BOOK REVIEW – Cruel but Not Unusual: Violence in Canadian Families

The following post reviews Alaggia and Vine’s book, Cruel but not unusual: violence in Canadian families (2013), and highlights several points that relate to a core Thematic Area: The impact of domestic abuse on survivors.

Date Published: 2010
Authors: Alaggia, R., & Vine, C. (Eds.)
Full Citation: Alaggia, R., & Vine, C. (Eds.). (2013). Cruel but not unusual: violence in Canadian families. Wilfrid Laurier Univ. Press.

Cruel but Not Unusual: Violence in Canadian Families covers several important topics relating to domestic abuse, but for the sake of brevity only certain sections will be discussed in this summary. Of particular interest is the impact exposure to or witnessing violence has on young children. Although research appears to suggest it has a detrimental effect on child development, conclusive evidence of specific consequences is not yet available (Alaggia & Vine, 2010, p.205). Studies have found marked gender differences in the effects of this exposure, with girls more likely to internalize their emotions and boys tending to externalize their reactions to violence through “increased aggressive behaviour toward others”. (Alaggia & Vine, 2010, p.206). Perhaps unsurprisingly, witnessing violence as a child has also been linked to modelling behaviour; passing the cycle of violence from one generation to another: “Women whose partners witnessed violence by their fathers and who view violent aggression as acceptable are more likely to endure severe and repeated violence than women whose partners have not witnessed violence by their fathers.” (Alaggia & Vine, 2010, p.207).

Despite inconclusive evidence of the specific effects of exposure to violence, “the helping field appears to have embraced these preliminary findings and has incorporated them in their efforts to serve the best interests of children through the promotion of ‘witnessing domestic abuse as child mistreatment’ and ‘failure to protect’ concepts.” (Alaggia & Vine, 2010, p. 208). Alongside the desire to acknowledge the impact of exposure to violence on children, child welfare systems have made the theoretical leap from acknowledging its sometimes detrimental effects to equating the witnessing of violence with child maltreatment. This has led to the development of “failure to protect” laws, used almost exclusively against the abused mother rather than the perpetrator of the abuse itself; punishing the non-offending party for her victimization (Alaggia & Vine, 2010, p.214). Several provinces in Canada have already incorporated children’s exposure to violence as a form of maltreatment into their child welfare legislation, despite the lack of consistent definitions on what it means to have failed to protect. (Alaggia & Vine, 2010, p.210)

As stated by Howard et al. (2013), the effects of psychological abuse have been linked to symptoms of PTSD, with the impact of domestic violence thought to have parallels with “the trauma of being taken hostage and subjected to torture.” It should come as no surprise, then, that women abused by their partners are up to six times more likely to misuse or develop dependency on alcohol and drugs. They are often also less available to meet their children’s physical and emotional needs as a consequence of the abuse they are enduring (Alaggia & Vine, 2010, p.209). This, coupled with failure-to-protect legislation, the systematic withdrawal of public funding for support services (Alaggia & Vine, 2010, p.256), and a myriad of other obstacles, gives abused mothers very few options for ensuring good care for their children while dealing with an abusive relationship. Perhaps most alarmingly, “Should she become engaged in a custody dispute with a battering father, being identified as a victim of battering will reflect more badly on a mother than on her abuser; as Geffner notes (1997, cited in Bograd, 1999), children have been remanded to the care of the batterer on the grounds that he offers a more stable home than a mother living in a shelter.” (Alaggia & Vine, 2010, p.242).

Women who choose to stay in abusive homes (for many complex reasons, including as a means to physically shield their children from future abuse) risk being accused of child maltreatment, while those who leave may face economic hardship (Alaggia & Vine, 2010, p.242-243), an ‘unstable’ life in a shelter, and significantly increase their risk of being murdered by their ex-partner (Alaggia & Vine, 2010, p.240-241). Either way, she may be labelled an ‘unfit mother’; a false choice indeed. A valid concern for child safety has thus had the unfortunate consequence of placing abused mothers in a situation of quadruple jeopardy, “where they must somehow, simultaneously, protect their children, appease the child protection system, placate a violent partner, and cope with their own experience of abuse.” (Alaggia & Vine, 2010, p.256). Instead of placing blame on the perpetrator of abuse and asking the question “Why does he abuse her?”, we have instead focused on the unfair question of “Why does she stay?” (Alaggia & Vine, 2010, p.249).

Failure to Protect Laws

‘Failure-to-protect’ systemigram: The false choice given to abused parents

The authors suggest a need to look at ways in which child welfare organizations could collaborate with community-based services to provide more integrated care for mothers and children in distress. They highlight the importance of looking beyond traditional perceptions of child welfare (that compromise the interests of the non-offending parent), and develop collaborations that could help ensure the well-being of both the parent victim and her children together rather than in isolation (Alaggia & Vine, 2010, p. 213). As stated by Alaggia, “Positive outcomes for the child and battered parent are compromised when current child welfare interventions come in the form of investigating child maltreatment. If child welfare is seen as working toward enhancing the safety of parent victims as well as their children, not as the most intrusive type of intervention, an effective response to domestic violence could develop out of a joint collaboration between child welfare and community-based services.” (Alaggia & Vine, 2010, p.217).


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