Section 4: Family violence against children and youth
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By Maire Sinha
- Children and youth far more likely than adults to be sexually victimized
- Family members account for one-quarter of those accused of violence against children and youth
- Young children most likely to be victimized by a family member
- Rates of police-reported violence increase as children grow older
- Shaken Baby Syndrome most common cause of death in the homicide of infants
- Girls more often than boys the victims of family violence
- Most child and youth victims of family violence do not sustain physical injury
- Less than half of family violence incidents against children resulted in charges
- Saskatchewan records the highest provincial rate of family violence against children and youth
- Familial homicides against children and youth remain rare occurrences
- Detailed data tables
It is well documented that violence against children and youth can have devastating immediate consequences to children's physical and emotional well-being (Maniglio 2009; Wang and Holton 2007). When this violence occurs within the family, particularly if the violence is ongoing, the child or youth may also experience chronic fear of future violence and may be unable to cope in other areas of their lives, such as school and socialization with peer groups (Fox and Shonkoff 2012). These consequences can have prolonged effects over their lifespan, possibly influencing emotional and behavioural trajectories into adulthood (Murray and Farrington 2010).
In addition, violence perpetrated by family members often remains hidden and may never reach the attention of police or child welfare authorities, meaning that the abuse may continue in the absence of any outside intervention. While it is difficult to quantify the levels of underreporting to official authorities,Note 1 it has been suggested that violence against children may be more likely to be unreported to police compared to violence against older victims (United Nations 2011; AuCoin 2005). This is because children may be unable or reluctant to report their victimization due to their age and stage of physical, mental and cognitive development, combined with a possible fear of reprisals from the perpetrator or other family members (United Nations 2011; AuCoin 2005; Justice Canada 2001).
The responsibility to report violence against children and youth evidently does not fall solely on the victim. Every province and territory has enacted mandatory reporting laws requiring professionals working with children and often members of the general public to report when they suspect or believe that a child is in need of protection to authorities, either police or child welfare agencies (Trocmé et al. 2010). Due to the hidden nature of abuse, however, levels of detection and subsequent reporting by others may be low (Kesner et al. 2009; Lazenbatt and Freeman 2006).
While police-reported statistics capture only a portion of all cases of violence against children, particularly against the very young, they do provide important details of those incidents that reach the attention of police. The current analysis examines the extent and nature of family violence against children and youth using police-reported data from the Incident-based Uniform Crime Reporting Survey and the Homicide Survey. All types of Criminal Code violent violations against children and youth are considered, ranging from uttering threats, physical and sexual violence, to homicide.
Children and youth far more likely than adults to be sexually victimized
Historically, children and youth have been less likely than the adult population to be victims of violent crime coming to the attention of police. This was also the case in 2011. Police reported nearly 70,000 child victims of violence or a rate of 1,014 victims per 100,000 population under the age of 18 (Table 4.1). This rate was 9% lower than the rate for adults. While the overall prevalence of violence against children and youth was lower than violence directed at adults, this was not consistently seen across all types of violent offences.
In 2011, children and youth were far more likely to be victims of sexual offences, with police-reported rates five times higher than among adults (207 victims per 100,000 versus 41 victims per 100,000). This was true for all types of sexual assaults, as well other sexual offences. Included in the latter category are those violations specific to children, such as sexual interference, invitation to sexual touching, luring a child via a computer, sexual exploitation, and corrupting children.
Family members account for one-quarter of those accused of violence against children and youth
Most often, child and youth victims of violence know the perpetrator. About one-quarter (26%) of those accused of violence against children and youth were family members, including a parent, step-parent, foster parent, sibling, grandparent or extended family member, while another 53% were either acquaintances or friends of the child or youth.
In total, police reported just over 18,300 child victims of family-related violence in 2011. This represented a rate of 267 child victims of family violence for every 100,000 Canadians under the age of 18.
Family members were the most common perpetrator in the most serious forms of violence against children and youth, including homicide (51%) and attempted murder (43%) (Chart 4.1). They were also more often implicated in abduction, forcible confinement and kidnapping offences, which were generally driven by the parent-specific offence of parental abduction (42%). The offences with a lower representation of family members as accused were sexual offences, intimidation offences (such as criminal harassment and uttering threats) as well as physical assaults.
Young children most likely to be victimized by a family member
As a reflection of young children's dependency on their primary caregivers and their possible insulation from such social systems as schools, infants and toddlers were more likely to be victimized by a member of their own family than any other type of perpetrator. In 2011, 68% of infants under one and 69% of children aged one to three were victimized by a family member, most often a parent or step-parent (Chart 4.2). When children enter school, family members still represent the majority of accused, though to a somewhat lesser extent. For instance, 67% of four-year old victims were victimized by a family member, dropping to 66% of five-year olds and 59% of six-year old victims.
By the time children reach the age of 9, family members become less likely than non-family members to be responsible for police-reported violence against children. For instance, for youth aged 12 to 17, well over half (57%) of all violent offences were committed by friends or acquaintances, followed by strangers (24%) and family members (18%). This shift in the most common perpetrator can be partly explained by older children's broadening of activities outside the family.
Rates of police-reported violence increase as children grow older
The overall prevalence of police-reported violence tends to increase as children get older, regardless of whether the perpetrator is a family member or someone outside the family (Chart 4.3). As a result, the rate of police-reported family violence against children is lowest for young children, while youth have the highest rate. An important caveat to these findings is the possible lower level of reporting to police for violence against young children. These young children often have fewer contacts outside the family and a reduced ability to report their own victimization to police. As a result, there may be a greater underestimation of rates of police-reported violence against young children.
By contrast, the rate of familial homicides, the most serious form of violence and most often reported, was highest for the youngest children. Over a ten-year period, infants under the age of one were most at risk of being killed by a family member, with rates that were at least double any other age group (Chart 4.4). The next highest rates of familial homicides were recorded for toddlers and preschoolers aged 1 to 3. Rates generally subside with age and then increase to a smaller degree in late adolescence.
Shaken Baby Syndrome most common cause of death in the homicide of infants
The causes of death in familial homicides vary by the age of the victim. The youngest children, infants, were most often killed as a result of violent shaking, also known as Shaken Baby Syndrome. Over a ten-year period, nearly one in three infant victims under the age of one (31%) was killed this way (Table 4.2). Beating was the most common method against children aged 1 to 3, and along with strangulation and suffocation, it was also the most prevalent for those aged 4 to 6. Unlike younger age groups, youth aged 12 to 17 were most often killed by a family member as a result of stabbing (32%).
Using the Homicide Survey, it is also possible to examine the underlying motivating factors behind familial homicide of children and youth. For every age group, a feeling of frustration and anger was the most common motive in family homicides against children and youth, though it generally decreased in prevalence with age (Table 4.3). More specifically, about seven in ten familial homicides of children aged three and younger were the result of the accused person's frustration, anger or despair. In comparison, frustration was identified as the motive in 33% of family homicides of youth aged 12 to 17, followed by the motive of an escalation of an argument (21%).
Girls more often than boys the victims of family violence
Girls are disproportionally represented as victims of family violence. In 2011, rates of family violence were 56% higher for girls than boys. This disparity in rates of family violence between girls and boys was more muted in the younger age groups, with girls and boys experiencing similar rates before three years of age. However, by age three, girls outnumbered boys as victims of family violence. This gap continued to widen with age, peaking in adolescence. By age 15, the rate for girls was double the rate for boys (566 per 100,000 population versus 281 per 100,000 population).
Girls consistently experienced higher rates of family violence for nearly every type of violent offence. However, this risk was most marked for sexually-based offences. Girls were four times more likely than boys to be a victim of police-reported sexual assault or other type of sexual offence at the hands of a family member (129 per 100,000 versus 30 per 100,000) (Table 4.4).
Most child and youth victims of family violence do not sustain physical injury
While physical assaults accounted for nearly six in ten incidents of family violence against children (Chart 4.5), most child and youth victims did not sustain physical injury. In 2011, six in ten child and youth victims of family violence were not physically injured. When injuries were sustained, most of the victims (97%) required no professional medical treatment or required only some first aid. Less than 1% of child and youth victims of family violence suffered major injuries or death.
The low incidence of physical injury does not necessarily mean that no harm has been inflicted. Previous research has shown that the consequences of violence on children and youth can have short and long-term impacts on the behavioural, developmental and emotional wellbeing of children (Murray and Farrington 2010).
Physical injury was more likely to be sustained when the child victim was an infant (one year of age or less). Nearly half (47%) of these victims sustained some type of injury, with 15% of infants under the age of one and 5% of one-year olds sustaining either major injuries or death. These patterns may reflect differences in reporting rates to police. Since family violence incidents against infants must be reported by someone other than the direct victim, reporting by others may only occur when the incidents are severe and involve social systems, such as hospital emergency departments.
In most incidents of family violence against children (75%), the accused used their own physical force with the intention to inflict physical injury. Another 15% of incidents involved a weapon of some kind, while 10% of incidents used neither physical force nor a weapon (e.g., when accused used threats).
Less than half of family violence incidents against children resulted in charges
The formal response to family violence against children and youth is multifaceted, involving various systems, including the criminal and civil justice systems, child welfare and protective services, educational programs and primary health care systems. Oftentimes, these systems work in collaboration to meet the needs of child and youth victims of family violence (Regan n.d.). For example, police will often work in partnership with child welfare authorities to reduce the number of times a young victim will be interviewed as part of a criminal investigation.
During the course of the investigation, police may charge an accused or may deal with or clear the incident in another way, such as through departmental discretion. Alternatively, the incident may not be cleared. This can occur when a suspect has been identified but there is insufficient evidence to lay a charge.Note 2 In 2011, police laid or recommended charges in 44% of incidents of family violence against children and youth, while 30% of incidents were cleared in another way, such as through departmental discretion. In comparison, 59% of family violence incidents against adult victims aged 18 years and over resulted in charges being laid or recommended and 27% were cleared in another way.
Saskatchewan records the highest provincial rate of family violence against children and youth
Like violent crime in general, regional variations in family violence against children and youth can be influenced by a number of factors, such as differences in levels of detection and reporting. Overall, rates of family violence against children and youth tend to be higher in the territories than in the provinces. In particular, rates in the territories were at least double the national average, with Nunavut having a rate in 2011 that was nearly seven times the average for Canada (1,818 per 100,000 population versus 267 per 100,000) (Table 4.5).
Provincially, Saskatchewan recorded the highest rate, with 578 child victims for every 100,000 children and youth under the age of 18. The next highest provincial rates were recorded by Newfoundland and Labrador (420 per 100,000) and Manitoba (391 per 100,000). All CMAs in these provinces had rates on par or higher than Canada as a whole (Table 4.6). The lowest provincial rate was in Ontario, though considerable variations in rates existed between the CMAs in this province.
Familial homicides against children and youth remain rare occurrences
Trends in the physical and sexual assaults of children can be examined for a three-year period using the Incident-based UCR Trend database, which covers virtually all police services in Canada.Note 3 At a rate of 156 victims per 100,000 children and youth, family-perpetrated physical assaultsNote 4 against children and youth were relatively stable from 2009 to 2011 (Table 4.7). This was true regardless of the sex of the child victim and was entirely attributed to a stable trend in level 1 common assault, the least serious form of physical assaults that results in little to no physical injury. Over this same three-year period, serious physical assaults against children and youth were up 6%, from a rate of 28 victims per 100,000 population to 30 victims per 100,000.
Between 2009 and 2011, family-related sexual assaultsNote 5 against children and youth dropped 7%. While this decrease was seen for both female and male victims, it was more pronounced for male victims. In particular, the rate of sexual assaults against boys fell 16%, compared to a 4% drop in sexual assaults against girls. These trends in sexual assault do not include child-specific sexual offences, such as luring a child over the Internet and invitation to sexual touching, which have generally increased in recent years (Brennan 2012).
Given that homicide is less prone to issues of reporting to police, trend information on homicides against children and youth is often considered as a barometer of the changing level of violence against children and youth, at least for the most severe forms of violence (Nivette 2011; United Nations 2011). Long-term trend data from the Homicide Survey indicate that familial homicides against children and youth have remained relatively rare occurrences and given this rarity they tend to fluctuate widely year-over-year (Chart 4.6).
This section examined police-reported family violence against children and youth, highlighting the fact family members were the most common perpetrator in the most serious forms of violence and were also most often implicated in violence involving children under the age of 9. Rates of violence against children and youth, including family violence, tended to increase as children age, though rates of homicide remained most prevalent among infants and young children.
As in previous years, there is a combined effect of age and sex on rates of police-reported family violence. Girls were more likely than boys to be victims of family violence, with this elevated risk intensifying with age. Girls, particularly as they grow older, have much higher rates of being a victim of sexual offences than do boys.
In the majority of incidents of family violence against children, perpetrators used their own physical force, rather than weapons, to threaten the child or to inflict some form of physical injury. Less than half of child and youth victims of police-reported family violence sustained physical injury.
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Nivette, A. 2011. "Cross-national predictors of crime: A meta-analysis." Homicide Studies. Vol. 15, no. 2. p. 103-131.
Regan, M. n.d. Child Abuse Investigations and the Role of Police Services. Research Institute for Evidence-based Social Work. University of Toronto. (accessed March 19, 2013).
Trocmé, N., Fallon, B., MacLaurin, B., Sinha, V., Black, T., Fast, E., Felstiner, C., Hélie, S., Turcotte, D., Weightman, P., Douglas, J. and Holroyd, J. 2010. "Chapter 1: Introduction." Canadian Incidence of Reported Child Abuse and Neglect – 2008: Major Findings. Ottawa.
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- Unlike for older victims, where population-based surveys such as the General Social Survey (GSS) on Victimization are able to provide indicators of self-reported victimization experiences and levels of reporting to police, there is no equivalent national survey instrument for all children and youth. The General Social Survey (GSS) on Victimization captures data on Canadians aged 15 years and older. Hence, some information is available for older youths aged 15 to 17, though it is not releasable due to small counts.
- The incident may not be cleared at the time of reporting to the UCR Survey, but may be cleared by police at a later time. Updates to the clearance status on the UCR Survey are made accordingly.
- The Incident-based UCR Trend database represents 99% of police services in Canada. Analysis of the three-year trend database is limited to only those offences that have complete victim records and where UCR offence classification has remained constant over the three-year period.
- Includes levels 1, 2, and 3.
- Includes levels 1, 2, and 3.
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