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

7. Promising practices

Experts provided examples of model projects or promising practices that need to be shared across Canada to promote children’s safety in family violence circumstances or are specific to children’s safety in the context of parental separation and divorce.  Below are the major themes of promising practices with a brief description of a program that exemplifies this theme.  A more detailed account of these programs is available in Appendix D.

7.1 Parenting programs to prevent family violence

Parent education programs are aimed at helping parents develop more appropriate expectations of their children, develop empathy and nurturance for their children, use positive discipline instead of physical punishment, and address parental social and behavioural problems that increase the risk for violence (Barth, 2009).  Many parenting programs are aimed at abusive mothers or mothers experiencing domestic violence such as home visitation programs, parent-child interaction therapy or psychotherapy.  Some programs help parents of children who are at risk of developing, or who have already developed, significant behaviour or conduct problems.

However, few of these programs include families who have reported child abuse and neglect (Barth, 2009).  The Ministry of Children and Youth Services has guided and funded several programs for children exposed to domestic violence that are implemented through children’s aid societies or children’s mental health agencies across the province of Ontario.  These programs are directed at preventing family violence from the perspective of intervening with mothers and their children. Examples of these programs can be found at the Child Development Institute.

There are relatively few parenting programs aimed at abusive fathers and particularly fathers who expose their children to domestic violence (Scott & Crooks, 2007). One example program for abusive fathers, which was recognized by experts, is Caring Dads. Caring Dads is an intervention program for fathers, who have physically abused, emotionally abused or neglected their children, or exposed their children to domestic violence or who are deemed to be at high-risk for these behaviours.

7.2 Secondary responder programs for perpetrators of domestic violence

Secondary responder programs for domestic violence began in the late 1980’s with the aim of providing immediate short-term interventions to help victims of abuse protect themselves from subsequent victimization (Scott et al., in press).  Programs included home visits, follow-up phone contact, or contact with victim witness programs that provided women with information and accessibility to counselling support, legal assistance, and other services as well as immediate safety planning.  However, these second responder programs have not been provided to perpetrators of domestic violence except to contact perpetrators to remind and warn them about the consequences of engaging in further abusive behaviours.

One potential model for a perpetrator-based secondary responder program is the Risk, Needs, Responsivity (RNR) model of intervention (Andrews, Bonta & Wormith, 2011; Polaschek, 2012).  The RNR model suggests that more intense intervention be targeted towards high risk perpetrators of domestic violence and that a focus of intervention should be placed on those needs most closely related to men’s offending (e.g., men’s responses to a recent separation; financial stress or unemployment; substance abuse; depression).  The model also specifies that interventions should be tailored to the learning style and motivational profile of the participants (Scott et al., in press).  An example project identified by experts is the “High-Risk Domestic Violence Men’s Outreach Initiative”.  This pilot project was initiated in London, Ontario.  The Outreach initiative was a secondary responder project for high risk perpetrators of domestic violence that utilized the RNR model of intervention.  The results of the project showed a dramatic reduction in re-offending and criminal behaviour in general.

7.3 Integrated court for families

Research has indicated that legal responses to domestic violence often fail because the different court systems (i.e., criminal, family, civil, child protection, immigration) operate separately while pursuing different goals (Neilson, 2012).  The priorities of the criminal justice system with a focus on public safety may not always align with the priorities of the family law system with a focus on the best interests of the child which creates inconsistencies, confusion, and safety issues for families experiencing violence.  Often there is a failure in communication and coordination between the criminal and family courts which can result in concurrent proceedings that occur in isolation and may result in duplicate or conflicting safety and protection orders (Judicial Council of California, 2008; Aldrich, Kluger & Judy, 2010; Martinson, 2012).  This failure in communication and collaboration between court systems is seen as a “dangerous disconnect” that increases risk for women and children (Martinson & Jackson, 2012).  Concurrent proceedings can cause delays, drain financial resources of the families, exhaust the limited resources to assist families, and increase conflict and the risk of harm to children (Martinson, 2012).  Families may have to choose which court orders to follow, take matters into their own hands in terms of protecting children, or not have their issues resolved effectively leading to future risk of violence.

One promising practice identified by experts is the Ontario’s Integrated Domestic Violence Court (IDV Court) which was launched in June 2011 in Toronto.  The IDV Court takes a “one family, one judge” approach where families experiencing violence appear before a single judge who has extensive experience dealing with family and criminal law matters involving domestic violence in order to deal with all issues that impact the family. Integrated domestic violence courts have the potential to facilitate case management and communication between agencies, enhance protection for victims, reduce inconsistency in orders, and improve outcomes for children by providing a coordinated approach to multiple issues related to families experiencing violence (Martinson, 2012).

7.4 Advocacy for abuse victims and their children dealing with the family court

Navigating through the court system can be a daunting task for adult victims of domestic violence especially during separation, and custody and access disputes where the safety of the child is paramount.  Advocacy helps to empower victims of violence and assist them in receiving appropriate and effective services and supports (Victim Services and Crime Prevention Division, 2010).  The experts identified two best practices of advocacy for victims navigating through the family court system: 1) Luke’s Place, Oshawa, ON and 2) Jared’s Place Legal Advocacy and Support Program, Hamilton, ON.  Both of these programs were created in response to the murder of a young child by their father during a court-ordered unsupervised access visit.  Both of the families had a history of domestic violence.

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