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

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The rate of family violence in Canadian society has been recognized by the Government of Canada as a serious social problem in this country. According to the results of the current study, male federal offenders represent a major group at risk of perpetrating acts of family violence. The current findings suggest that 1 in 3 men admitted to federal institutions have been violent toward their family members, 1 in 3 married men have abused their female partners, 1 in 5 married men have been charged for such offences, and at least 1 in 10 men with children have assaulted their children. The data also draw attention to a high level of childhood victimization experienced by men under federal jurisdiction. Half of the offenders in this sample possessed file evidence of childhood abuse by their families. The seriousness of the problem is underscored when it is considered that the methodology employed in the current study likely provides an under-estimate of the magnitude of family violence experienced and perpetrated by federal offenders.

The findings provide a strong rationale for placing an emphasis on monitoring offender participation in family life during periods of community supervision as well as during periods of family visiting while incarcerated (e.g., private family visiting). Given that almost half of the offenders who abused their female partners repeated the offence with more than one partner, the potential for new occurrences of victimization after release represents a major problem facing community supervision staff. An earlier study has also identified perpetrators of abuse against female partners as more likely to fail on community supervision than offenders who were not identified as spousal abusers (Motiuk & Brown, 1993). Taken together with the current findings, these results suggest that men who have a history of family violence are in need of programming addressed at reducing the chances of recidivistic crimes involving assaultive behaviour in the family. In the context of community supervision, the results also point to the need for enhanced monitoring of men who have been family violent in the past.

The findings with respect to correlates of family violence also provide some knowledge which is relevant to program planning for offenders who have engaged in assaultive behaviour toward their families. The data confirm earlier findings with respect to the correlation between the perpetration of family violence and childhood victimization, alcohol problems, and diagnoses of mental disorders. In many cases, these correlates are taken into consideration in current programs that combine the feminist and social learning principles of intervention. With respect to childhood victimization, programs should address possible attempts of offenders to excuse their offending behaviour by appealing to their victimization experiences. Similarly, the possibility that offenders use their alcohol problems to neutralize blame for offending should be considered. Programs should help offenders learn to take responsibility for the possible role alcohol plays in facilitating their use of violence against family members. Finally, the association between mental diagnoses and family violence suggests that many of the offenders who will participate in programming may have special problems that set limits on their ability to benefit from programs. Offenders with mental disorders, particularly borderline and anti-social personality disorders may present major deficits in terms of their ability to adjust and contribute to healthy family functioning.

The family violence incidence figures provide strong support for the Family Violence Initiative which has been undertaken by the Correctional Service of Canada. The study confirms that federal offenders are at high risk of family violence and that interventions at the treatment and prevention levels must be included in our comprehensive programming strategy. The number of offenders who possess histories of family violence is more than sufficient to warrant efforts to make family violence programming widely available in all regions of the Service. The available data suggest that our treatment efforts should focus on the prevention of assaultive behaviour toward female partners, the most frequently occurring form of family violence identified. However, we have also noted a sizeable subset of federal offenders who have been sexually or physically assaultive toward their children.

The current study provides a "best" available estimate of the incidence of family violence perpetration and victimization for a national sample of federal offenders. Again, it is acknowledged that our figures may under-estimate the extent of family violence perpetrated by federal offenders. However, as the Family Violence Initiative of the Correctional Service of Canada unfolds, it is likely that we will be in a position to more accurately assess the overall level of family violence in our population and to identify individual offenders who are in need of family violence intervention. The Family Violence Initiative has increased the awareness of staff regarding family violence issues through the introduction of a number of prevention and treatment programs for family violent offenders and through staff awareness training sessions which have been offered throughout the Service. In the future, we expect that file review studies of family violence will identify more comprehensive and complete information about family violence perpetration and victimization in our population of offenders.