Family violence: Towards a holistic approach to screening and risk assessment in family support services

AFRC Briefing No. 17 – September 2010

Background and definitions

Questions of how family violence is defined, how commonly it occurs, and how gendered are its origins and its expression, go to the heart of our understanding of and our responses to this phenomenon. Though considerable progress has been made, none of these questions are settled. Therefore legislative definitions continue to vary, as do definitions employed by the social sciences and health and welfare service providers (Australian Law Reform Commission & NSW Law Reform Commission, 2010). Differing definitions also reflect differing assumptions and differing emphases regarding the broad nature of violence, particularly family violence. An Australian discussion paper published by the Domestic Violence Resource Centre (DVRC),2 made the following pertinent observation in this regard:

Usually researchers go into the field armed with a preferred definition of domestic violence, then ask research participants for their view on, or experience of, that form of violence. They do not generally seek from participants their own understanding of violence. (MacDonald, 1998, p. 7)

The multiple examples of "preferred positions" with respect to definitions, prevalence and reasons for family violence found in the research literature, has a tendency to "muddy the waters" whenever this issue is discussed.3 The confusion in the literature in part reflects the developmental nature of the field. Some definitions reinforce particular views of practitioners whose experience with largely clinical samples impress upon them the damage that family violence can do, especially to women and children. Other definitions are more likely to reflect the work of those who study violence across populations, for whom an emphasis on gender is not usually so prominent. MacDonald's (1998) observation is an important reminder not just to researchers but also to those who work as practitioners in this difficult field, that high quality practice begins with high quality assessment of exactly what has happened, how often, for what reasons, and the extent to which the behaviour is likely to continue.

Definitional, prevalence and causative debates are likely to continue for some time. We suggest nonetheless, that there are several core propositions, which are unequivocally supported in the literature. These are:

  • Family violence is a significant problem, which is associated with a broad range of poor outcomes for children and for other family members.
  • There is general consensus that useful definitions of family violence must encompass the range of ways in which violence is expressed and the range of ways in which one individual seeks to control the life of another. Clearly violence is not just physical and just as clearly, significant fear can be engendered by attitudes and behaviours that are not necessarily obvious to the naïve or untrained observer.
  • Whilst not all violence is gendered, for a variety of reasons, the role that gender plays in the institutionalisation and maintenance of violence is one that cannot be ignored.

We proceed on the basis of these propositions for the remainder of this paper.


2 Formerly the Domestic Violence and Incest Resource Centre (Victoria).

3 Note: Practitioners need to combine their clinical skills with an appreciation of the best research available. However, it is not the intention of this paper to propose a decisive definition of family violence; to be definitive about its prevalence; or to attempt to resolve the ongoing dispute in the literature with respect to differing types of family violence and the extent to which violence is primarily a gendered phenomenon. Readers who wish to access one summary of these complex issues in an Australian context are referred to Moloney et al. (2007), which addresses issues around definitions, critiques the “not all violence is the same” debate, and cites Australian Bureau of Statistics and other figures on prevalence in Australia. More broadly on these issues, the reader is referred to the excellent special edition of the Family Court Review (2008, 46(3)), which presented a series of papers arising out of the Wingspread Conference on Family Violence, including a consensus paper by Ver Steegh and Dalton (2008); and to Johnston, Roseby, and Kuehlne (2009), who propose a series of decision-making steps that should be taken when allegations of violence or child abuse are made and contested.