Since the 1970s, there has been an increased awareness that crimes of violence are not only perpetrated by strangers in public places. Research has uncovered a large amount of violent criminal behaviour that occurs between intimates in private locations, such as the home. These crimes have been underreported because of concerns about privacy, because of fear of retribution or because of concerns about maintaining the integrity of family relations. This underreporting has led to ignoring these crimes and denying the harm actually done to their victims. However, through the increased vigilance of medical agencies, through surveys of victims and through changes in police response we are now becoming more aware of the extent of these problem and their consequences.
Child and Spousal Abuse
Family violence takes on a variety of forms. CHILD ABUSE was brought to public attention recently with the documentation of the "battered child syndrome," which constituted a pattern of suspicious injuries to children brought to emergency clinics. Under changes to the criminal law, physicians or others who routinely come into contact with children (such as teachers) are now required to report suspicious injuries to the police. In addition to physical assault, there is also increased concern about the extent to which children are sexually assaulted within families (see SEXUAL ABUSE OF CHILDREN).
The extent of spousal assault has been documented recently in a national survey conducted by Statistics Canada, the Violence Against Women Survey (1993). The study suggests that 29% of women have at one time been victims of violence in their marital relationships. The victimization of women is compounded by difficulties that they face in getting out of abusive relationships. Women are often constrained by lack of employment, the responsibility for children and the fear of social disapproval from family and friends for not being able to make the best of a troubled marriage.
Changes in Police Policy
Changes in police policy have mandated that police who see evidence of physical injury in domestic cases lay charges against the offender. This change no longer requires that the victim of these assaults bring the charges against the offender. In addition, there have been changes to the Criminal Code which makes it a crime to force unwanted sex on one's spouse.
A concerted effort has been made by public agencies to respond to the needs of women who are victims of family violence through the provision of shelters where they and their children can find a safe place to live for short periods of time. Concerns are raised, though, that this violence will only go away when society changes its expectations of family relations, where women's dependence and powerlessness in relationships are replaced by marital relations based on equal standing between partners.
Spousal violence is of concern not only for the damage that it does to individuals in relationships but also for the example that it sets for children who grow up to use these same strategies in dealing with their own spouses. The cycle of violence suggests that violent behaviours are learned through observation and repeated in subsequent generations.
Extreme forms of family violence can result in death. In Canada in the last 30 years spousal murder has constituted, on average, about 20 to 25% of all homicide. Of all women killed in that time, 49% were killed by their husbands, while only 10% of murdered males were killed by their wives. Of women who killed, 40 per cent murdered their husband or common-law husband. In cases of women killing husbands, ordinarily self-defence removes culpability from an individual where her action (in this case killing someone) was in response to imminent danger.
There have been cases where women have murdered their sleeping spouses in which they claim that they did this in self-defence after of a long, painful experience of spouse battering. The Canadian courts have accepted a modified self-defence (the battered wife defence) that says that women who have suffered from abuse may develop the perception that they are in imminent danger, even though an assault against them is not in progress. They feel incapable of escape and act in a way to defend themselves which leads to the aggressor's death. Under these circumstances, the woman can be found not guilty of homicide (for example Regina vs Lavalee, 1990).
Elder abuse has emerged as a problem, particularly in emotional and monetary terms. With the high levels of dependency between the older and younger family members, tensions can develop over care, property and inheritance. The higher demands that some elderly have for support in daily living can increase these problems. The elderly are particularly vulnerable to physical injury, making it hard to detect physical abuse by family members. There is, as well, great reluctance on the part of the elderly to report this mistreatment when they are strongly dependent on other family members for day-to-day support.