4529.0 - Conceptual Framework for Family and Domestic Violence. , 2009  
ARCHIVED ISSUE Released at 11:30 AM (CANBERRA TIME) 18/05/2009  First Issue
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Contents >> Issues in Defining Family and Domestic Violence >> ISSUES IN DEFINING FAMILY AND DOMESTIC VIOLENCE


Issues in defining family and domestic violence

There is no single nationally or internationally agreed definition as to what constitutes ‘family violence’, ‘domestic violence’ or any similar, related term. The broad term 'Family and Domestic Violence' is a combination of the terms 'Family Violence' and 'Domestic Violence'. These terms can be defined with reference to various contextual elements such as relationships, location of offences, and/or domestic arrangements; and may be interpreted differently depending on the particular legal, policy, service provision, or research view being taken. The use of the term 'Family and Domestic Violence' throughout this paper is therefore a reflection of the mixed use of definitions in this field.

In the criminal justice system, the legislation of each state and territory defines FDV in different ways, including or excluding various elements. The variations across jurisdictions in what constitutes FDV according to the criminal law include:

  • the required relationship between victim and offender; and
  • the perpetrator behaviour(s) that is recognised as FDV.

Definitions of the relationship required between victim and offender across FDV legislation can be further spilt into 'family' (i.e. based on interpersonal relationships) and 'domestic' (i.e. based on living arrangements). For example, 'family' may include such elements as:
  • relatives and family members, as connected by blood or marriage, including current and past spousal relationships;
  • relatives through kinship, cultural or religious grounds; and
  • situations where people's lives have become enmeshed through the passage of time, trust and commitment; a level of intimacy, whether sexual or not; frequency of contact; or a level of dependency, such as in informal care arrangements between people with disabilities and their caregivers.

These relationships do not necessarily require that the victim and offender cohabit.

Conversely, 'domestic' relationships generally include those situations where two or more people live together. They may be living as a couple of the same or different sex, or in a partnership on a domestic basis such as through a family or parent-child relationship, or as friends, housemates, or other cohabitants.

Whilst these terms and definitions include different elements, they are generally used interchangeably across the relevant laws in each state and territory. For example, the legislation covering family violence in Victoria also includes definitions of domesticity, and South Australian domestic violence legislation additionally specifies types of family relationships. Finally, different agencies involved in service provision, policy development and research may use either term or the combination of these definitions depending on their perspective and approach to the issue, or may even use their own locally defined and relevant FDV 'language'.

Finally, the legal, service and research definitions as to what constitutes FDV - that are inherently likely to be different to one another - do not necessarily align with community understandings of FDV. Nor will they necessarily align with the perspective that victims or offenders have regarding the behaviours that may be classed as being FDV-related.

These alternative definitions contribute to a field of data in which terms can mean slightly different things to different sectors and can lead to measurements of slightly different behaviours. This produces varying understandings of prevalence and incidence rates, and other such indicators.

It is therefore clear that a number of contexts exist within which family and domestic violence may be constituted and measured, and that different definitions will likely apply across each of these. This plurality of definitions - which may be valid in their specific contexts - creates complexities in talking about, and defining, FDV.

For this reason, a Conceptual Framework for FDV needs to encompass the cross-jurisdictional differences in the relevant legislation, as well as the broader conceptual definitions that may be embraced by different services and different parts of the community. It may also need to accommodate the differences between:
  • subjective definitions created by individuals, that is where those involved in the incident ‘decide’ to interpret what they have experienced as violence or not; and
  • objective definitions, where certain classes of behaviour are defined as FDV for the purpose of crime recording and eligibility for services.

A Conceptual Framework for FDV should ultimately provide a basis for the development of a nationally agreed definition for the promotion of a consistent and comparable set of national data to inform statistics on prevalence, incidence and victimisations.

Family and domestic violence definitions

As outlined above, there are a range of ways of defining family and domestic violence, depending on the context of the inquiry. These definitions can have a broad or narrow scope, and may be focussed on legislative requirements, particular behaviours, or impacts upon victims and the community. A range of definitions are presented below.

One of the more concise definitions of family violence came from the Australian Medical Association (1998, p.1), when it made the general statement that:

"Domestic violence is an abuse of power. It is the domination, coercion, intimidation and victimisation of one person by another by physical, sexual or emotional means within intimate relationships".

A further, and more detailed, definition of family violence has been supplied by the Victorian Community Council Against Violence (2005, p.1):

"Family violence is coercive and controlling behaviour by a family member that causes physical, sexual and/or emotional damage to others in the family, including causing them to live in fear and threatening to harm people, pets or property. Family violence is most commonly perpetrated by one partner towards another (when it is sometimes called 'domestic violence' or 'intimate partner abuse') and/or by an adult towards a child or children. Other forms include elder abuse or sibling abuse. Whether the violence is physical, sexual or emotional, it may have long term detrimental effects."

A definition used by Access Economics (2004, p.3) in a study on the impacts of domestic violence stresses the continuum of violence, and the timeframes that can be included:

"Domestic violence occurs when one partner attempts by physical or psychological means to dominate and control the other. Domestic violence takes a number of forms. The most commonly acknowledged forms of domestic violence are: physical and sexual violence; threats and intimidation; emotional and social abuse; and financial deprivation. Domestic violence can involve a continuum of controlling behaviour and violence, which can occur over a number of years, before and after separation."

The definitions of FDV utilised tend to vary depending on the perspective and interests of the organisations that have created them. For example, health workers or social service/support workers will tend to take a more holistic approach to FDV to inform the planning and delivery of supports to people who have experienced FDV in any form. More specific definitions are generated within the criminal or civil justice systems to define offences in law. These may be more narrow in scope, and vary according to the legislation of a particular state or territory. Some behaviours within a domestic relationship, such as physical or sexual assault, are clearly defined as criminal offences that are family and domestic violence-related. The disclosure and reporting of these behaviours would lead to a legal or service provision response in most instances. Other behaviours, for example economic or emotional abuse of a partner, may be forms of abuse that are defined in the legislation of some jurisdictions (such as Tasmania), yet not in others. While incidents of these types may not result in a justice system response, they may be of significant interest in a service provision setting, or in conducting a risk assessment within the police sector. Finally, other behaviours, such as conflict in a relationship, would not necessarily be classed as a family and domestic violence behaviour, yet may be an indicator of other forms of abuse within that relationship.

These few definitions, whilst containing a number of similar themes and inclusions, highlight just some of the disparate descriptions of family or domestic violence. There are many other definitions in use across criminal law, health and welfare, service provisions, and research. Each sector has defined domestic violence according to their own specific context, frames of reference and line of enquiry. Accordingly, these definitions go some way to illustrating the complexities involved in creating a standard definition for family and domestic violence. The following section goes into some of these complexities in more detail.

Operationalising Family and Domestic Violence

The many ways in which family and domestic violence can occur and be perceived make it a difficult issue to measure and define. For example, a perpetrator and victim may be involved in isolated or infrequent incidents. These incidents may or may not:
  • be classified as criminal by the legislation in their state/territory,
  • be reported to or detected by the criminal or civil justice system,
  • be addressed by services, or
  • be perceived as violence by the victim and/or perpetrator.

Alternatively a perpetrator and victim may have a long history of incidents and events (which may incorporate any number of ‘types’ of FDV), any one of which may or may not be classified as criminal, be detected by the criminal or civil justice system or handled through a service agency.

Whilst an ongoing series of incidents may occur in a relationship, a criminal justice system response may be triggered by a single incident of assault. One incident may then be flagged as a family or domestic violence incident and be processed and prosecuted in isolation. In the service provider context however, the pattern of incidents, escalation and other behaviours over a period of time may be more important in determining the most appropriate response.

The scope of this Framework is not restricted to that which is criminal, becomes known to the criminal or civil justice system, or is addressed by formal services. The Framework is designed to accommodate any forms of FDV which occur - whether incidents occur on a single occasion in a relationship, or reoccur over a long period of time.

The ongoing classification of FDV incidents is made all the more difficult by the constant evolution in legislation and community perceptions as to what constitutes family and domestic violence. For example, changes to Tasmania's Family Violence Act 2004 resulted in a widening of the range of behaviours that constituted a family violence incident in that jurisdiction. Changes to the legislation of other jurisdictions are also occurring, widening the range of behaviours that were recognised in the criminal law as a family violence incident. Legislative arrangements may influence, or have been influenced by, evolutions in community perceptions and/or changes to the range of behaviours or incidents that present to and are addressed by services.

A behaviour-based definition helps to bridge the gap between objective and subjective definitions of FDV. It can also provide a basis for comparability by allowing definitions to be based on combinations of elements that are derived from behavioural descriptions, rather than legal definitions that can vary across states and territories.

Definitional Elements

The following represent a more extensive set of behaviours than any one jurisdiction, sector or service provider currently recognises in local operational definitions. The elements may also need to be modified depending on the uses to which the definition may be applied or used. Regardless of the particular FDV definitions to be used, there are a number of aspects of the FDV incident that need to be specified in order to arrive at a meaningful operational definition. The two key aspects to be considered are the specific behaviours to be included, and the relationships of interest. These may vary in breadth or specificity according to the purpose of the FDV measure, and may also lead to the incorporation of other relevant elements, such as the physical location of violence. This Framework outlines these primary elements below. Through establishing a range of elements to be identified, it becomes possible for different definitions in different contexts to be established and measured using these elements.

Behavioural elements

The behavioural elements outlined below are based on a definition developed by the Australian Public Health Association (1990), and incorporate aspects defined in the FDV-related legislation of the states and territories. They reflect the more common aspects of this legislation, and may be used in attempts to measure levels of FDV and rates of incidence and prevalence.

The behaviour of perpetrators may be located on a continuum ranging from relatively minor incidents to much more serious activities over time, and can include any of the following direct or indirect behaviours:
  • Physical abuse - actual or threatened, causing pain and injury; denial of sleep, warmth or nutrition; denial of needed medical or personal care; disablement; murder;
  • Sexual abuse - actual or threatened, including sexual assault or sexual abuse of children; non-consensual sexual acts; forcing a person to have unsafe sex; forcing a person to take their clothes off or remain naked against their will; making a person pose for pornography; or forcing a person to watch pornography or sexual activities;
  • Psychological or emotional abuse - actual or threatened, involving manipulative behaviour; unfairly blaming a person for adverse events or making them feel they are a problem; or constant comparisons with other people, which work to lower confidence and self-worth;
  • Verbal abuse - actual or threatened, in private or in public, designed to humiliate, degrade, demean, intimidate, or subjugate, including the threat of physical violence;
  • Economic abuse - actual or threatened, including deprivation of basic necessities; seizure of income or assets; withholding or controlling against a person’s will their access to money, food, clothes and personal items such as car keys or bankbook; unreasonable denial of the means necessary for participation in social life; and coercion;
  • Social abuse - actual or threatened, through forced isolation from family or friends; control of all social activity; deprivation of liberty; and deliberate creation of unreasonable dependence;
  • Property damage - actual or threatened, including damage to a person’s personal property and violence towards pets;
  • Harassment or stalking - actual or threatened, such as constant phone calls to a workplace or home, or repeated visits to a workplace or home; and cyber-stalking.

Relationship elements

When considering the various meanings of the terminology used when discussing family and domestic violence, the relationships that can be relevant can be either broadly or narrowly defined, depending on the legal, policy or research area of interest. Relationships that could be included in a definition are:
  • Marriage;
  • Defacto relationships;
  • Intimate relationships, whether of a sexual nature or not;
  • Parent-child relationships;
  • Sibling relationships;
  • Domestic relationships;
  • Relatives through blood, marriage, or cultural, ethnic or religious beliefs (including kinship relationships); and
  • Relationships of dependency, or involving personal or financial commitment.

Abuse may also continue after a relationship break-up and as such, the relationships listed above can include those both past and present.

In addition to intimate or family relationships, some definitions of domestic violence extend to persons co-habitating, for instance, persons living in a shared house or other non-familial domestic arrangements.

Whilst family and domestic violence has often been thought of as violence between partners, FDV extends to cover instances of abuse within extended families and families defined through kinship, and the other relationship forms as listed above. Kinship relationships have dual meanings, as they are formed through cultural grounds and under cultural lore, e.g. Indigenous Australian kinship systems.

One further form of domestic violence is ‘elder abuse’: neglect or harm of an older person that is caused by a person with whom the older person has a domestic relationship implying trust and/or dependence. Elder abuse is not a unique or exclusive category of behaviour, but can overlap with FDV, when the abuse is perpetrated for example by a partner or other members of the older person’s family, or by unpaid carers in an informal care arrangement. Similarly, child abuse and neglect can occur within more complex family violence situations, and can range from direct violence and maltreatment of a child, through to witnessing family violence in the home or between relatives. From a legal point of view, protection is often provided under specific legislation relating to the abuse of children, as well as coverage under family or domestic violence legislation. Ultimately, there is an intersection between FDV, elder, and child abuse. This Framework focusses on family and domestic violence, and the intersection of these with abuses of children and of elders.

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