June 24, 2010
THE Family Law Act is failing to protect children from ongoing trauma at the hands of abusive and violent fathers, a study has found.
The act's aims of protecting children from violence and giving them ''meaningful involvement'' with both parents was being resolved in favour of contact even in cases of severe domestic violence, the study reveals.
Sydney University education and social work senior lecturer Lesley Laing, the report's author, said more thought needed to be given to what formed a ''meaningful relationship'' when a parent had traumatised a child through domestic violence. ''There is no requirement that a parent who has harmed a child in this way must demonstrate they can offer a safe and meaningful relationship,'' she said.
The report is based on interviews with 22 women, contacted through domestic violence services, who were negotiating parenting arrangements in the family law system. It is the first study that has allowed women experiencing domestic violence to speak about the impact of the 2006 legal changes that put greater emphasis on shared parenting while still maintaining protection in cases of violence.
The women describe a situation where they are discouraged by legal advisers and others from raising violence issues in the Family Court for fear of being seen as an ''unfriendly'' or ''alienating'' parent unwilling to support contact with the father.
''Anything that you do to try and advocate for your children is somehow twisted into being high conflict and parental alienation,'' one woman said. ''So you are basically silenced. And the children are silenced.''
Another said she had agreed to the children having sleepovers at their father's place because she felt she had no choice. Her lawyer had convinced her that if she objected the judge would give the father even more contact.
Dr Laing said some women felt guilty they had escaped violent men but their children had not. ''Forty years ago some women could only escape domestic violence by leaving the children behind, and they were pilloried,'' she said. ''Now there is a new form of child abandonment, at least part time. It's a terrible thing we are asking women to do.''
The report shows the women are battling a complex and unco-ordinated system that often sees state child protection services shunting matters to the Family Court though the court with no powers of investigation.
As well, the women battled community attitudes that regarded them as liars who misused the system. Professionals constantly stressed to the women the importance of fathering, without regard to its quality. It was commonly assumed that at least some contact was inevitable, no matter what violence had occurred, and that supervised contact would eventually move to unsupervised contact.
The study, No Way to Live, will put further pressure on federal Attorney-General Robert McClelland to amend the Family Law Act. An earlier review he commissioned recommended amendments to provide greater protection.