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The Incidence of Family Violence Perpetrated by Federal Offenders: A File Review Study

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Executive Summary

The primary objective of this study was to provide knowledge about the level of perpetration of family violence that exists among male offenders under the jurisdiction of the Correctional Service of Canada. A secondary objective was to examine correlates of perpetration in order to identify the "risk markers" of family violence. Although it was suspected that federal offenders exhibit a high incidence of family violence, there was a lack of empirical evidence to establish the level of seriousness of the problem. The current study represents the first national study aimed at investigating the incidence of family violence among federal offenders.

Owing to the high cost and intrusiveness of alternative research methods (e.g., interviews with offenders and their family members), a file review methodology was selected. While it was believed that the file review method may not provide a complete picture of the problem owing to incompleteness of records about family violence in institutional files, this methodology constituted the most efficient strategy for a first national study of the issue. Nine hundred and thirty-five institutional files of men admitted to Correctional Service of Canada institutions during 1992 were reviewed to study the perpetration of family violence in the population of federal offenders. The files were randomly selected and the sample was stratified by region in order to ensure that smaller regions were well represented. The sample was designed to be representative of the federal admission population. Characteristics of offenders from the sample were found to match the characteristics of the population under study on a number of key demographic variables. Five file reviewers were hired by an independent consulting firm to conduct the file reviews in the institutions where offenders had been admitted.

About one third of all files reviewed contained information suggesting the perpetration of some form of family violence including physical, sexual or psychological abuse of family members. The files revealed that more than half (56.3%) of these men had been abusive toward more than one family member. In approximately 80% of the files containing references to the perpetration of family violence, official charges had resulted from the abusive behaviour. Existing studies of family violence suggest that family violence perpetrators normally escape detection and that an official charge is normally an unlikely outcome. While we identified a substantial number of offenders who had been perpetrators of family violence (i.e., one-third), the high proportion of official charges suggests that we underestimated the true incidence of family violence in this population. It is likely that a research methodology aimed at more carefully identifying "unofficial" incidents would provide a higher estimate of occurrence.

Abuse against female partners was the most frequently occurring type of abuse recorded. Among offenders who had been involved in a marital relationship (legal and common law unions) sometime during their lifetimes, about one-third (29%) had been abusive toward a female partner. In fact, one in five men who had been involved in a relationship had official charges relating to abuse of a partner.

In the majority of recorded cases of abuse against female partners, physical assault was the type of abuse reported in files (92.8%). Hitting was the most frequently occurring type of physical abuse against female partners (65.3%), followed by pushing (32.4%), threats (31.2%), kicking (12.9%) and choking (10.0%). Incidents involving shooting (4.1%) and stabbing (7.1%) also occurred among men who had been assaultive toward their partners. Almost half of the cases of abuse against a female partner involved an injury which required medical attention. The seriousness of the abuse against female partners in this population is further highlighted by the fact that nearly half of the abusive men in the sample had assaulted more than one female partner.

Abuse of children was less common than abuse of female partners. However, among offenders who had children or step-children, 13.3% of files contained some evidence of child abuse. In the majority of these cases the nature of the abuse was sexual (83.7%). In addition, official charges had been associated with most of the incidents of child abuse recorded (87.3%). Therefore, it is highly likely that the file review figures under-estimate the number of offenders who have been physically or sexually abusive toward their children but were never charged.

There were statistically significant regional differences in the number of identified perpetrators of family violence. The Prairie and Atlantic regions exhibited the highest rates of family violence in comparison to other regions. In these regions approximately 40% of offenders had file evidence of abuse against family members. In other regions the rate was approximately 30%. The higher rate of family violence discovered in the Atlantic region was not readily explained by the data. However, the high rate reported for the Prairie region is apparently related to the concentration of Aboriginal offenders in this region. Overall, Aboriginal offenders were much more likely to have been identified as perpetrators of family violence (51.9%) than non-Aboriginal offenders (31.2%).

There was evidence that a large proportion of the federal admissions in our sample had been victimized by family members when they were children. According to documentation contained in the files, half of the sample (50.2%) had suffered some form of personal victimization at the hands of family members or had witnessed the abuse of other family members. More specifically, about 25% had been physically abused and about 12% had been sexually abused during childhood. Generally, fathers were the perpetrators of the abuse (including male biological and adoptive parents and guardians). In most cases childhood victimization began occurring before the offenders were aged 5 years and continued into the period of 12 to 16 years of age.

Almost one quarter (24.6%) of all files in the sample contained evidence that abuse against family members had been witnessed during childhood. In most cases the witnessing referred to wife battering (67.5%) but a significant number of offenders who witnessed abuse had been exposed to the abuse of other children (63.5%).

Consistent with established findings in research on wife-battering, childhood victimization, including experiencing and witnessing abuse, was predictive of later perpetration of violence against family members. Offenders who had experienced childhood victimization had higher rates of perpetration of abuse against their female partners and children. Although there were fewer reported cases of witnessing abuse in comparison to experiencing abuse in this sample, witnessing was as strong a predictor of adult perpetration of family violence as experiencing of abuse. This finding gives support to the social learning model of intervention with family violent offenders which is currently being developed by the Correctional Service of Canada.

Other significant correlates of perpetration of family violence included alcohol dependency problems and the diagnosis of a mental disorder. These findings also confirm earlier results reported in the wife-battering literature. These correlates have obvious implications for the identification of men who require family violence prevention or treatment programming. Education and employment stability were less powerful correlates of family violence. In addition, criminal history variables were not strongly correlated with the perpetration of family violence. Age, however, was significantly and positively related to the incidence of family violence in this population of federal admissions. Presumably because they had not yet been detected or had been at risk for fewer years, younger offenders (i.e, men under the age of 30 years) had lower rates of family violence on record than older offenders. This suggests that many younger offenders who will later be under community supervision may be at risk of perpetrating acts of violence against their families following release.

Despite the probability that the current file review-based figures underestimate the level of family violence perpetrated by men under the jurisdiction of the Correctional Service of Canada, this study has identified a substantial number of perpetrators of family violence among newly admitted federal offenders. We can now say that at least one third of our population of offenders have been violent toward their families. In addition, close to one half of federal offenders possess an important risk marker for the perpetration of family violence: childhood victimization by family members. Coupled with other data suggesting that perpetrators of family violence have generally higher rates of failure on community release than non-perpetrators, the results of this study strongly reinforce continued program development and implementation which has begun through the Family Violence initiative in the Correctional Service of Canada.