Dec. 3, 2013

Q&A with Lana Wells, the Brenda Strafford Chair in Prevention of Domestic Violence

'If you want to stop domestic and family violence from happening in the first place, policies, legislation, investments and practices have to move upstream'
Lana Wells is associate professor in the Faculty of Social work, and the Brenda Strafford Chair in the Prevention of Domestic Violence.

Lana Wells is the Brenda Strafford Chair in the Prevention of Domestic Violence.

Riley Brandt

On Friday, the provincial government announced Family Violence Hurts Everyone: A Framework to End Family Violence in Alberta. This new framework was heavily influenced by the work of Lana Wells, Brenda Strafford Chair in the Prevention of Domestic Violence, in the Faculty of Social Work.

UToday spoke with Wells about the new direction Alberta is taking in family violence prevention and the University of Calgary research that helped to shape it.  

Q: What is the Family Violence Hurts Everyone framework and what will it do?

A: The Government of Alberta’s new Family Violence Prevention Framework is directing new investments, policy and legislative changes for family violence prevention and intervention over the next five to 10 years. The intention is that over time, rates of domestic, sexual and family violence in Alberta will be reduced significantly.

Q: How will this new framework and its focus on prevention strategies help end family violence?

A: It will focus investments, policies and practices across the spectrum of prevention, including new primary prevention strategies that are focused on stopping the violence before it happens.

Q: How serious a concern is family violence in Alberta?

A: It is one of the most critical issues that Alberta is facing. We have the second highest rate of spousal violence in Canada, well above the national average.  According to the 2012 Albertans’ Perceptions of Family Violence and Bullying Survey, nearly 10 per cent of Albertans find it acceptable in at least one situation to be physically violent towards their spouse. The economics are equally troubling. In the past five years we estimated that over $600 million has been spent with $521 million coming directly from taxpayers.

Q: Why are the family violence rates so much higher in Alberta?

A: This question is complex as there are many contributing factors within the context of Alberta. We have one of the youngest populations in Canada, and we know violence rates are higher with this population, specifically 18 to 26 year-olds. We also have a unique employment environment, with lots of families being separated for a considerable amount of time, which puts tremendous strain on families. And many Albertans are experiencing financial stress and poverty, and that puts families at risk. When you add in high rates of addiction, mental health and childhood trauma issues, along with gender inequality and inequity, and a culture that endorses violence at multiple levels — all of these factors impact our ability to be in healthy relationships. 

Q: How did you get involved in the development of this new family violence policy framework?

A: In 2010, when I was appointed to the Brenda Strafford Chair, I created SHIFT: The Project to End Domestic Violence. The purpose of Shift is to enhance the capacity of policy makers, system leaders, clinicians, service providers and the community at large, to significantly reduce the rates of domestic violence in Alberta. I am committed to making research accessible and working collaboratively with a diverse range of stakeholders, including the Government of Alberta, to inform and influence current and future family violence prevention efforts. The Government of Alberta invited me to participate in the redesign of their family violence prevention framework, to help rethink their policies and investments in light of emerging research from around the world.

Q: How did your research help shape this new family violence policy framework?

A: I believe the most significant value we provided was our data and recommendations based on best and promising practices in the area of primary prevention approaches to create change at scale.  Our research built a case for the Government of Alberta to be investing in primary prevention. It grounded the priorities of the new framework which will now influence the direction of the government’s focus in terms of policy, legislation and investments over the next decade.

Q: Alberta’s new framework pledges to take a primary prevention approach, especially helping youth and young adults recognize the importance of healthy relationships. Why are prevention policies and programs so important?

A: For the last 30 years, the majority of research, interventions and funding have been directed to the crisis response model. As a result, we now have better co-ordinated police, legal and community services; we have more shelters and supports for women experiencing violence and all of this is very important. However, if you want to stop domestic and family violence from happening in the first place, policies, legislation, investments and practices have to move upstream. We need to stop the inter-generational patterns of violence. We need to especially support children who have witnessed, been exposed to or have been abused by their parents and families.  We need to understand how our environments, be it home, school, and community contribute to family violence and unhealthy relationships and use these settings as prevention support. We need to focus our attention on helping children and youth build skills on healthy relationships, especially youth and young adults. And we need to engage men and boys as allies – especially focusing on positive father involvement.