Risk Factors for Children in Situations of Family Violence in the Context of Separation and Divorce

Introduction

This report addresses the risk factors that children face in the context of family violence and separating or divorcing parents.  It is intended to help inform the development of enhanced policy and practices in the family law area in regards to risk assessment, management and collaboration amongst court-related professionals and community agencies such as child protection services.  There is no doubt that children are at risk in situations of family violence for both psychological and physical harm including homicide.

This report provides a summary of the ever-expanding literature in the field and promising policies and practices as well as the views of Canadian experts on children exposed to family violence.  This is a field that is exploding in published and unpublished works (e.g., website reports) across the globe.  A literature review was conducting through searches of online research databases (e.g., PubMed, PsycINFO, PsycARTICLES, ERIC, MEDLINE) using relevant keywords (e.g., “children”, “family violence”, “parental separation”, “risk factors”).  The most current and relevant articles were included in the review.  The authors also conducted an online scan of government and agency websites for relevant reports, legislation, and best practices regarding children experiencing family violence, particularly during parental separation.

The authors gathered feedback from a cross-section of leaders from multiple disciplines in the field. We sought their views on potential risk factors for children experiencing family violence during the time of parental separation or divorce that may not be clearly identified in the current literature.  These leading experts were identified from the child maltreatment and violence against women sectors and were asked to complete a brief interview/questionnaire regarding their views of the nature of risk factors, risk assessment tools and risk management strategies. The experts’ major comments are integrated into this report. Appendix A lists all experts who participated. 

Separation may be a critical point in the discovery of child abuse and domestic violence. If the separation is a safe one (e.g., no evidence of post-separation violence or abuse, effective and comprehensive safety plan put in the place), there may be an opportunity for a protective parent to make disclosures to professionals in the court system or various helping agencies for support. Separation may lead to assessments and interventions within the court system that screen for child abuse and domestic violence.  On the other hand, separation may lead to an escalation of violence and the risk of abuse may continue if proper assessments and interventions are not put in place. A critical factor for abuse victims and their children is access to resources that ensure risk management and protection. Disclosures of abuse usually lead to investigations by child protection agencies and police services as well as family and criminal courts proceedings in relation to allegations of abuse.  In the context of separation, the court and court-related professionals may operate with some skepticism about abuse allegations out of a concern for  balancing child safety with protecting the accused parent from potential alienation and ensuring an ongoing relationship with the child(ren). The issues are complex and multiple professionals and agencies may become involved in the assessment of child abuse and domestic violence. This report addresses many of these issues.

This report pulls together feedback from experts in the field, research, and background information in order to inform policy and practices of the family justice system when dealing with children experiencing family violence during parental separation or divorce.  Separation and divorce can be seen as an opportunity to end abuse and protect children from violence but only if the risks are properly assessed, adequate custody and access arrangements are made, and resources are provided to the family.  This report :

  • describes the prevalence and impact of family violence on children including the impact of separating and/or divorced parents;
  • identifies factors that increase a child’s risk of harm particularly during parental separation and divorce;
  • identifies potential protective factors that should be considered when conducting risk assessments, risk management, and safety planning;
  • outlines risk assessment strategies for children in separating and divorced families experiencing violence;
  • identifies critical points of intervention during separation and divorce; and
  • describes promising practices for risk management and safety planning. 

In this report, the term family violence includes child abuse and domestic violence. The general definition adopted is consistent with the Department of Justice website - "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".  The term “domestic violence” is used throughout this document and is defined as “a pattern of behaviour used by one person to gain power and control over another person with whom s/he has or has had an intimate relationship.  This pattern of behaviour may include physical violence, sexual, emotional, and psychological intimidation, verbal abuse, stalking, and using electronic devices to harass and control” (Ontario Ministry of Labour, 2010).  The term “intimate partner violence” is often used synonymously with “domestic violence;” however the authors chose to use the term “domestic violence” throughout this report because it is a term commonly recognized across several systems including the justice system.

The authors discuss domestic violence with a gendered analysis in that we indicate that women/mothers are most often considered the victims and men/fathers are considered the perpetrators of the violence when it is part of a pattern of violence that may result in fear and serious physical and psychological harm.  Statistics Canada (2013) indicated that in 2011, 69% of victims who reported family violence to the police were women or girls and 80% of victims who reported spousal violence were women.  Additionally, Statistics Canada (2011) has shown that women are about three times more likely to report more serious forms of domestic violence (e.g., to be  sexually assaulted, strangled, threatened with a weapon) and are about three to four times more likely to be killed by a spouse.    As a result, although men can be victims of family violence and women can be perpetrators, this report generally refers to women/mothers as victims and men/fathers as perpetrators.

The definition of “child abuse” includes several broad types of abuse such as physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional maltreatment and neglect/failure to provide for the child (Canadian Children’s Rights Council, 2013).  Although exposure to domestic violence is a form of child maltreatment/abuse, we make separate reference throughout the document to literature dealing specifically with exposure to domestic violence.

This report will use the terms separation and divorce interchangeably unless there is specific reference to research which has differentiated the process. We recognize that provincial legislation and policies deal with separating couples and federal legislation is in place to deal with divorce and the ultimate dissolution of a marriage. In regards to dangers to adult victims and children, separation represents a point of crisis which enhances the level of risk whereas divorce proceedings tend to take place long after separation and the harm to children is exposure to ongoing conflict more so than lethality.

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