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AFRC Briefing No. 17, 2010

Family Relationships Quarterly No 17Family violence: Towards a holistic approach to screening and risk assessment in family support services

by Elly Robinson and Lawrie Moloney

Published by the Australian Institute of Family Studies, September 2010, 18 pp. [ISSN 1834-2434 (Online) ISBN 978-1-921414-49-7]

Download AFRC Briefing No. 17 (PDF 371 KB)

The authors

Elly Robinson is Manager of the Australian Family Relationships Clearinghouse and Research Fellow at the Australian Institute of Family Studies.

Lawrie Moloney has had a long association with the Australian Institute of Family Studies and currently has a part-time appointment as a Senior Research Fellow. He is an Adjunct Professor at La Trobe University, where he was formerly Director of the Department of Counselling and Psychological Health in the Faculty of Health Sciences.


The authors would like to thank Margaret Anderson, Malia Dewse and Tibor Mokany for their comments and feedback.

Since the 1960s, violence between intimate partners, between family members and towards children1 has been increasingly recognised as a significant problem. Seminal work on male violence towards women within families was conducted in Britain (Pizzey, 1973), Australia (Scutt, 1983) and the United States (Walker, 1984). Prior to that, Kempe, Silverman, Steele, Droeghmeuller, and Silver (1962) found convincing (and at the time shocking) evidence of the extent to which children were being physically abused by parents and carers.

While knowledge about family violence and its effects has grown considerably since this time, services still grapple with the most effective ways of identifying family violence issues with which clients present and, just as importantly, of taking appropriate actions once family violence has been accurately identified. Research such as the evaluation of the 2006 family law reforms (Kaspiew, Gray, Weston, Moloney, Hand, Qu, and the family law evaluation team, 2009) suggested that family violence is not always recognised by practitioners working in this area and that even when it is recognised, appropriate actions aimed at creating or preserving safety are not always taken.

This paper reviews the current research and literature specific to family violence screening and risk assessment. It is hoped that the paper will assist service providers and practitioners to develop and evaluate tools for use within family support services.

Background and definitions

Questions of how family violence is defined, how commonly it occurs, and how gendered are its origins and its expression, go to the heart of our understanding of and our responses to this phenomenon. Though considerable progress has been made, none of these questions are settled. Therefore legislative definitions continue to vary, as do definitions employed by the social sciences and health and welfare service providers (Australian Law Reform Commission & NSW Law Reform Commission, 2010). Differing definitions also reflect differing assumptions and differing emphases regarding the broad nature of violence, particularly family violence. An Australian discussion paper published by the Domestic Violence Resource Centre (DVRC),2 made the following pertinent observation in this regard:

Usually researchers go into the field armed with a preferred definition of domestic violence, then ask research participants for their view on, or experience of, that form of violence. They do not generally seek from participants their own understanding of violence. (MacDonald, 1998, p. 7)

The multiple examples of "preferred positions" with respect to definitions, prevalence and reasons for family violence found in the research literature, has a tendency to "muddy the waters" whenever this issue is discussed.3 The confusion in the literature in part reflects the developmental nature of the field. Some definitions reinforce particular views of practitioners whose experience with largely clinical samples impress upon them the damage that family violence can do, especially to women and children. Other definitions are more likely to reflect the work of those who study violence across populations, for whom an emphasis on gender is not usually so prominent. MacDonald's (1998) observation is an important reminder not just to researchers but also to those who work as practitioners in this difficult field, that high quality practice begins with high quality assessment of exactly what has happened, how often, for what reasons, and the extent to which the behaviour is likely to continue.

Definitional, prevalence and causative debates are likely to continue for some time. We suggest nonetheless, that there are several core propositions, which are unequivocally supported in the literature. These are:

  • Family violence is a significant problem, which is associated with a broad range of poor outcomes for children and for other family members.
  • There is general consensus that useful definitions of family violence must encompass the range of ways in which violence is expressed and the range of ways in which one individual seeks to control the life of another. Clearly violence is not just physical and just as clearly, significant fear can be engendered by attitudes and behaviours that are not necessarily obvious to the naïve or untrained observer.
  • Whilst not all violence is gendered, for a variety of reasons, the role that gender plays in the institutionalisation and maintenance of violence is one that cannot be ignored.

We proceed on the basis of these propositions for the remainder of this paper.


1 In this paper, the generic term of family violence will be used except where studies are described which use different terms.

2 Formerly the Domestic Violence and Incest Resource Centre (Victoria).

3 Note: Practitioners need to combine their clinical skills with an appreciation of the best research available. However, it is not the intention of this paper to propose a decisive definition of family violence; to be definitive about its prevalence; or to attempt to resolve the ongoing dispute in the literature with respect to differing types of family violence and the extent to which violence is primarily a gendered phenomenon. Readers who wish to access one summary of these complex issues in an Australian context are referred to Moloney et al. (2007), which addresses issues around definitions, critiques the “not all violence is the same” debate, and cites Australian Bureau of Statistics and other figures on prevalence in Australia. More broadly on these issues, the reader is referred to the excellent special edition of the Family Court Review (2008, 46(3)), which presented a series of papers arising out of the Wingspread Conference on Family Violence, including a consensus paper by Ver Steegh and Dalton (2008); and to Johnston, Roseby, and Kuehlne (2009), who propose a series of decision-making steps that should be taken when allegations of violence or child abuse are made and contested.