Mr. Speaker, I will be splitting my time with the member for Willowdale.
I am pleased to rise today to speak to Bill C-78 and the significant contribution it would make to addressing family violence.
The Chief Public Health Officer of Canada has identified family violence as an important public health issue, recognizing that the effects of family violence go well beyond physical injury and can have long-lasting impacts on mental health.
In 2014, 13% of individuals who were separated or divorced and who had been in contact with their former partners within the last five years reported being victims of spousal violence. While we have no solid statistics on the number of family law cases where family violence is a factor, estimates from court file reviews and surveys of lawyers and judges range anywhere from 8% to 25%, yet, the Divorce Act currently makes no mention of family violence or how it is relevant to parenting matters. Bill C-78 would take concrete steps to address this gap.
There are marked differences in the severity and the violence that men and women experience. In 2014, women were twice as likely as men to report being sexually assaulted, beaten, choked or threatened with a gun or knife. In contrast, men were three and a half times more likely to report being kicked, bitten or hit.
We also cannot forget that children can be directly and indirectly affected by family violence and that the exposure to family violence often comes with direct abuse against the child. In 2014, 70% of adults who reported having witnessed parental violence as children also reported being victims of childhood physical and/or sexual abuse. Children who witnessed that violence were also more than twice as likely to experience the most severe forms of physical abuse compared to those who had not witnessed violence.
Children can be negatively and deeply harmed emotionally when they are exposed to family violence, whether it is from seeing the violence take place or bruises on a parent. Emotional and behavioural problems and even post-traumatic stress disorder can be a serious effect.
Despite all we know about family violence, myths about it remain. There are two myths that I would like to highlight today.
The first myth about family violence, particularly intimate partner violence, is that if a survivor has not reported to the police, then the violence did not happen or it was not serious. Statistics Canada tells us that only 19% of survivors report violence to police. Some do not report violence to police out of fear of not being believed and/or that calling the police may escalate the violence. Certain vulnerable communities also have mistrust for the police.
Despite these fears, survivors may choose to start family law proceedings in order to protect their children, whether they reported violence to the police or not. In some cases, starting a family law proceeding can increase the risk of violence. Leading family violence researcher Linda Neilson notes, “Family law cases involving domestic violence are not necessarily less serious or less dangerous than criminal cases. Indeed some are more dangerous.”
The other myth is that intimate partner violence ends after separation. In fact, separation can actually increase the risk of family violence, and it often persists long after the relationship has ended.
In 2014, 41% of those who experienced family violence by an ex-spouse reported that it occurred after the break-up. In just under half of those cases, about 48%, the violence took place at least six months after the separation. Very worrying is the fact that in almost half of those cases where violence occurred after the separation, it increased in severity.
Bill C-78 includes a number of measures to strengthen the family justice system's response to the unfortunate case of family violence.
First, we must realize that when a family is in crisis, it is possible that various aspects of the justice system may be involved, such as the criminal, civil protection or child protection proceedings, in addition to divorce proceedings. Unfortunately, however, the divorce courts are often not aware of other proceedings or orders that may have been made. This lack of information about other proceedings can lead to conflicting orders, such as where a criminal order prohibits contact between a parent and other family members, but a family order provides that same parent with access to a child.
This is why Bill C-78 would amend the Divorce Act so that courts would have evidence of other pending proceedings or orders in effect. This would help improve the administration of justice.
Where parenting is specifically at issue, courts are required to consider only the best interests of the child. New criteria listed in Bill C-78 would require consolidation of any civil or criminal proceedings or order relevant to the well-being of a child, even if no longer in effect. This is to help ensure that the court has all relevant information when deciding on the best interests of the child. It is critical that family violence be taken into account when deciding on parenting arrangements for children.
As we learn more about family violence, in particular intimate partner violence, we have come to understand that not all family violence is the same. Depending on the nature of the violence, it can have very different implications on the parenting of the child and the ability of former spouses to co-parent successfully.
At least four different types of violence have been identified, but given my short time today I will only mention two. The first is separation-instigated violence. It generally involves a small number of incidents around the separation, although these can range from very minor to more serious. While no violence is ever acceptable, this type of violence may, over the long term, be less likely to negatively affect the ability of the parents to work together or care for the child.
In contrast, the second type is coercive and controlling family violence. As the name suggests, this violence involves a pattern of control based on intimidation, emotional abuse and physical violence. Coercive and controlling violence is most often perpetrated by men against women. It generally occurs over a prolonged period, has the highest risk of lethality and is most associated with compromised parenting skills. The perpetrator often attempts to control his former partner long after separation. As a result, in these situations, joint decision-making can be challenging and contact between the parents during the exchange of the child can create opportunities for further abuse.
To address the range of family violence, Bill C-78 includes an evidence-based definition of family violence. It identifies that family violence can include a pattern of coercive and controlling behaviour. It provides examples of specific behaviours that constitute family violence, such as physical and sexual abuse and psychological violence and harassment, including stalking.
Finally, Bill C-78 specifically highlights family violence as relevant to the best interests of the child when making parenting arrangements. The proposed amendments will direct consideration of any impact of the family violence, but in particular how it might affect the ability of the parents to co-operate with one another, or how it might affect the ability of an abusive parent to care for the child. The bill also provides a list of specific criteria for the court to consider that will determine the severity of the violence, the impact that it has had or may have, and whether and how this should inform the parenting arrangement.
These criteria would help put focus on the particular dynamics of family violence in each individual case. Importantly, both the definition of family violence and the best interests criteria recognize that even when children are not directly subjected to violence, they can be harmed by it. Through Bill C-78, we are taking concrete action to promote children's best interests in situations where they are most vulnerable.