Making the Links in Family Violence Cases: Collaboration among the Family, Child Protection and Criminal Justice Systems

Chapter 9 - Services for families experiencing family violence

Where family violence has occurred, victims, children and abusers require a range of services to assist them, both in addressing the impact of the violence on the family and in navigating the justice system. As discussed elsewhere in this report, many parts of the overall justice system may be implicated: the criminal justice system, the child protection system and the family justice system. There are services associated with all of these systems which are intended to help families.

9.1 Services associated with the criminal justice system

All jurisdictions offer victim services, through government departments, police forces or non-governmental organizations. Victim services are varied and cover a broad spectrum of victim needs. Some examples are mechanisms and systems to provide victims and witnesses with information about the criminal justice system, court proceedings, as well as the status of the case. Victim service providers make counselling and other referrals to victims and provide assistance in the preparation of victim impact statements or the use of testimonial aids. Victim service providers are key to informing victims of available services, helping victims recover from the event, advocating for their safety, and preparing the witnesses to testify. In the Yukon, the Northwest Territories and Nunavut, the Attorney General of Canada (through the Public Prosecution Service of Canada (PPSC)) has responsibility for prosecuting Criminal Code offences. While there are other services provided to victims by the territorial governments and other agencies, the PPSC is responsible for the delivery of Crown/court-basedvictim services in the territories to assist victims and witnesses as it relates to court accompaniment and witness preparation as well as ensuring appropriate referrals to victims support agencies as needed.

The Policy Centre for Victim Issues has made the Victim Services Directory available on the Department of Justice website: By entering the name of the town, the type of victimization experienced, or the type of services needed, victims may search the database for victim-serving agencies in their area, and find what best suit their needs.

CourtFootnote 357 and correctionsFootnote 358 based treatment programs for domestic violence offenders are recognized as a form of offender accountability.Footnote 359 Throughout Canada there are treatment programs that address the needs of men who behave abusively in their intimate relationships.Footnote 360 Most treatment programs are open to all men, whether or not they are involved with the criminal justice system, although some evaluate candidates to determine whether they may benefit from the type of treatment provided by program personnel. Many of the programs use multiple approaches (e.g. individual counselling and support groups) in the provision of services. It is important to stress, however, that the effectiveness of these family violence intervention programs is not established and the research is equivocal.Footnote 361 The literature suggests that there is a difference between treatment programs that address power and control dynamics and approaches such as anger management which may not address the underlying causes of family violence. While often a component of specialized family violence intervention programs, anger management by itself is not recommended in coercive intimate partner violence cases.Footnote 362

Crown prosecutors, family and child protection lawyers need to carefully weigh the many important considerations associated with these programs being recommended or ordered and the implications to the clients participating in them.Footnote 363

While participation in a family violence intervention program is often connected to the criminal law proceedings, attendance in these programs may be raised in connection with family or child protection proceedings. Several issues arise in this context, including:

  • Will information about an individual’s participation in this program be shared with the family or child protection system? Issues with respect to confidentiality and disclosure may be of concern to lawyers representing an accused in a family or child protection context, as well as to lawyers representing the other parent.
  • In particular, will information about non-attendance or non-completion of these programs be shared? This is critical information from a safety perspective since non-attendance or non-completion of programs is associated with increased risk of continued intimate partner violence.
  • How will evidence of participation in such a program be used in relation to determinations about parenting or the likelihood of intimate partner violence re-occurring? Evidence of completion of a program may be insufficient from a safety perspective. Rather, evidence of a change in behaviour may be necessary.Footnote 364

9.2 Services associated with the family justice system

While not targeted specifically toward victims of family violence, there are many government-based services associated with the family justice system in Canada. These include:

  • Mediation;
  • Parent education and information related to separation and divorce;
  • Family law information centres (which may be called family justice centres or otherwise, depending on the jurisdiction). These services provide legal information, help clients deal with the court system, and refer people to organizations that can help them with their court cases;
  • Information programs for children about separation and divorce; and
  • Programs to put the child’s views before the court – such as representation by a children’s lawyer or reports on children’s views.

Custody and parenting evaluations may be helpful to family law courts in situations of family violence. It is important to ensure that individuals conducting child custody evaluations have specialized knowledge of family violence, or that they consult with an individual who is a family violence expert. In the absence of this expertise, the custody evaluation may be misleading. The National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges has developed a guide for judges to help them address situations where a custody and access assessment may be necessary in situations of family violence; the guide addresses, in part, the need for custody evaluators to have this expertise.Footnote 365

Also very important in the family violence context are Supervised Access Centres available in many jurisdictions across Canada. These centres provide a safe, neutral, child-focussed setting for visits or exchanges between children, parents or other persons such as grandparents. They are used in cases where there are concerns for the safety of the child or a parent, and as a result, can be a particularly important service in the context of family violence. The centres provide a means for safe compliance with orders of the court where there are safety or parenting dispute concerns. Some Supervised Access Centres provide reports to the court regarding participants' use of or involvement with the service.

9.3 Services associated with the child protection system

Many services are available to families involved with the child protection system. Some of these include:

  • Counselling;
  • Supervised access;
  • Parent education programs;
  • Psychological assessments;
  • Youth work supports;
  • Addictions counselling;
  • Anger management;
  • Social safety net services;
  • Income supports;
  • Aboriginal Courtwork family law services (which is discussed further in subsection 5.2.7); and
  • Child protection mediation (which is discussed further in subsection 8.2.3).

In Alberta, when a child is apprehended and a parent charged, and/or the parents are separating, and/or the child is in the youth justice system with their own charges, programs and services will come into play. The coordination is for the most part done informally through Child and Family Services who will work with families to determine together what supports and interventions will sustain capacity building to alleviate the concerns in the family or the individual.

9.4 Challenges where there is a lack of coordination

While many services are available to families, problems can arise where these services are not coordinated with one another. For example:

  • Family members may need to attend a number of different services, thus requiring multiple appointments which may be uncoordinated. Multiple and uncoordinated appointments can wear family members down, and may even discourage them from seeking the services that they require.
  • Inconsistent supports may be provided to victims in different contexts. For example, while victim services in the criminal justice system may ensure that the victim and alleged perpetrator are not left to wait in the same waiting room to ensure safety, such supports do not always exist in the family justice system, and the victim may find her/himself in the same waiting room as the alleged perpetrator.

The Family Justice Centre in the United States explains the issue as follows:

Most criminal and civil justice systems make it difficult for victims to seek help and unintentionally wear them down. Victims are often required to travel from location to location to seek services that are scattered through a community or region. They have to tell their story over and over again to officials representing agencies, such as, law enforcement, courts, legal aid, medical, transportation, housing, social services, mental health, rehabilitation, financial assistance and many more. The criminal justice system unintentionally makes it easy for victims to become frustrated and ultimately stop seeking help.Footnote 366

9.5 Promising practices

In Alberta, there are two examples of community-justice responses that highlight coordination. HomeFront (Calgary) partners with the criminal justice system to respond in an improved and coordinated manner with families experiencing domestic violence by:

  • Ensuring victims' concerns are brought to the attention of the specialized domestic violence court providing them with a voice in the outcome;
  • Supporting treatment for victims and for offenders who choose to accept domestic violence treatment as part of a court order;
  • Providing early intervention for families when calls have been made to police, but no charges are laid; and
  • Supporting victims by increasing their level of safety and encouraging them to pursue their capacity to change in their own and their family's best interests.

The Today Family Violence Help Centre in Edmonton began offering services in October 2009. The service delivery model is a collaborative, community response that draws upon co-located, centralized services, and community-based services not co-located in the centre. The goal is to reduce the barriers facing those affected by domestic violence as they attempt to navigate what they often see as a dispersed and complex system. By delivering a comprehensive, multidisciplinary response to family violence, it offers a safe place for those affected by domestic violence to access timely, short-term services and support and provides links to medium-term and long-term services and supports in the community.

While services for victims have traditionally been primarily focused on a victim’s involvement with the criminal justice system, there has been increasing recognition that victims of family violence need support in the family justice system as well. For example, in September 2012, the British Columbia Ministry of Justice advised victim’s assistance workers that they can provide assistance in both criminal and family law cases where the clients are victims of family or sexual violence. The Ministry of Justice recognizes that court proceedings and the serving of documents can be a time of increased risk, and that safety planning and providing emotional support to victims in the family court context is important. In addition, victim services workers may provide emotional support to victims of crime in relation to family law issues and family court matters, helping to obtain protection orders or obtaining copies of orders, helping to obtain information about the family court process, and providing information on peace bonds and protection orders to victims.

Ontario’s Family Court Support Worker program provides assistance and support to victims of domestic violence as they move through the family court process; in addition, linkages are also made with the criminal system. The objectives of the Family Court Support Worker Program include providing supports primarily for female victims of domestic violence involved in the family court process, as well as enhancing victim safety and access to services and supports. The Family Court Support Worker will assist the victim in a number of ways, which include to:

  • Provide information to the victim about the family court process;
  • Assist the victim to record the history of abuse for court documentation;
  • Provide the victim with safety planning and referrals for risk assessments where appropriate and assist with safety planning related to court attendances;
  • Support the victim to follow through on requests received from lawyers;
  • Debrief and discuss court outcomes, lawyer appointments, Family Law Information Centre meetings, consultations with duty counsel and next steps;
  • Refer the victim to specialized services (both domestic violence-specific and culturally relevant services) in the community, and communicate with other family court-based services and referral sources to ensure seamless delivery of appropriate information and support; and
  • Accompany the victim to a court proceeding, where appropriate.

From the perspective of better coordination between systems, a particularly important role of the Family Court Support Worker is to communicate with criminal court-based services, such as the Victim/Witness Assistance Program, where appropriate and in accordance with an established protocol.

As noted in the chapter on coordination of court proceedings (Chapter 5), Domestic Violence Coordinators (in the Ada County model), can play an invaluable role by coordinating access to services both on the criminal and family justice systems. These individuals act as a focal point, and have an overall view of the services to which family members have been referred, and the outcomes of those services. They can then share this information with the courts and other service providers as appropriate and necessary.

Family Justice Centres are also another example of coordination of services in cases of family violence. These centres are based on the San Diego Family Justice Centre model, where a number of different service providers are co-located in order to provide the varying and coordinated services that victims of family violence may require. Depending on the community in which the Family Justice Centre is found, its specific services and support may vary, but in principle, it includes police, prosecutors, legal resources, including family lawyers, and other resources such as counsellors.

There are a number of Canadian examples of Family Justice Centres, including the Safe Centre of Peel which opened in November 2011. It has 15 partners including social services (e.g. counselling and youth-based services), legal services, with family law duty counsel and a Family Court Support Worker, settlement services to assist newcomers to Canada and child protection services, with its specialized domestic violence team and victim services. Victim Services of Peel are the first contact for victims who come to the Centre. They conduct a risk assessment and then determine which other services the victims require; usually, within the first three-hour meeting, the victim will be referred to those other services. Similarly, the Family Violence Project of Waterloo Region, is also based on the San Diego Family Justice Centre model, and includes police specialized in domestic violence.

Children’s Advocacy Centres (CACs) provide an array of services to reduce the trauma of child victims and witnesses and their families in navigating the criminal justice system, and are a good example of coordination between the criminal and child protection systems. CACs were first developed in the United States in the 1980s to provide a coordinated approach to addressing the needs of children implicated in the judicial system either as victims of, or witnesses to, crime. CACs seek to minimize system-induced trauma by providing a single, child-friendly setting for children and youth victims or witnesses and their families to seek services, and by reducing the number of interviews and questions directed at children during the investigation or court preparation process.

Not all CACs offer the same services, but key components include:

  • A multidisciplinary team that includes law enforcement, child protection services, prosecution, mental health services, victim advocacy services and the child advocacy centre;
  • Child and family-friendly facilities;
  • Forensic interviewing services;
  • Victim advocacy and support, including court support;
  • Specialized medical support and treatment;
  • Specialized mental health services;
  • Training and education for professionals working with child abuse victims; and
  • Community education and outreach.

Some of the American research results achieved through CACs are: reduction of system-induced trauma for child and youth victims; increased satisfaction with services received; reduction in number of forensic interviews conducted; and better quality of evidence.Footnote 367 It should be noted, however, that some of the criminal justice outcomes often cited (increases in charges laid; better quality of evidence; more guilty pleas; and higher conviction rates with more appropriate sentences) have yet to be demonstrated through empirical research.Footnote 368

There are several CACs across Canada, and their numbers are growing. For example, The Regina Children’s Justice Centre (1993) and the Saskatoon Children’s Justice Centre (1996) provide coordinated interviewing and court preparation, as well as outreach, all in child-friendly facilities with referrals to mental health services. Substantial resources are being made available under the Federal Victims Strategy, to support the development and enhancement of CACs in Canada.

Saskatchewan offers services to children exposed to domestic violence in approximately 10 locations across the province and has a program manual available to help guide how such a service can be provided. The Ministry of Justice and Attorney General provides support for children exposed to violence programs in Saskatchewan to address the needs of children who are exposed to violence. The programs assist children and youth who have witnessed or experienced interpersonal violence or abuse, with a goal of preventing them from becoming victims or perpetrators of violence and abuse in the future.

Edmonton’s Zebra Child Protection Centre, the first centre of its kind in Canada, enables the community to respond to child abuse with a professional, compassionate, and highly integrated program of healing and justice. The centre integrates a multidisciplinary community of professionals – Edmonton Police Service, Alberta Children’s Services, Crown prosecutors, Child at Risk Response Teams, medical and trauma screening professionals, and volunteer advocates – in a child-centred environment that nurtures the abused child and uses all the wisdom of its partnership to see that justice is done. The multidisciplinary team allows for streamlined, thorough and expert investigations, interventions, prosecutions, and supports. Through their own resources as well as alliances within the community, Zebra provides children and their non-offending parents and guardians with essential social, medical, and mental health services and supports.

Discovering the truth behind suspicions and allegations of child abuse is a complex task. Zebra’s collaborative approach lends strength to the child during the investigative process and also lends power to law enforcement. No one agency or professional alone is fully equipped to prioritize the well-being of a child abuse victim and balance the stringent demands of justice. Using a multidisciplinary approach is a cornerstone of best practices for children’s advocacy centres worldwide.

In Manitoba, the Winnipeg Children’s Advocacy Centre opened in January 2013. Once fully operational, the centre will be staffed by a team of professionals including police, child protection and victim service providers who will work in a child-friendly setting to help a child or youth victim or witness navigate the child abuse investigation process and justice system on-site instead of services at multiple locations or at a police station where suspects are typically held. One of the key features of the centre will be a forensic interviewer who will interview children or youths with the objective of limiting the number of times they will have to tell and re-tell their ordeal to the various professionals involved in an investigation.

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