Section 3: Family violence against children and youth

By Maire Sinha

The protection of the rights of children from violence and maltreatment has been recognized and entrenched in both international and national laws and conventions. Canada, as a ratifying member of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, recognizes that all children and youth are entitled to the full range of human rights, including the right to be properly cared for and protected from all forms of violence by parents or other caregivers.Note 1 The Criminal Code of Canada and provincial and territorial child protection legislation are the two legal mechanisms in Canada that ensure that these rights are upheld.

While there can be overlap in the types of harm covered under criminal and civil law, the Criminal Code and provincial/territorial child protection legislation together cover a broad spectrum of maltreatment and violence perpetrated against children and youth. Examples of these harms include neglect, exposure to family violence, physical abuse, sexual abuse, homicide, and other forms of violent crime. Some types of child maltreatment, such as emotional abuse or exposure to spousal violence, may never reach the criminal threshold and would therefore not result in a police response or Criminal Code charges. However, in many cases, these occurrences would still be considered serious events requiring the involvement of provincial/territorial child welfare services (Trocmé et al. 2010).

Accurately measuring the true extent and nature of violence against children and youth poses some formidable challenges.Note 2 Data on child abuse are limited to official sources of information from police and child welfare services. Unlike for older victims, where population-based surveys such as the General Social Survey (GSS) on Victimization are able to provide indicators of self-reported victimization experiences and levels of reporting to police, there is no equivalent national survey instrument for all children and youth.Note 3, Note 4 Consequently, the actual extent and nature of violence against children and youth is unknown. It has been suggested that levels of reporting to official sources may be lower for violence against children than violence directed at older victims (AuCoin 2005; Ogrodnik 2010).Note 5 Children may be unable or reluctant to report their victimization due to their age and stage of physical, mental and cognitive development and/or due to the fear of consequences (United Nations 2011; AuCoin 2005; Justice Canada 2001). This is in addition to the hidden nature of abuse that can lead to reduced levels of detection and subsequent reporting by others (Kesner et al. 2009; Lazenbatt and Freeman 2006).

That said, a number of initiatives have been enacted to facilitate reporting of violent offences against children and youth to police or child welfare authorities (AuCoin 2005). Most notably, all provinces and territories have enacted mandatory reporting laws requiring professionals working with children and often members of the general public to report suspected cases of child abuse to authorities, either police or child welfare agencies (Trocmé et al. 2010). However, there can be significant variations in levels of reporting due to both individuals' own attitudes and legal differences in what constitutes suspected maltreatment and the definition of children or youthNote 6 (Levi and Portwood 2011).

The current analysis examines Criminal Code violent violations against children and youth using police-reported data as well as one form of child maltreatment, children witnessing spousal violence as measured through the 2009 General Social Survey on Victimization. Analysis uses data from two police-reported surveys, the incident-based Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) Survey and the Homicide Survey, to examine the prevalence and characteristics of violent offences against children and youth. Patterns of offences in the family sphere are compared against those not involving family members. The section on violence against children and youth examines all types of Criminal Code violent violations against children and youth. This includes the full continuum of violence, ranging from uttering threats, physical and sexual violence, to homicide.

The second half of the section examines results from the 2009 GSS on VictimizationNote 7 to present the nature and extent of children witnessing spousal violence. This information is based on self-reported data from spousal violence victims on whether their child heard or saw violence against them. Information on types of child maltreatment and abuse reported to child welfare authorities is contained in Text box 3.1 on the Overview of findings from the 2008 Canadian Incidence Study (CIS) of Reported Child Abuse and Neglect.

Prevalence of police-reported violent crimes against children and youth

Rates of sexual crimes higher among children and youth than adults

Children and youth under the age of 18 are less likely than the adult population to be violently victimized. In 2010, there were approximately 74,000 child and youth victims of violent crime, representing a rate of 1,080 victims per 100,000 population under the age of 18 (Table 3.1). This was 10% lower than the violent crime rate recorded for adults (1,199 victims per 100,000 population). Despite the overall lower rate of violent victimization, children and youth were more at risk of sexual-based crimes.

In particular, children and youth were five times more likely than adults to become a victim of sexual offences (212 versus 41 per 100,000), with level 1 sexual assaults accounting for three-quarters (75%) of these sex crimes. Another 22% of sexual offences committed against children and youth were child-specific, including sexual interference, invitation to sexual touching, luring a child via a computer, and corrupting children.

Majority of violent crimes committed by someone known to the child

Previous research has indicated that the immediate environment of children and youth can influence their risk of victimization (United Nations 2006). Police-reported data supports this assertion, as violent crime against children and youth most often involves someone known to the child victim.

Together, violence committed by family or by friends or acquaintances accounted for 8 in 10 police-reported violent crimes against children and youth. More specifically, one-quarter (25%) of violence against the child and youth population was committed by a family member, including a parent, sibling, extended family member or spouse, while more than half (54%) of violent crimes involved other accused known to the victim. These included casual acquaintancesNote 8 (37%), close friends (7%), dating partners (6%) or another type of acquaintanceNote 9 (4%). The higher proportion of violence committed by someone known to the victim is consistent with previous years. Strangers were the perpetrators in one in five (21%) violent offences against children and youth.

Rates can be used to examine the relative prevalence of family violence compared to non-family violence. According to police-reported data for 2010, the rate of family violence against children and youth was three times lower than the rate recorded for non-family violence, which includes both perpetrators known to the victim and strangers (274 versus 807 per 100,000 population of children and youth) (Table 3.2).

As discussed in Section 1, there has been some consideration by researchers and governments on the inclusion of dating violence within the scope of family violence. It has been suggested that dating violence shares many characteristics with violence against spouses and common-law partners, one of which includes the repetitive nature of the violence (Ogrodnik 2006). If dating violence were included in the definition of family violence against children and youth, the rate would be 25% higher than a family violence rate excluding violence against dating partners (342 per 100,000 versus 274 per 100,000). Detailed information on dating violence against individuals aged 12 to 14 and against those aged 15 years and older is presented in Section 2: Violence against intimate partners. This publication excludes dating violence from a definition of family violence.

Risk factors for police-reported violence against children and youthNote 10

Young children more at risk from family members than other perpetrators

Identifying the risk factors that make children and youth most vulnerable to family violence is fundamental to the prevention and intervention of child abuse. Previous research has shown that both age and sex of children are related to a child and youth's level of risk for family violence (Sinha 2011; Ogrodnik 2010). These victim characteristics have also been identified as contributing factors in rates of non-family violence against children and youth.

As a reflection of the child's environment and range of contacts, younger children (up to eight years of age), who are generally more dependent on their primary caregivers, often their parents, are more at risk of violence from family members than other types of offenders (Chart  3.1). As children grow older, the array of activities, contacts, and independence from their families broaden, which in turn, increases the risk of victimization from individuals outside the family. Among youth aged 12 to 17 who had been victimized, about one in five (18%) were violently victimized by someone within their own family network. This compares to 47% of child victims aged 3 to 11 years, and 70% of infant and toddler victims under the age of 3 years.

Chart 3.1
Child and youth victims (0 to 17 years) of police-reported violent crime, by family and non-family members and age of victim, Canada, 2010

Data table for chart 3.1

Chart 3.1 Child and youth victims (0 to 17 years) of police-reported violent crime, by family and non-family members and age of victim, Canada, 2010

Note: Family includes parents, siblings, extended family members and spouses. Non-family includes acquaintances, friends, neighbours, authority figures (e.g., teacher, daycare worker), dating partners, criminal relationships, business relationships, and strangers. Excludes incidents where the sex and/or age of victim was unknown and where the relationship between the victim and the accused was unknown. Excludes spousal victims under the age of 15 years. Rates are calculated on the basis of 100,000 population. Populations based upon July 1st estimates from Statistics Canada, Demography Division.
Source: Statistics Canada, Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics, Incident-based Uniform Crime Reporting Survey.

Overall rates of police-reported violent crime highest among older children and youth

While younger children were more frequently victimized in 2010 by a family member than any other perpetrator, their rates of police-reported family violence remained lower than those of older children and youth. This is consistent with previous findings indicating that older children and youth have higher rates of both police-reported family and non-family violence (Ogrodnik 2010). In particular, rates of family violence peaked during the adolescent years of 14 to 17, where age-specific rates held steady at around 440 victims per 100,000 population. In comparison, police-reported rates of non-family violence continuously increased with age, peaking for youth at age 17 years (2,333 per 100,000) (Chart 3.1).

Family-related homicide is the one notable exception to these age-specific patterns in rates of violent crime. Based on ten-year data from the Homicide Survey, infants and young children were most vulnerable to family homicide (Chart 3.2). This risk of familial homicide subsides with the child's age and increases again, though to a lesser degree, in late adolescence. For instance, there were 27 homicides for every million infants under one, compared to a rate of 9 per million children aged 1 to 3, 2 per million children aged 7 to 12, and 3 per million adolescents aged 13 to 17. Over this same ten year period, the vast majority of homicides of infants and toddlers were committed by parents (98% of family homicides against infants under one, and 90% of family homicides of children aged 1 to 3 years)Note 11 (Chart 3.3).

Chart 3.2
Child and youth victims (0 to 17 years) of homicide, by family and non-family members and age of victim, Canada, 2000 to 2010

Data table for chart 3.2

Chart 3.2 Child and youth victims (0 to 17 years) of homicide, by family and non-family members and age of victim, Canada, 2000 to 2010

Note: Family includes parents, siblings, extended family members and spouses. Non-family includes acquaintances, friends, neighbours, authority figures (e.g., teacher, daycare worker), dating partners, criminal relationships, business relationships, and strangers. Excludes homicides where the sex and/or age of victim was unknown and where the relationship between the victim and the accused was unknown. Excludes spousal victims under the age of 15 years. Rates are calculated on the basis of 1,000,000 children and youth population (0 to 17 years). Populations based upon July 1st estimates from Statistics Canada, Demography Division.
Source: Statistics Canada, Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics, Homicide Survey.

Chart 3.3
Child and youth victims (0 to 17 years) of family homicide, by type of accused-victim relationship and age of victim, 2000 to 2010

Data table for chart 3.3

Chart 3.3 Child and youth victims (0 to 17 years) of family homicide, by type of accused-victim relationship and age of victim, 2000 to 2010

Note: For this chart, a subset consisting of homicide incidents with a single accused was created, which represents 95% of the total number of persons accused of family violence against children and youth between 2000 and 2010. The percentages shown are derived from this subset of single accused. Fathers and mothers include biological, step, foster and adoptive parents. Other family members include all other related to the victim through blood, marriage, foster care, or adoption. Excludes spousal victims under the age of 15 years.
Source: Statistics Canada, Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics, Homicide Survey.

As some research shows, the higher rates of family homicides among young children may be partly related to young children's early stages of growth and physical vulnerability to injury (Miehl 2005; Blumenthal 2002). This is particularly possible in cases of Shaken Baby Syndrome, which results from the violent shaking of infants or young children, with or without impact to the head (CDC 2012). Nearly one-third (31%) of family-related homicides of infants less than one year between 2000 and 2010 were attributed to Shaken Baby Syndrome (Table 3.3). Strangulation, suffocation, and drowning accounted for another 25% of infant deaths, while beating was the cause of death in 25% of homicides. Other means, including shootings or stabbings, accounted for 14% of killings of infants by a family member.

Girls at higher risk of family violence than boys

There is a combined effect of age and sex on a child and youth's risk of family violence. Overall, in 2010, girls were 37% more likely than boys to be the victims of violent crime committed by their family members (338 incidents per 100,000 population compared to 212 per 100,000) (Table 3.4). This elevated risk of family violence intensifies with age (Chart 3.4). While the rates of family violence between boys and girls were similar before three years of age, thereafter the rates began to diverge and the difference continued to widen until adolescence. By 12 to 17 years of age, the rate for girls was nearly double the rate for boys (552 per 100,000 versus 284 per 100,000).

Chart 3.4
Child and youth victims (0 to 17 years) of family violence, by age and sex of victim, Canada, 2010

Data table for chart 3.4

Chart 3.4 Child and youth victims (0 to 17 years) of family violence, by age and sex of victim, Canada, 2010

Note: Family includes parents, siblings, extended family members and spouses. Excludes incidents where the sex and/or age of the victim was unknown. Excludes spousal victims under the age of 15 years. Rates are calculated on the basis of 100,000 population. Populations based upon July 1st estimates from Statistics Canada, Demography Division.
Source: Statistics Canada, Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics, Incident-based Uniform Crime Reporting Survey.

The leading contributor to the higher rates of family violence among girls, particularly as they age, relates to their much higher risk of sexual violence (Table 3.5). They were more than four times as likely as boys to be a victim of sexual assault or other sexual offences (134 victims per 100,000 population versus 30 per 100,000 population) committed by a family member.

For violence not involving family members, a somewhat different gender-based risk emerges. In 2010, the rates of non-family violence were generally higher for boys, with the exception of sexual violence and forcible confinement/kidnapping offences. The generally higher level of risk for boys was most pronounced for children aged 3 to 11 years of age, but was more muted among adolescents. No gender difference existed in a child's first three years of life for non-family violence.

Accused characteristics of police-reported violence against children and youth

Males most common perpetrators of family violence

To obtain a more complete picture of violence against children and youth, it is important to examine the characteristics of offenders,Note 12 including their sex, age, and relationship to the child or youth. As with non-family violence, males were over-represented as accused persons in incidents of family violence (79%). This was true irrespective of the age and sex of the victim.

The age of individuals accused of family violence and non-family violence is intrinsically connected to their relationship to the victim and the age of the child or youth victim. In 2010, family members accused of violence against children and youth tended to range in age, from adolescent accused to those in their fifties. However, as a reflection of parents' involvement as accused family members, the age of the accused generally increases as children age.

Also, the most common family members responsible for violence against children and youth tends to vary with the age of the child and youth. For incidents of violence involving children under the age of three, parents accounted for 83% of accused family members. The involvement of parents then drops to 65% for children between 3 and 11 years of age, and continues to decrease for youths aged 12 to 17 (54%).

Unlike family violence where the ages of the accused are more diverse, most perpetrators in non-family violence incidents against children and youth are the children's peers. In 2010, nearly six in ten (57%) of those accused of non-family violence against children or youth were under the age of 18.

Severity of police-reported violence against children and youth

Family members most often identified in homicides against children and youth

To examine the seriousness of family violence against children and youth relative to non-family violence, there are three key indicators: offence severity, level of injury and use of weapon. The gravity of the offence or offence severity can often be best understood based on the Crime Severity Index. This index identifies the offences that are more or less serious by taking into account the average sentences handed down by criminal courts. Based on the Crime Severity Index, violent offences range in seriousness from homicide to the offence of indecent/harassing phone calls. Any patterns in offence severity, however, will be tempered by the fact that only the most serious offences may come to the attention of police due to the hidden nature of child abuse.

According to police-reported data, when violence culminates in the killing of a child or youth, family members were most often implicated (Chart 3.5). Specifically, 54% of solved homicides against children and youth were committed by a parent, sibling, extended family or spouse. By comparison, friends or acquaintances accounted for 29% of solved homicides and strangers for the remaining 17%.

Chart 3.5
Child and youth victims (0 to 17 years) of police-reported violent crime, by type of accused-victim relationship and type of offence, Canada, 2010

Data table for chart 3.5

Chart 3.5 Child and youth victims (0 to 17 years) of police-reported violent crime, by type of accused-victim relationship and type of offence, Canada, 2010

1. Other violent offences include criminal harassment, uttering threats, indecent or harassing phone calls, trafficking in persons and other violent violations.
Note: Family includes parents, siblings, extended family members and spouses. Friend/acquaintance includes acquaintances, friends, neighbours, authority figures (e.g., teacher, daycare worker), dating partners, criminal relationships and business relationships. Excludes incidents where the sex and/or age of victim was unknown and where the relationship between the victim and the accused was unknown. Excludes spousal victims under the age of 15 years. Percentages may not add to 100% due to rounding.
Source: Statistics Canada, Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics, Incident-based Uniform Crime Reporting Survey.

Using the Homicide Survey, it is possible to examine the reasons or motives behind the accused committing the most serious violent crime, homicide.Note 13 Regardless of the age of the victim, the most common motivating factor in family homicides was the accused person's frustration. This was particularly evident in homicides of children under 6 years of age, where 71% of accused family members killed the child for this reason. Similarly, non-family members were often motivated by frustration when the child was less than six years of age (70%). Motivating factors in non-family homicides against older children and youth were more varied. For example, for homicides against youth aged 12 to 17 years, the most common motive was the escalation of an argument (29%), followed by frustration (18%).

For non-lethal violence, family members were less likely to be the perpetrator of most types of crimes. Friends and acquaintances accounted for the majority of perpetrators of both physical and sexual assaults in 2010 (55% and 52%, respectively). The only exception was incest, an offence which, by definition, is committed within the family network.

Family members were more likely the accused in abduction and forcible confinement/kidnapping offences against children and youth. This pattern was driven by the parent-specific offence of parental abduction. For other violent offences against children and youth, such as harassment, uttering threats, and robbery, family members represented a smaller proportion (9%) of all perpetrators.

Frequency of injury similar between family and non-family violence against children and youth

The immediate consequences of violence against children and youth can be varied, and may include emotional, psychological and physical injury. Depending on the age and developmental stage, these consequences can also have long-term impacts on the behavioural, developmental and emotional health of children and youth (Johnson and Dawson 2011; Murray and Farrington 2010; Meltzer et al. 2009; Spilsbury et al. 2007; Krug et al. 2002). Using police-reported data, it is possible to look at the level of physical injury sustained by child and youth victims as an indicator of the severity of the violence.

Violence perpetrated by family members was equally as likely as other types of violence to result in injury to children and youth (40% and 37%). Physical injuries were more prevalent among male victims than female victims for both family (47% versus 36%) and non-family violence (41% versus 32%).

Despite the overall similarity in the patterns of injuries between family and non-family violence, there were some differences when examining specific offence types. Child and youth victims of family violence were less likely than victims of non-family violence to suffer injuries from attempted murder (38% versus 82%), forcible confinement/kidnapping and abduction (10% versus 31%), and other violent offences (e.g., robbery, criminal negligence causing bodily harm) (3% versus 10%). As far as physical and sexual assaults were concerned, there was little difference in the prevalence of injuries between family and non-family violence victims.

Generally speaking, injuries sustained by victims were relatively minor. In 2010, 97% of injuries to child victims of family violence and 96% of injuries to child victims of non-family violence required no professional medical treatment or some first aid (e.g., bandage, ice).

Physical force more common in family than non-family violence

The third indicator of seriousness of violence is the presence and use of weapons. In general, family violence against children and youth was more likely than other types of violence to involve physical force but was less likely to involve weapons.

More specifically, in three-quarters of incidents (76%), accused family members used physical force to threaten the child or to inflict injury (Table 3.6). By comparison, 62% of non-family violence incidents involved physical force against children and youth. The higher use of physical force against child and youth victims of family violence was found for homicide, as well as physical and sexual assaults. For other forms of violence, a larger share of non-family violence incidents than family violence incidents involved the use of physical force.

Family members were less likely than other offenders to use a weapon to threaten or harm the child or youth victim (14% versus 18%). The lower level of weapon involvement remained even when the weapon did, in fact, cause physical injury to the victim (13% of family violence incidents involved a weapon that caused injury versus 17% of non-family violence incidents).

There were also some salient differences in the types of weapons causing injury. In 2010, when a weapon was involved, firearms and knives/cutting instruments were more commonly used by offenders outside of the child or youth's family network (9% versus 4% among incidents of family violence).

Clearance rates

Family members more likely than non-family members to be charged by police

Violent incidents against children and youth can be reported to police by various individuals, ranging from witnesses, child welfare agencies, authority figures, such as teachers and coaches, and the victim themselves. Once a violent incident reaches the attention of police, the police may charge an accused or may deal with or clear the incident in another way, such as through departmental discretion. Alternatively, the incident may not be cleared. This occurs when an accused has not been identified in connection with the incident, or a suspect has been identified but there is insufficient evidence to lay a charge.Note 14

In 2010, police more frequently laid charges against family members accused of violent crime against children and youth (45%), compared to other persons accused of violence against children and youth (34%).Note 15

Among family members, common-law partners and legal spouses who were accused of violence against youth were more likely to be charged (57% of spouses), compared to parents accused of violence against children and youth (47% of parents), as well as accused extended family (42%) and accused siblings (41%). Charges against fathers and mothers were more often pursued when the child was under 3 years of age. Six in ten (60%) accused parents of infant and toddler victims were charged, compared to 44% of parents of 3 to 11 year-olds and 47% of parents of 12 to 17 year-olds.

Trends and regional variations in police-reported violence against children and youth

Difference between family and non-family homicides against children narrows

As mentioned earlier, rates of violence against children and youth can be influenced by a number of factors, notably variations in detection and reporting. Given that homicide is less prone to these issues, trend data on homicides against children and youth can be considered as a strong barometer of the changing level of violence against children and youth, at least for the most severe forms (Nivette 2011; United Nations 2011).

Consistent with historical trends, the 2010 rate of family-related homicides against children and youth remained higher than the non-family homicide rate against these victims (3.8 versus 3.3 per million) (Chart 3.6). However, the difference between family and non-family homicides has narrowed over the past decade. This narrowing can be attributed to the greater drops in rates of family homicide against children and youth.

Chart 3.6
Child and youth victims (0 to 17 years) of homicides, by family and non-family members, Canada, 1980 to 2010

Data table for chart 3.6

Chart 3.6 Child and youth victims (0 to 17 years) of homicides, by family and non-family members, Canada, 1980 to 2010

Note: Family include parents, siblings, extended family members and spouses. Non-family includes acquaintances, friends, neighbours, authority figures (e.g., teacher, daycare worker), dating relationships, criminal relationships, business relationships, and strangers. Excludes homicides where the sex and/or age of victim was unknown and where the relationship between the victim and the accused was unknown. Rates are calculated on the basis of 1,000,000 children and youth population (0 to 17 years). Populations based upon July 1st estimates from Statistics Canada, Demography Division.
Source: Statistics Canada, Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics, Homicide Survey.

Saskatchewan reported highest provincial rate of family violence against children and youth

Varying reporting requirements and differing definitions of children within provincial/territorial child welfare legislation are factors that may contribute to provincial and territorial variations in police-reported violent crimes against children and youth (Trocmé et al. 2010). For instance, more stringent reporting laws may result in more cases of child abuse coming to the attention of police, either directly or through other authorities.

That said, provincial and territorial differences in rates of family violence against children and youth tend to follow similar patterns to overall rates of violent crime. In particular, children and youth living in the Northwest Territories and Nunavut were most at risk of family violence, with rates at least double those recorded in the provinces (Table 3.7). Yukon, however, diverges from the other territories, as the rate of family violence against children and youth (537 per 100,000) was less than half that of Northwest Territories (1,273 per 100,000) and Nunavut (1,708 per 100,000).

Yukon's rate of family violence was also lower than one province, Saskatchewan (537 versus 640 incidents per 100,000 population). Yukon's lower rate than the other territories and Saskatchewan can be attributed to all forms of family violence, including incidents perpetrated by parents, siblings and extended family members.

Rates of family violence against children and youth were lowest in Ontario (188 per 100,000), followed by the two most western provinces, British Columbia (257 per 100,000) and Alberta (268 per 100,000).

Children and youth most at risk of violence in small cities, towns and rural areas

It might be expected that large cities or census metropolitan areas (CMAs) would have higher rates of family violence against children and youth compared to non-CMAs, including smaller cities, towns and rural areas. However, according to police-reported data for 2010, children and youth living in non-CMAs had a higher risk of both family and non-family violence. In particular, the non-CMA rate of family violence against children and youth was more than double the rate recorded for CMAs (Table 3.8). A similar pattern was evident for non-family violence against children and youth.

Among the CMAs, children and youth living in some of the smaller CMAs were at higher risk of family violence than those living in the most populous CMAs. Rates were highest in Saguenay, Saint John and Moncton, while rates in the largest CMAs of Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver had rates of family violence against children and youth below the national average.

For both family and non-family violence, Ottawa reported the lowest rates of violent crime against children and youth (101 per 100,000 and 479 per 100,000). Also among the lowest for family violence was Peterborough and Calgary, while Sherbrooke and Calgary had the second and third lowest rates of non-family violence.

Children witnessing spousal violenceNote 16

While exposing children to violence does not constitute an offence under the Criminal Code of Canada, provincial and territorial child welfare legislation consider exposure of a child to violence as a form of maltreatment. As such, provincial and territorial welfare systems have the responsibility of investigating possible cases of child exposure to spousal violence, providing necessary services, and possibly removing children from the violent householdNote 17 (Trocmé et al. 2010).

Children's exposure to spousal violence can take many forms. They may directly see or hear the violence of one parent against another. In other cases, they may witness violence in an indirect way following the act, such as injuries to their parent, overhearing or being told about the violence, witnessing police intervention, or moving to a temporary residence.

Previous research has found that witnessing spousal violence can result in a range of negative consequences to children, including emotional, psychological, cognitive, social and behavioural problems (Holt, et al. 2008; Kitzmann, et al. 2003; Zuckerman et al. 1995). It has been suggested that these effects may be similar to the negative outcomes for children who were physically abused (Kitzmann et al. 2003). Factors such as the child's age and sex have been found to impact the extent and nature of the adverse effects on children present in violent households. For example, some studies have indicated that children in the early stages of development display the most negative effects of witnessing violence compared to children in older age groups (Holt et al. 2008; Hornor 2005; Huth-Bocks et al. 2001). This may be attributed to their complete dependency on primary caregivers, typically their mothers, for all aspects of development (Huth-Bocks et al. 2001).

Another impact of witnessing violence is the potential intergenerational continuation of violence. In other words, there is some evidence to suggest that the cycle of violence may continue with children who have witnessed family violence (Cunningham and Baker 2004). Results from the National Longitudinal Survey of Children and Youth show that witnessing violence increases children's physical aggression and indirect aggression (Dauvergne and Johnson 2001; Moss 2003).

In Canada, recent national level data on children's exposure to violence in the domestic sphere is available through the General Social Survey (GSS) on victimization. The GSS on victimization is based on spousal victim's reports of their children's exposure to victimization within the previous 5 years. Using the GSS on victimization,Note 18 it is possible to examine the prevalence of children's exposure to spousal violence, as well as the difference in the severity of these incidents, levels of reporting to police and use of social services, compared to acts of spousal violence with no child witnesses. The extent of spousal violence witnessed by children, however, will be an underestimation, since the 2009 GSS only asks respondents with children, if their children saw or heard spousal violence in the form of physical or sexual assaults. It does not ask about indirect exposure to violence or exposure to emotional or verbal spousal violence. Underestimation may also occur due to the lack of the parent's awareness of child witnesses or the parent's desire not to disclose the involvement of children for fear of repercussions or due to feelings of shame (Dauvergne and Johnson 2001).

Proportion of spousal violence victims whose children witnessed the violence increases from 2004

In contrast to the relative stability in rates of self-reported spousal victimization,Note 19 the likelihood of children seeing or hearing this type of violence has increased between 2004 and 2009. Findings from the 2009 GSS on victimization indicate that over half (52%) of all spousal violence victims with one or more childrenNote 20 reported that their children heard or saw assaults on them in the five-year period preceding the survey (Table 3.9). This was up from 43% reported in the 2004 GSS on victimization (Chart 3.7).

Chart 3.7
Victims of self-reported spousal violence (within the past 5 years) reporting the presence of child witnesses, 2004 and 2009

Data table for chart 3.7

Chart 3.7 Victims of self-reported spousal violence (within the past 5 years) reporting the presence of child witnesses, 2004 and 2009

† reference category
* significantly different from reference category (p < 0.05)
Note: Spousal violence refers to violence against legally married, common-law, same-sex spouses and partners and includes only spousal violence victims with one or more children. Excludes a small number of cases where the victim reported they were a victim of spousal violence by both a current and previous spouse or partner. Data from the Northwest Territories, Yukon and Nunavut were collected using a different methodology and are therefore excluded.
Source: Statistics Canada, Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics, General Social Survey, 2004 and 2009.

In keeping with previous research,Note 21 the prevalence of exposure to violence and the severity of the spousal violence were heightened when the spousal victim was the child's mother. Almost six in ten (59%) female spousal victims with children reported that children witnessed the violent episode. In comparison, the same was true for about four in ten (43%) male spousal victims. Further, when children did witness spousal violence, physical injuries were more than twice as common in spousal violence episodes against the child's mother than those against the child's father (52% versus 22%E). Female spousal victims were also more likely to report a disruption in their daily activities to cope with the violence (37% versus 21%E).

Children more frequently witness violence against previous partners than against current partners

The breakdown of a relationship and the increased possibility of living in separate residences may suggest a reduction in the likelihood of children witnessing violence. However, data from the 2009 GSS show the opposite to be true, as episodes directed at previous spouses or partners were more likely to take place with children present than acts against current spouses or partners (64% versus 42%). Assaults on a father by a previous spouse or partner were almost twice as likely to be seen or heard by his children as assaults by a current spouse or partner (61% versus 35%) (Chart 3.8).

Chart 3.8
Victims of self-reported spousal violence (within the past 5 years) reporting the presence of child witnesses, by type of spousal relationship and sex of spousal victim, 2009

Data table for chart 3.8

Chart 3.8 Victims of self-reported spousal violence (within the past 5 years) reporting the presence of child witnesses, by type of spousal relationship and sex of spousal victim, 2009

† reference category
* significantly different from reference category (p < 0.05)
Note: Current spouse/partner refers to legally married, common-law, same-sex spouses and partners. Previous spouse /partner refers to separated and divorced spouses and includes only spousal violence victims with one or more children. Excludes a small number of cases where the victim reported they were a victim of spousal violence by both a current and previous spouse or partner. Data from the Northwest Territories, Yukon and Nunavut were collected using a different methodology and are therefore excluded.
Source: Statistics Canada, Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics, General Social Survey, 2009.

Children witness most severe forms of spousal violence

The severity of the spousal violence, both the forms of violence and the consequences of this violence, was elevated when children were present. Victims of spousal violence who reported the presence of children were more than twice as likely as those without child witnesses to suffer from the most severe types of violence, including being sexually assaulted, beaten, choked, or threatened/assaulted with a gun or knife (31% versus 12%E) (Table 3.10).

As well, spousal victims who reported the presence of children more frequently suffered from physical injuries, another indicator of the increased severity of these incidents (Table 3.11). Four in ten spousal victims with a child witness suffered from physical injuries, more than double the proportion (19%E) reported by spousal victims without any child witnesses. In some incidents with child witnesses, the injuries to the spousal victim also resulted in medical attention (20%E of victims) or hospitalization (16%E of victims).

Reflecting the increased seriousness of spousal violence incidents with child witnesses, spousal victims who indicated the presence of children were three times more likely than others to fear for their lives and three times more likely to take time off from their daily activities (32% versus 7%E and 31% versus 9%E).

Contacting police and social services more common when children witness spousal violence

The decision to report violence to police is a complex one and the victim may consider a variety of factors. In cases where a child is home during the violence, the parent must not only take into account the seriousness of the attack and his or her own safety but also the safety and well-being of the children. Whether to report the incident to police may be further complicated by the victim's apprehension to involve child welfare services, who may be contacted by police and who could intervene on behalf of the children.

According to the 2009 GSS, police involvement was more common in spousal violence incidents where a child was reported to have witnessed the violence. In all, 39% of victims whose children witnessed the spousal violence indicated that the police found out about the incident (Table 3.12). This was four times higher than the rate of police involvement in spousal violence incidents where children were not present (10%E). As with other incidents of spousal violence that came to the attention of police, the majority (72%) of spousal victims who indicated that children were in the home contacted the police themselves.

Incidents of spousal violence against mothers were more likely than those against fathers to come to the attention of police (48% versus 25%E). This may be partly explained by the heightened severity of spousal violence incidents against female victims and the finding that women are more likely to turn to the police than men (Brennan 2011).

Motivations behind contacting police can be varied. Stopping the violence or receiving protection was the most common reason for reporting incidents of spousal violence to police, with 93% of spousal victims with child witnesses reporting it as a factor in their decision to involve police. Other reasons included a sense of duty (51%), a desire to arrest and punish the abusive partner (34%E), and on the recommendation of someone else (23%E).

In addition to an increased tendency to involve police, the presence of child witnesses was also linked to higher levels of contact with formal social services. Nearly half (47%) of spousal victims with child witnesses contacted social services for help, such as a counsellor, community centre, shelter or transition home, or victim services. This was about 2.5 times higher than the use of social services by spousal victims who did not report any child witnesses during the violent episode (19%). While the increased use of social services was true for both sexes when children were present, female spousal victims more frequently sought help (56% versus 33%E of male spousal victims).

Text box 3.1
Overview of findings from the 2008 Canadian Incidence Study (CIS) of Reported Child Abuse and Neglect

Based on Trocmé, N., Fallon, B., MacLaurin, B., Sinha, V., Black, T., Fast, E., Felstiner, C., Hélie, S., Turcotte, D., Weightman, P., Douglas, J., and Holroyd, J. 2010. Canadian Incidence of Reported Child Abuse and Neglect – 2008: Major findings. Ottawa.

In 2008, the Canadian Incidence Study of Reported Child Abuse and Neglect-2008 (CIS-2008) collected data on incidents of child maltreatment reported to and investigated by provincial and territorial child welfare systems.Note 22 It was the third time this study was undertaken (previous surveys were conducted in 1998 and 2003) and the 2008 sample included nearly 16,000 cases of maltreatment from across Canada. This representative sample was then weighted to give national estimates on the extent and nature of child maltreatment investigations.

Estimates from this study indicated that there were 235,842 maltreatment cases investigated by child welfare agencies in Canada in 2008. Of these, abuse or neglect was substantiated through investigation to have taken place in 85,440 cases, representing a rate of 14 substantiated investigations per 1,000 children aged 15 and younger.Note 23 Exposure to intimate partner violence and child neglect were the most common forms of substantiated child maltreatment investigations, accounting for 34% each. Other categories of substantiated child maltreatment included physical abuse (20%), emotional maltreatment (9%) and sexual abuse (3%).

Injuries were inflicted on children in 8% of substantiated maltreatment cases, ranging from a low of 1% in cases of exposure to intimate partner violence to a high of 26% in cases of physical abuse. Mental or emotional harm was more frequently reported than physical harm. Almost three in ten cases of child maltreatment involved emotional harm (29%) and more than half of these cases were so severe that treatment was required. As with physical harm, the level of emotional harm varied depending on the type of maltreatment. Sexual abuse had the highest occurrence of emotional harm (47%), followed by emotional maltreatment (36%), neglect (30%), exposure to intimate partner violence (26%) and physical abuse (26%). It is noteworthy that the authors of the study (Trocmé et al. 2010) warn that these numbers may be an underestimation due to the nature of emotional harm, which may only manifest itself later.

Within the CIS, child welfare workers were also asked about the primary caregiver's risk factors for child maltreatment. In 78% of substantiated cases of maltreatment, the workers noted the presence of one or more risk factors. Being a victim of domestic violence was cited as the most common concern (46%), followed by few social supports (39%), mental health issues (27%), alcohol abuse (21%), drug or solvent abuse (17%) and being a perpetrator of domestic violence (13%).

End of text box 3.1.

Summary

This section explored police-reported violence against children and youth, as well as one form of child maltreatment – children witnessing spousal violence. The examination of police-reported violence against children and youth revealed some notable differences between violence committed by family members and non-family members. Girls and young children were most often victimized by family members, while boys and those over the age of eight were more likely to be victimized by individuals outside their family.

The nature of the police-reported violence also varied. Family violence against children and youth was more often characterized by physical force, while non-family violence was more likely than family violence to involve the presence of weapons. As with family violence overall, charges were more likely laid or recommended when the perpetrator was a family member.

According to the General Social Survey (GSS) on victimization, the proportion of children witnessing spousal violence has increased between 2004 and 2009. Spousal violence incidents with child witnesses more often involved estranged partners and were more serious in nature (i.e., more severe types of violence and incidents resulting in injury). Perhaps as a consequence of the severity and presence of children, spousal violence incidents were more likely to come to the attention of police when children witnessed the violence.

Detailed data tables

Table 3.1 Child and youth victims (0 to 17 years) of police-reported violent crime, by type of offence and age of victim, Canada, 2010

Table 3.2 Child and youth victims (0 to 17 years) of police-reported violent crime, by family and non-family members and type of offence, Canada, 2010

Table 3.3 Child and youth victims (0 to 17 years) of family-related homicides, by age group of the victim and cause of death, Canada, 2000 to 2010

Table 3.4 Child and youth victims (0 to 17 years) of police-reported violent crime, by family and non-family members, by sex and age group of the victim, Canada, 2010

Table 3.5 Child and youth victims (0 to 17 years) of police-reported violent crime, by family and non-family members, by sex of the victim and type of offence, Canada, 2010

Table 3.6 Child and youth victims (0 to 17 years) of police-reported violent crime, by family and non-family members and most serious weapon present, Canada, 2010

Table 3.7 Child and youth victims (0 to 17 years) of police-reported violent crime, by family and non-family members, by province and territory, 2010

Table 3.8 Child and youth victims (0 to 17 years) of police-reported violent crime, by family and non-family members, by census metropolitan area, 2010

Table 3.9 Victims of self-reported spousal violence (within the past 5 years) reporting the presence or absence of child witnesses, by sex of spousal victim, 2009

Table 3.10 Victims of self-reported spousal violence (within the past 5 years) reporting the presence or absence of child witnesses, by type of violence, 2009

Table 3.11 Victims of self-reported spousal violence (within the past 5 years) reporting the presence or absence of child witnesses, by sex of spousal victim and consequences of spousal violence, 2009

Table 3.12 Victims of self-reported spousal violence (within the past 5 years) reporting the presence or absence of child witnesses, by sex of spousal victim and contact with police, 2009

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Notes

  • E use with caution
  1. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) came into effect on September 2, 1990. Canada ratified the CRC in December 1991. As of December 10, 2010, it had been ratified by 193 countries (Canadian Heritage 2011).
  2. One of Canada's roles in implementing the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child is collecting and disseminating data on the well-being of children to monitor progress and to aid in the improvement of children's situations.
  3. The General Social Survey (GSS) on Victimization captures data on Canadians aged 15 years and older. Hence, some information is available for older youths aged 15 to 17.
  4. Additional data sources, such as hospital morbidity data, have been suggested as an alternative measurement for capturing data on child abuse. This approach would rely on the detection and coding of child abuse cases by health professionals (McKenzie and Scott 2011).
  5. According to the 2004 GSS on victimization, 80% of individuals aged 15 to 17 years did not report their victimization to police (Ogrodnik 2010). The sample of individuals aged 15 to 17 years was too small in the 2009 GSS on victimization to permit reliable estimates of violent victimization rates or reporting levels to police.
  6. Provincial/territorial child protection legislation varies in the ages covered (Trocmé et al. 2010).
  7. Data from Northwest Territories, Yukon, and Nunavut were collected using a different methodology and are therefore excluded.
  8. Includes casual acquaintances (social relationships that are neither long-term nor close) and neighbours.
  9. Includes authority figures, criminal associates, and business associates.
  10. The following sections examine the characteristics of family violence according to the definition of family violence exclusive of dating violence.
  11. For this analysis, a subset consisting of homicide incidents with a single accused was created, which represents 95% of the total number of persons accused of family violence against children and youth between 2000 and 2010. The results shown are derived from this subset of single accused.
  12. To examine particular accused characteristics, a subset consisting of incidents with only a single accused was created. The percentages in this analysis are derived from a subset of accused representing 76% of the total number of persons accused of violence against children and youth in 2010 (71% of family violence and 79% of non-family violence).
  13. Information on the motives of accused is not available from the Incident-based Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) Survey.
  14. The incident may not be cleared at the time of reporting to the UCR Survey, but may be cleared by police at a later time. Updates to the clearance status on the UCR Survey are made accordingly.
  15. Clearance data for Montreal were not available in 2010. As a result, they are excluded from all analysis of clearance information.
  16. Analysis using the GSS on victimization does not include violence against dating partners. Data from Northwest Territories, Yukon, and Nunavut are excluded. Unless otherwise noted, all differences are statistically significant at p<0.05.
  17. Previous research has shown that in most Canadian provinces and territories, the removal of children who are exposed to family violence often depends on whether this exposure is the only form of child maltreatment (Black et al. 2008).
  18. Data from Northwest Territories, Yukon and Nunavut were collected using a different methodology and are therefore excluded.
  19. See Brennan, S. 2011. "Self-reported spousal violence, 2009." in Family Violence in Canada: A Statistical Profile. Statistics Canada Catalogue no. 85-224-X.
  20. Spousal violence includes violence against legally married, common-law, same-sex, separated and divorced couples. It excludes a small number of cases where the victim reported they were a victim of spousal violence by both a current and previous spouse or partner. Data from Northwest Territories, Yukon, and Nunavut are excluded.
  21. See Beattie, K. 2005. "Family violence against children and youth." in Family Violence in Canada: A Statistical Profile. Statistics Canada Catalogue no. 85-224-X, and Dauvergne, M. and H. Johnson. 2001. "Children witnessing family violence." in Family Violence in Canada: A Statistical Profile. Statistics Canada Catalogue no. 85-224-X.
  22. It is noteworthy that the Canadian Incidence Study (CIS) and the GSS on Victimization measure children's exposure to spousal violence differently and, therefore, comparisons should not be attempted. Differences between the CIS and GSS include, though are not limited to, differences in the definitions of children's exposure to violence, survey and sampling design, sampling frame (self-reports from Canadians versus child welfare service reports of child maltreatment), and reference period.
  23. For the purpose of developing a national estimate, only children and youth under 16 years were included. This is because provinces and territories differ in the age ranges covered under legislation, with maximum ages varying from 15 to 19 years of age.