Section 2: Police-reported family violence in Canada - An overview
by Marta Burczycka
Violence that happens within a family has many adverse consequences, both immediate and long‑term. Victims of all ages experience increased risk of chronic mental and physical illness, alcohol and drug use, economic vulnerability, social isolation, and risk for further victimization, all with significant social and economic costs to Canadians and in other parts of the world (Public Health Agency of Canada 2016). Additionally, long‑established research into the so‑called “cycle of violence” suggests that many adults accused of violence against family members experienced family violence themselves, as children (Widom 1989; Murrell et al. 2007). The Government of Canada, through the Family Violence Initiative, works to prevent, monitor and respond to the consequences of family violence in Canada (Government of Canada 2016).
In the context of this section, ‘family’ refers to relationships defined through blood, marriage, common‑law partnership, foster care, or adoption, and ‘family violence’ refers to violent Criminal Code offences that come to the attention of police, where the perpetrator is a family member of the victim. Although this definition of family violence does not include dating relationships, analysis of violence within dating relationships—in addition to current and former spousal unions—is presented in Section 3 of this report titled “Police-reported intimate partner violence.”
Using police‑reported data for 2016 from the Incident‑based Uniform Crime Reporting and Homicide surveys, this section presents an overview of key national and provincial findings on the nature and prevalence of police‑reported family violence in Canada, including the types of offences associated with family violence, the relationship between the victims and the accused, as well as some socio‑demographic factors associated with family violence. Highlights in this section provide a general overview of police‑reported family violence, as well as key findings related to specific victim characteristics that are examined in more detail in later sections of this report.
For the first time in 2016, this section also includes an analysis of persons accused of family violence. Information on the sex and age of those accused of police‑reported, family‑related violent crime provides insight into the dynamics underpinning violent family contexts.
This section covers all types of violent Criminal Code offences which came to the attention of police, ranging from uttering threats to physical and sexual violence to homicide. Non‑violent crimes such as theft and fraud, all types of abuse which were not substantiated by police, as well as conduct not covered by the Criminal Code are not included in this section. Additionally, analysis based on Homicide Survey data excludes non‑culpable homicides and homicides which have not been solved by police.
Although providing important contextual information on incidents of family violence which come to the attention of police, the data presented in this section may underestimate the true extent of family violence in Canada. For example, self‑reported data from the 2014 General Social Survey on Canadians’ Safety (Victimization) show that 70% of victims of spousal violence and 93% of victims of childhood physical and/or sexual abuse never spoke to authorities about their experiences (Burczycka and Ibrahim 2016; Burczycka and Conroy 2017). Research has shown that privacy concerns, fear of reprisal, and a desire to protect the offender are common reasons for why family violence victims do not report to police (Felson et al. 2002).
Unless otherwise specified, all rates shown in this section are per 100,000 population. Definitions and information on data sources and survey methodology can be found in the “Survey description” section of this publication.
Family violence victims most often female, aged 30 to 34
- In 2016, one‑quarter (26%) of all victims of violent crime had been victimized by a family member.Note Compared to other kinds of violence, family violence was more common for women and girls, accounting for 33% of female victims and 18% of male victims of violent crime. While women and girls made up just over half (52%) of violent crime victims overall, two‑thirds (67%) of family violence victims were female (Table 2.1).
- The nature of family violence differed by sex of the victim. Women were particularly over‑represented as victims of spousal violence (78%). The gap between females and males was smaller when it came to victimization by other family members: for instance, close to half (55%) of those victimized by a parent and of those victimized by a sibling (55%) were female (Table 2.1).
- While overall, almost half of victims of family violence were victimized by a current or former spouse or common‑law partner (47%), this kind of victimization was more common for female victims (55%) compared to male victims (31%). Male victims of family violence were much more likely to report that they had been victimized by parents, children, siblings or other family members (69%) compared to female victims (45%) (Table 2.1).
- Rates of family violence victimization increased with age, peaking among those aged 30 to 34 years (379 victims per 100,000 population). This largely reflected the victimization of women and girls, which also peaked among 30 to 34‑year‑olds (562). Among males, the highest rates of family violence were among those aged 15 to 19 (227 per 100,000), as well as among those aged 10 to 14 (213) (Table 2.2). It should be noted that child victims may be particularly unlikely to report victimization to police, because of a lack of awareness of the criminal nature of their experience, lack of access to trusted adults, and fear of reprisal (Faller 2016).
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Since many instances of family violence go unreported to police, self‑reported information—information about the crime gathered from the victims—is essential to understanding family violence in Canada. Self‑reported information collected through the 2014 General Social Survey (GSS) on Canadians’ Safety (Victimization) provides context to the police‑reported data presented in this section. Though important methodological differences exist between self‑ and police‑reported data (see the “Survey description” section), the 2014 GSS increases our knowledge of Canadians’ experiences with family violence, other kinds of violence, and perceptions of crime and safety.
For example, self‑reported data show 4% of Canadians aged 15 and older experienced violence by a current or former spouse or common‑law partner during the five years preceding the 2014 GSS—about 760,000 individuals (Burczycka and Ibrahim 2016). In contrast to what is generally seen in police‑reported data, the prevalence of spousal violence was equal among men and women, according to self‑reported information (4% of men and 4% of women).
This key difference between police‑ and self‑reported data may be related to the fact that according to the 2014 GSS, male victims of spousal abuse were less likely than female victims to report that police had become aware of the violence (24% versus 35%). Differences in reporting to police, in turn, could reflect differences in the severity of spousal violence experienced by women compared to men. According to self‑reported data, women are more likely to experience the most severe forms of spousal violence (including sexual assault and being beaten or choked), experience injuries, and suffer long‑term psychological consequences such as those associated with Post‑Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
In addition to self‑reported information on spousal abuse, the 2014 GSS provides data on abuse between dating partners, childhood physical and sexual abuse, and abuse of seniors. Many demographic and socioeconomic characteristics of victims are also collected, creating an important complement to police‑reported statistics.
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One in five male family violence victims experience major assault
- Physical assault was the most common type of offence involved in incidents of family violence (73%). Eight in ten (79%) male victims and seven in ten (70%) female victims had experienced physical assault. Common (level 1) assault was reported by 58% of both male and female victims of family violence. A larger proportion of male victims (21%) reported major assault (levels 2 and 3) when compared to female victims (12%) (Table 2.3).
- Women and girls made up two‑thirds of all victims of police‑reported family violence (67%), regardless of the type of offence involved; they were particularly over‑represented as victims of sexual offences (84%) and criminal harassment, also known as stalking (84%). The offences where the gap between males and females was smallest were major assault (where females represented 54% of victims) and attempted murder (where 55% of victims were female) (Table 2.3).
Victims of family violence, especially females, more likely than others to see charges laid
- A criminal incident is considered cleared when a charge is laid or recommended, or when it is dealt with by police or courts in another way (for example, through sentencing to diversion programs).Note In 2016, clearance by charge or otherwise was more common when individuals had been victimized by family members (83%) than in incidents involving non‑relatives (68%). Specifically, 55% of family violence victims saw charges laid, compared to 48% when the violent crime was not family‑related (Table 2.4).Note In Canada, police and Crown counsel operate under directives specific to family violence requiring charges be laid in favour of other discretionary measures wherever there are reasonable grounds to believe a crime has been committed (Di Luca et al. 2012).
- In instances of police‑reported violence where the victim was female, 60% of family violence victims saw charges laid against an accused, compared to 53% when the accused was a non‑family member. The gap between family and non‑family violence in terms of whether charges were laid was narrower when the victims were male: where victims were male, charges were laid in 46% of incidents of family violence, and 44% of non‑family violence incidents. It is important to note that male victims were more likely than female victims to decline that charges be laid, in both family (19% versus 12%) and non‑family (12% versus 9%) violence situations (Table 2.4).
Family violence rate stable from previous year, decreased since 2011
- Canada’s overall rate of family violence declined slightly by 1% between 2015 and 2016, marking the third year of relative stability with 239 victims per 100,000 population. The rate among males remained unchanged (159), while a slight decrease (-2%) brought the rate among females to 319 incidents per 100,000. Over the past five years, however, the rate of family violence has decreased by 15% overall, including a 17% decline among females and a 9% decrease among males (Table 2.5).
- Rates of non‑family violence continued to be almost three times as high as family violence in 2016. Similar to the decrease in family violence rates recorded since 2011, the rate of non‑family violence also declined (-16%). Of note, the rate of non‑family violence against male victims decreased more substantially (-19%) than the corresponding rate of family violence against males (-9%) (Table 2.5).
Increases in family violence in Nunavut and Quebec reflect rises in rates against males
- Among the provinces, rates of family violence were highest in Saskatchewan (498 victims per 100,000 population), Manitoba (379) and Quebec (315). As is the case for violent crime rates overall, family violence rates in the territories were higher than the Canadian average (239). The lowest rates of family violence were recorded in Prince Edward Island (135), Ontario (148) and British Columbia (199). With the exception of Quebec’s relatively high rate of family violence, provinces and territories with the highest or lowest rates of family violence also recorded higher or lower rates of overall violent crime in 2016 (Keighley 2016) (Table 2.6).
- Between 2015 and 2016, increases in the rate of family violence were recorded in Nunavut (+6%), Saskatchewan (+3%) and Quebec (+2%), while Prince Edward Island (-13%), British Columbia (-9%), Newfoundland and Labrador (-8%) and Alberta (-3%) saw declines. In Nunavut and Quebec, growth was driven by increases in rates of family violence against men (+10% and +5%, respectively). Meanwhile, the decrease in Prince Edward Island’s overall rate of family violence reflected the 18% decline in the rate of family violence involving female victims (Table 2.6).
- As with family violence rates overall, rates of family‑related physical assault (levels 1, 2 and 3) as well as family‑related sexual assault (levels 1, 2 and 3) were highest in the territories and in Saskatchewan and Manitoba. In these parts of Canada, the combined rate for these offences were generally stable from 2015 to 2016, with an increase reported in Saskatchewan (+3%) and more substantial increase in Nunavut (+10%) (Table 2.7).
Among Canada’s biggest cities, those in Quebec report highest family violence rates
- The rate of family violence in Canada’s largest cities (census metropolitan areas or CMAs)Note was 187 victims per 100,000 population in 2016, making family violence less common among people living in these areas than among those living outside the biggest cities (372). Rates were particularly high among females living outside of CMAs (485 victims per 100,000 population). In general, violent crime rates have historically been higher in rural areas outside of population centres (Allen and Perreault 2015) (Table 2.8).
- Among the individual CMAs, rates of family violence were particularly high among CMAs located in Quebec: Trois‑Rivières (334 victims per 100,000), Saguenay (330) and Gatineau (314) recorded the highest rates. Five of the six CMAs located in Quebec were among the ten CMAs with the highest family violence rates in Canada (the exception being Sherbrooke, with a rate of 170). The lowest rates, conversely, were recorded in the Ontario CMAs of Ottawa (84), Barrie (109) and St. Catharines–Niagara (118) (Table 2.8).
Most serious family‑related offences decline while family homicide rates remain stable
- Rates of the most serious family violence offences decreased between 2011 and 2016, including rates of attempted murder (-2%), sexual assault (-29%) and physical assault (-12%). Violations causing death, which include homicide as well as manslaughter and crimes such as criminal negligence causing death, also decreased (-8%). A particularly large decrease was noted in the rate of sexual assault by a family member other than a spouse (-36%); in contrast, however, sexual assault by a current or former spouse or common‑law partner increased by 14% (Table 2.9).Note
- There were 134 victims of family‑related homicide in Canada in 2016, translating into a rate of 3.7 victims per 1 million population. Over time, the rate of family‑related homicide has tended to remain relatively stable from year to year, with modest decreases over longer periods. For example, a family‑related homicide rate near 4 victims per 1 million was recorded in most years between 2007 and 2016; correspondingly, the preceding decade saw a rate of between 5 and 6 victims per 1 million recorded in most years (Table 2.10).
- In 2016, 58% of family‑related homicide victims were women and girls (Table 2.10). This is in marked contrast to homicide rates overall: for instance, in 2016, 75% of all homicide victims were men and boys, findings that had remained consistent over the preceding 11 years (David 2017).
Under one‑quarter of people accused of family violence are female, as with other crime types
- In 2016, just under one‑third (32%) of persons accused in all incidents of violent crime that involved one victim and one accused person were accused of family violence.Note The largest proportion of those accused in family‑related incidents were accused of violence against a spouse (57%), including 59% of male accused and 50% of their female counterparts (Table 2.11).
- Just under one‑quarter (23%) of those accused of family violence in 2016 were women—just under 13,000 individuals. Women also represented 21% of persons accused of non‑family violence and 22% of accused persons overall, indicating that when it comes to the sex of the accused, family violence follows general patterns of crime (Table 2.11).
- Slightly over half (53%) of those accused of family violence were aged between 25 and 44, with a rate of 302 accused persons per 100,000 persons of that age. This was followed by those aged 18 to 24 (241). This is in contrast to the violent crime rate in general, which tends to be highest among those aged 18 to 24 (Allen 2016) (Table 2.12).
- Among the CMAs, Ottawa recorded the lowest rate of persons accused of family violence (42 per 100,000), as well as the lowest rate of victims (84).Note Thunder Bay had the highest overall rate of persons accused (240 per 100,000), as well as the highest rate of male accused specifically (387). Of all CMAs, the highest rates of females accused of family violence were found in Brantford (115) and Gatineau (114), both of which also had among the highest overall rates of persons accused (230 and 233, respectively) (Table 2.13).
Detailed data tables
Table 2.1 Victims of police-reported violent crime, by sex of victim and relationship of accused to victim, Canada, 2016
Table 2.2 Victims of police-reported family violence, by sex of victim and age group of victim, Canada, 2016
Table 2.3 Victims of police-reported family violence, by sex of victim and type of violation, Canada, 2016
Table 2.4 Victims of police-reported violent crime, by sex of victim and relationship of accused to victim and type of clearance status, Canada, 2016
Table 2.5 Victims of police-reported violent crime, by sex of victim and relationship of accused to victim, Canada, 2009 to 2016
Table 2.6 Victims of police-reported family violence, by province or territory, 2016
Table 2.7 Victims of police-reported family violence, by physical and sexual assault and province or territory, 2016
Table 2.8 Victims of police-reported family violence, by sex of victim and census metropolitan area, 2016
Table 2.9 Victims of police-reported family violence for selected violent violations, by relationship of accused to victim and type of violation, Canada, 2009 to 2016
Table 2.10 Victims of family-related homicide, by sex of victim, Canada, 1986 to 2016
Table 2.11 Accused of police-reported violent crime, by sex of accused and relationship of accused to victim, Canada, 2016
Table 2.12 Accused of police-reported family violence, by age group of accused and type of violation, Canada, 2016
Table 2.13 Accused of police-reported family violence, by sex of accused and census metropolitan area, 2016
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