How can family violence, and its impact on criminal activity, be prevented?

A new report “Every 4 minutes – A discussion paper on preventing family violence in New Zealand” by Justice sector Chief Science Advisor, Dr Ian Lambie, discusses the evidence and asks us, as a community, to get involved.

Family violence includes child maltreatment, abuse and neglect, and violence between adults (intimate-partner violence). It used to be called domestic violence.

Dr Lambie says family violence is widespread and goes on behind closed doors in all suburbs, affects the childhoods of many New Zealanders, and disturbs adult and family relationships.

“Family violence and child maltreatment cause enduring physical and mental harm,” he says. “It is also linked to criminal offending, with most young offenders (80%) having experienced family violence in their childhoods.”

The report is the latest in a series on the criminal-justice system that Dr Lambie has written for the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor. The title refers to the fact that there were 121,747 family harm investigations by New Zealand Police in 2017, which equates to one every 4 minutes.

“Preventing family violence is both very simple and very complicated,” he says. “Day-to-day, it’s about not ignoring the way your friend’s partner treats them, or not judging the disruptive child at school and just wanting them kicked out.”

“But it’s also about reflecting on our beliefs about relationships; who is responsible for family wellbeing in our communities and how public and private resources should be applied.”

Research shows that the cost of early intervention and breaking the cycle of family violence is far less than the cost of putting adults into prison, or treating the physical and mental health effects of violence.

“It should be simple to take action,” Dr Lambie says. ”Start with the needs of children and families at the centre, and work out how to meet them. But New Zealand is poorly served when social services are not supported to work well together, nor to ensure that there are enough trained staff that can work across sectors and diverse communities.”

“Talking about the wellbeing of babies seems a long way from arguments about the prison muster, but that is where the evidence says we must begin,” Dr Lambie says

Contact: Dr Ian Lambie – i.lambie@auckland.ac.nz – ph 027 280 9948

Background

Every 4 minutes is the third in a series of reports (Using evidence to build a better justice system: The challenge of rising prison costs and It’s never too early, never too late: A discussion paper on preventing youth offending in New Zealand) related to the criminal-justice system, as the cumulative effects of family violence and child maltreatment are associated with later criminal-justice involvement, as well as negative physical and mental health effects.

1.         Family violence includes child maltreatment (physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse, or neglect), intimate-partner violence (physical, sexual, or emotional violence from a partner or ex-partner) and intrafamilial violence (between siblings, adult children to parents and other violence between relatives).  It used to be called “domestic violence”.

2.         Exposure to family violence has a substantial impact. The immune system, nervous system, and metabolic systems of young children are affected by the stress of family violence, often affecting physical and mental wellbeing for life. Managing feelings (especially aggression), understanding others, and problem-solving skills can all be hampered by the extremely high levels of stress that children feel. Increased child anxiety and trauma symptoms are common.

3.         Parenting is affected by family violence, damaging parents’ ability to nurture their children in the way they desire. Intergenerational transmission of violence, neglect, and maltreatment is far too common but not inevitable. If both partners have been abused in childhood, and witnessed violence between their own parents, the chances that their adult relationships will be violent are increased.

4.         Intimate-partner violence is the leading cause of murder of women and the most common type of violence that women experience. At least one third of New Zealand women experience physical or sexual violence from an intimate partner in their lifetime, rising up to more than half when psychological/emotional abuse is included. Partner violence can be mutual and men report being victims of physical (14%) and psychological (47.3%) violence in their relationships. There can be physical injury, chronic disorders, pain, and mental health consequences from intimate-partner violence. Non-physical violence, such as controlling behaviour, intimidation, verbal abuse, and threats, also causes severe harm.

5.         One in four women from New Zealand high-income households experience physical or sexual intimate-partner violence in their lifetime; at least one in 10 New Zealand men have experienced childhood sexual abuse. Reports to police of intimate-partner violence and childhood sexual abuse represent a tiny proportion of what occurs.

6.         Early intervention and a life-course approach (understanding the stages of physical, mental, emotional, social, and cultural development that we all experience) can reduce harm in many life domains. Holistic, early support for children and families is needed. It is vital that services work well together and with those affected to provide early intervention.

7.         Despite the well reported lack of whānau violence before colonisation, Māori are now highly exposed to it. The trauma of colonisation has had an intergenerational effect on Māori, who experience disproportionate rates of family violence, combined with other negative social effects of racism, discrimination, and dislocation, alongside strengths and resilience factors that endure. Programme design, implementation, and evaluation must be in accord with a Māori worldview, informed by relevant science.

8.         High rates of family violence in Pacific communities also need to be tackled by culturally appropriate approaches, with proper understanding of the social and cultural drivers of trauma and discrimination.

9.         We lack skills and resources to respond to family violence in diverse communities, including children and adults with disability, refugees and migrants, and LGBTQI people, all of whom can be at risk of family violence and child maltreatment.

10.      Reasons for staying in violent relationships are diverse and complex including that you have come to think of abuse as normal, there is unequal power and control in the relationship, shame and secrecy, limited social and financial resources to get away, you need to protect and provide for children, you hang on to hope that things will change, and you know that leaving may be lethal to you and your children. As a community, we need to be better at finding ways to be available, take notice, reach out, and help.

11.      Resilience and recovery from the effects of family violence can emerge as a result of individual characteristics, supportive attachments, non-violent role models, and wider community support. Increasingly, the child or family’s wider environment is seen as the key to resilience – environments cause children to change for the worse, so environments need to be changed for the better.

12.      Prevention of family violence is possible. International and local evidence shows that family violence can be prevented by wider social understanding of the importance of childhood, thereby reducing all forms of adverse experiences in early life. We need to challenge social norms that relate to violence; not allow economic disadvantage to hamper non-violence; build workforce capacity in prevention and intervention; and enhance support for skilled parenting, quality early childhood care and education, and, where necessary, intervention for individual children and families (see Table 1). These areas must be culturally interpreted – they are broad categories of action that need to be led by appropriate communities.

As a series on global research in the leading scientific publication, The Lancet, explains:

The science is clear and the evidence convincing that our earliest experiences matter … We must draw on this knowledge to take action to support parents, caregivers, and families in providing the nurturing care and protection that young children deserve.
(Quote from p. 100: Britto PR, Lye SJ, Proulx K, et al. Nurturing care: promoting early childhood development. The Lancet 2017; 389(10064): 91-102.)

Table 1: Prevention of Family Violence

Strategy Approach
1.  Understand the effects of adverse childhood experiences Broaden public and professional understanding of the effects of adverse childhood experiences to drive community commitment to early prevention and intervention and ending family violence.
2.  Change social norms to support positive parenting, healthy relationships and a non-violent NZ Social and cultural norms about relationships and families, alcohol and violence, and legal-system responses all affect how individuals carry out or respond to family violence. We need to change the media focus on victim-blaming and individual service failure to awareness-raising and change.
3.  Strengthen economic supports for families Family violence occurs at all income levels but having financial resources can enhance options for leaving a violent relationship or keeping children safe. Financial demands on parenting are high, and economic disadvantage increases household stress and reduces access to safe housing, healthcare and help.
4.  Build workforce capacity and capability Trauma-informed care has at its centre the voices of children and young people affected by violence and maltreatment, and the voices of partners and parents experiencing violence. Staff in all sectors need to be adequately resourced to understand and respond to family violence and avoid re-traumatisation.
5.  Enhance parenting support and skills to promote healthy child development If violence has primarily been modelled in parenting, it is important to be able to learn other strategies. Targeted, evidence-informed, home-based and sustained programmes, can help high-risk families. Feeling part of the neighbourhood, community and culture helps lower child abuse risk for all.
6.  Provide quality early childhood care and education Early, home-based support from pregnancy, high-quality early childhood care and education, school engagement, and intervention for early challenging behaviour can all reduce risk and promote resilience.
7.  Intervene to lessen harm and prevent future risk with a trauma-informed approach Coherent, collaborative service delivery is needed, drawing on child-focused interventions, positive youth development, advocacy-based help and family support, treatment for addictions and trauma, work with perpetrators, and use of risk prediction and technology tools, as appropriate.
8.  Implementation science: Take action; measure it; do more of what works; allow what is learned to inform next steps A well-planned implementation strategy is vital, to balance evidence-informed programmes and real-world contexts, evaluate appropriately and maintain programme fidelity when scaling up. Support for emerging and promising practice, and funding for research and evaluation relevant to diverse, local, social and cultural contexts, are needed.