tool included columns for:

  1. Administrative information (document ID, coder ID)
  2. FVST information (FVST name, authors, country affiliations)
  3. FVST sector (family law, mediation, health care, VAW (violence against women), child welfare, unspecified, other)
  4. FVST evaluation (was the tool statistically validated? (i.e., assessed for degree of validity and reliability); what the measures of statistical validation were used)
  5. FVST administration (client-administered, practitioner-administered, either, unclear, other)
  6. FVST content (total number of questions and what questions were asked)
  7. FVST question format (multiple choice/checklist, yes/no, Likert-type scale (e.g., rating on 5-point scale from strongly disagree to strongly agree), open-ended, image, short answer, other)
  8. FVST scoring and interpretation
  9. Additional pertinent information not captured elsewhere in abstraction tool

Based the search parameters, 86 FVSTs were selected. Two of the authors (KM and SC) examined 43 tools each, pulling out relevant information.

For FVSTs that included in-depth protocols and frameworks (e.g., in-depth mediation protocols), only the questions specific to FV identification (including intimate partner violence and child abuse) were analyzed. Safety and risk assessment tools included as part of a larger protocol or framework were considered beyond the scope of the current research and the questions in these tools were not analyzed.Footnote 7

Following the examination of the FVSTs, the specific screening questions pulled from each tool were analyzed. The purpose of this analysis was to examine the content of each FVST question to determine the type and range of questions being asked during screening. Forty-nine categories reflecting the different content of FVST questions were identified. These categories were created as the authors reviewed the questions taken from each tool one at a time and developed new content categories (i.e., themes) as needed. 

A content analysis was conducted on the FVST questions. This is a common research method for analyzing text data (Cavanagh, 1997; Hsieh & Shannon, 2005). It allows researchers to quantify and make meaning out of patterns in qualitative data, such as screening tool questions. Each FVST was coded for the presence or absence (0 = no, 1 = yes) of each content category. Examples of question content categories include:

A total score (0 to 49) representing the number of question content categories represented in each tool was calculated. See Table 2 for a list of the most and least comprehensive FVSTs based on the total number of question content categories.

Frequency counts (i.e., number of times something occurs) and percentages were generated for additional information identified from the FVSTs, including country affiliation, sector, type of administration, question format, etc.

To supplement the analysis described above, the research team conducted 17 informational interviewsFootnote 8 with FLPs (lawyers, judges, and mediators), violence against women experts, and healthcare researchers to assess awareness of and frequency of screening tool use by family law lawyers. Interviews were brief, ranging from 5-20 minutes, and asked practitioners to identify known FVSTs and to describe the process of FV screening used in their own practice, including if they use a tool and, if so, which tool and how it is administered, and at what point in the interaction they screen for FV. Non-legal practitioners (i.e., VAW experts and researchers) were asked more generally about their familiarity with screening tools, what tools they were aware of, and who they knew these tools to be used by.