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

6. Link between risk assessment and risk management

When identifying children at risk in the context of separation, professionals and agencies require knowledge of potential red-flags for utilizing specific assessment tools. The assessment process should not be an end in itself but a step towards safety planning and risk management efforts in regards to the child victim and parents. There needs to be a match between the level of risk assessed and the resources provided by the court and community. The higher the risk, the greater the need for mandatory interventions as opposed to voluntary services.

Chart 1 identifies the links between level of risk and appropriate interventions as identified in the literature review and consultation with Canadian experts in the field. Risk factors are considered within the dimensions of child and parental factors within a socio-cultural context. The risk management strategies are conceptualized as interventions for the child and parents and may vary along a dimension of voluntary versus court-mandated interventions. Chart 1 provides a framework with which decisions can be made to match child risk after parental separation with various court and community interventions. These decisions can be made on a consultative basis with parents and community professionals at lower risk levels. At higher child risk levels, the court would order a protective plan for the child and parent-victim within the context of family law, child protection law or criminal court jurisdiction.  This framework could provide the basis for  further studies to evaluate its merits in predicting child and family outcomes by those working in the field.

This chart reflects the importance of considering the socio-cultural context (e.g., socio-economic status; vulnerable populations and communities; isolation) of the family when determining appropriate interventions.  Socio-cultural factors may make it difficult for adult victims and children to access resources; therefore it is important for the courts and community services to assist families in accessing financial support, employment, housing, and culturally competent counselling services alongside appropriate interventions that minimize the risk for future violence.  A lack of resources should not be used as an excuse by community services or courts to inadvertently endanger children.  For example, if children require a supervised access centre and are not able to access this resource, the result should not be unsupervised access that may lead to further maltreatment.

In considering socio-cultural factors, it is important to recognize that these factors do not exist in isolation from each other and often victims and children may find themselves living with multiple challenges. These intersecting diversity issues impact risk and responses to domestic violence and child abuse. The risks may be more severe for aboriginal, immigrant, and refugee women. Factors that increase risk may include minority status, language/cultural challenges, sponsorship threats, poverty/lack of access to services, disabilities, social and geographic isolation, and lack of services/lack of access to services (Martinson, 2013). Awareness of these intersecting diversity issues should inform the court and those that complete independent parenting assessments (Martinson, 2013).

Chart 1: The Link between Level of Risk and Appropriate Intervention

Chart 1: The Link between Level of Risk and Appropriate Intervention described below

Text equivalent of Chart 1: The Link between Level of Risk and Appropriate Intervention

This chart highlights factors that increase the risk of harm for children exposed to family violence during the point of parental separation. The risk factors are considered within the dimensions of child and parental factors all within a socio-cultural context. These factors are represented in two small circles (i.e., one representing child factors and one representing parental factors) both encompassed by a larger circle representing socio-cultural contextual factors. Examples of child factors within the chart are age, gender, disability, existing emotional and behavioural problems. Examples of parental factors include addictions, trauma history, mental health, and perpetration of violence. Finally, examples of socio-cultural contextual factors include socio-economic status, vulnerable populations, and isolation.

Appropriate risk management strategies for the child and parents vary along a dimension of voluntary versus court mandated interventions dependent on the level of risk. The chart provides vertical arrows with the top of the arrow indicating low risk and a low need for court and/or child protection intervention, and the bottom of the arrow indicating high risk and a high need for intervention. The continuum for level of intervention needed is represented on the low end by minimal intervention, including family and community supports and parent education programs; followed by moderate intervention, which would include assessment, monitoring and review by courts and/or child protection; and finally intensive intervention at the high end that may involve court mandated interventions and sanctions, more intrusive interventions, and temporary termination of parental contact. This continuum is outlined beside the arrows that indicate level of risk and need for intervention with minimal intervention being aligned with the top of the arrows indicating low risk and low need for intervention and intensive interventions being aligned with the bottom of the arrows indicating high risk and high need for intervention.

The chart provides examples of intervention strategies for both the child and parents based on level of risk and need for intervention. Suggested minimal intervention strategies for children include school, community supports, and counselling. Minimal intervention strategies for parents include voluntary trauma counselling for victims of domestic violence, mental health interventions, home-visiting programs, and parenting education. Suggested intensive intervention strategies for children at high risk include specialized counselling and safety planning. Intensive intervention strategies for parents include conditions in parenting plans, mandated addictions treatment, mandated parenting and/or partner assault response (PAR) groups, supervised access, and ongoing assessment and monitoring by child protection and the courts. The suggested minimal interventions are represented in arrows pointing up that are situated above the child and parental factors circles and the intensive interventions are represented in arrows pointing down that are situated below the child and parental factors circles.

There are a number of challenges in finding appropriate interventions to assist in safety planning and risk management for adult and child victims living with family violence. Aside from securing resources, there is also the question on how these interventions are mandated when a parent refuses to admit their problems or to seek help and support. Some interventions can be ordered as a condition of probation within a criminal context or a condition of children’s access to a parent within a child protection context. Within a child custody dispute framework, interventions and progress reports on completion of treatment may be a condition for either custody or access to children. There is also an ongoing debate on which interventions have demonstrated best outcomes in research on treatment effectiveness. This debate is beyond the scope of this paper other than to indicate the current thinking in the field revolves around a coordinated approach to the treatment of family violence. For example, treatment of domestic violence perpetrators is most effective when the intervention program is embedded in an overall coordinated community plan which includes ongoing monitoring and review by the justice system to ensure compliance and protection of victims (Gondolf, 2012).

Keeping up with Canadian research and promising practices in this area can be a difficult undertaking because so many important reports and resources are published and developed through ministries and community agencies without a central hub whereby to share them publicly.  One new project that will help Canadians stay abreast of the research and practices in this area is the Canadian Domestic Homicide Prevention Initiative (CDHPI) developed by the Centre for Research & Education on Violence against Women & Children at Western University, and the Centre for the Study of Social and Legal Responses to Violence at the University of Guelph.  The CDHPI is an online Canadian-focused centralized repository of information on domestic homicide review and prevention that can be accessed by professionals and the general public.  The website contains reports, educational materials, and key findings developed through research, inquests, and domestic violence death reviews.  The CDHPI provides information on vulnerable populations including children killed in the context of domestic violence.

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