Understanding family violence
The different forms of family violence
2.5Family violence comes in many forms, including intimate partner violence, child abuse and neglect, elder abuse, violence by children towards parents, and sibling violence. Family violence homicides are, however, most common in intimate partner relationships. Intimate partner violence is defined as “[a]ny behaviour within an intimate relationship (including current and/or past live-in relationships or dating relationships) that causes physical, psychological or sexual harm to those in the relationship”.
The gendered nature of intimate partner violence
2.6Historically, consideration of family violence has focused on male aggression towards women and “battered woman syndrome” developed alongside the organised women’s movement. Family violence in intimate partner relationships is a gendered phenomenon. Perpetrators of violence are usually men, and victims are usually women and children. In this context, it needs to be recognised that men and women kill their intimate partners for different reasons and in different ways.
2.7Family violence does, however, occur within other intimate relationships. The FVDRC identified one case of intimate partner homicide occurring in a same-sex relationship but reports that same-sex family violence deaths are likely to be undercounted. Intimate partner violence in lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and intersex relationships has received less attention in the literature, but there is some evidence that indicates it may be as prevalent as heterosexual violence. Some contend the dynamics of same-sex intimate partner violence are similar to those in heterosexual relationships, while others suggest they may be different in material ways. In any event, it is widely acknowledged that further research is required.
2.8Concepts and models that have traditionally been applied to women in the context of intimate partner relationships might be applied to other victims. Most obviously, battered woman syndrome has in some cases been reframed as “battered person syndrome” and/or applied to victims of all genders. The nature and effects of family violence may perhaps more helpfully be conceptualised in terms of behaviours rather than participant characteristics.
2.9It does not seem to us to be problematic to extend our consideration to the positon of victims or aggressors who are not or who are only minimally represented in the available data. We agree with the Victorian Law Reform Commission that the same legal issues arise for all victims of family violence who kill their abusers, whatever their gender and whatever their relationship with the abuser.
Family violence in other relationshipsTop
2.10While intimate partner relationships are the most common context in which primary victims kill predominant aggressors, victims of family violence also kill abusers within other close interpersonal relationships. Of the 24 New Zealand cases we have reviewed in which victims of family violence killed abusers, two involved killings of male parents by male children. A further case that was before the High Court at the time of publication of this Report involved a female defendant, Daryl Kirk, who, at the age of 19, shot and killed her mother’s partner during a violent confrontation.
2.11In R v Erstich, the defendant had been subjected by his father to abuse that the Crown accepted amounted to “not much short of a reign of terror”. When he was 14 years old, after a decade of being subjected to physical and psychological abuse and witnessing violence towards his mother and brothers, the defendant killed his father by shooting him at close range. The killing was premeditated. Although he was charged with murder, he was convicted of manslaughter. At trial, he claimed the killing was provoked. He ultimately received a suspended sentence of two years’ imprisonment.
2.12In R v Raivaru, the defendant was 15 years old when he stabbed his step-father to death with a carving knife in circumstances the sentencing Judge considered amounted to “serious provocation”. Before the killing, the stepfather had assaulted and verbally abused the defendant and his mother, and the Judge accepted the homicide arose from the defendant’s desire to protect his mother, which “regrettably, resulted in disproportionate use of force with a weapon”. The defendant pleaded guilty to manslaughter and was sentenced to four years’ imprisonment.
2.13Erstich and Raivaru are cases of homicide by children, not intimate partners, but both involved violence by the deceased against other family members, including the defendants’ mothers. The FVDRC notes that intimate partner violence and child abuse and neglect are “entangled” forms of abuse and that:
It is well known that exposure to [intimate partner violence] is a form of child abuse and that there is a high rate of co-occurrence between intimate partner violence and the physical abuse of children. Many children affected by family violence are living with what Edleson et al have described as the “double whammy” – the co-occurrence of being exposed to family violence in relation to other family members and being a direct victim of child maltreatment. Children are also injured in the “crossfire” of a violent assault or attack against the adult primary victim and can be used as “weapons” by abusive (ex-) partners in the context of [intimate partner violence].
2.14The FVDRC notes, in addition, that intimate partner violence and child abuse and neglect are “not necessarily separate co-existing forms of violence” and that their co-occurrence may “only [make] sense if you understand family violence as a pattern of coercive control and that actions directed at one individual are not necessarily designed to impact only on that individual”. Other forms of family violence (for example, elder abuse or violence among siblings) can be similarly “entangled”.