(Australia, 11/07/2016) A recent study of Australia’s family law system shows that domestic violence is going undetected, and the court system is not meeting the needs of children. These dismal results come after efforts were enacted in 2012 to better protect children from harm.
Read the article in full here: “Systems keep children in limbo amid family violence, study shows” by Susie O’Brien, Herald Sun
The research was conducted by a fellow from the The Australian Institute of Family Studies (AIFS). AIFS is “the Australian Government’s key research body in the area of family well-being“.
I visited the AIFS website and discovered a wealth of information that included webinars, and research on a variety of topics including family law, domestic violence, child abuse/child sexual abuse and forced adoption. The AIFS site has a lot to offer not only in the way of research on a variety of topics but also in its efforts to identify systemic problems in responding to domestic violence and child abuse, and suggests reforms based on credible research. Australian Institute of Family Studies
I found a submission from Family Violence Royal Commission – 2015 on the AIFS site. The submission says that a majority of divorced/separated parents are able to solve parenting issues with little or no use of formal services. A large number of parents who do use the family court system or seek professional services are those dealing with domestic violence and/or safety concerns. Specifically, “These data demonstrate that families with complex issues are dealt with across the system but are particularly concentrated in the court caseload.” The Commission examines how families affected by domestic violence fare in the court system – and suggests alternative avenues to offer support or intervention, from community or professional resources, outside of the court setting.
The submission does not elaborate but it is well-known that the power and control dynamics of domestic violence do continue post separation, and would make it very difficult – even dangerous – to co-parent or share custody. It is also natural for a parent who has safety concerns or concerns of child abuse to contact an authority or seek professional help; which would explain increased court involvement.
A concern noted in the submission is that court professionals lack the knowledge, and training to identify and effectively deal with issues regarding domestic violence and child safety. An interesting aspect of this submission is a survey that indicates a wide disparity exists between the opinion of judges and lawyers about their performance, compared to the opinion of parents commenting how court actions have affected their lives, and that of their families. The disparity between judges/court professionals and parents can not be ignored. The rulings of judges, and recommendations of court professionals, hold real power over the lives of children and families, and shape future outcomes; if that power is used wisely and according to the law, there should be little disruption to the lives of children, and families. Meaning, the disparity would be minimal. That so many parents are voicing concern (not only in this study but across the board) demonstrates that a real problem exists.
Another issue raised in the submission is that cases involving domestic violence or child safety concerns take longer to resolve and require more services. Despite the intervention of the court and/or other professionals, the safety and well-being of children is not always improved, and in some cases grows worse,”The data from parents and children/young people in the ICL study is consistent with this point and provides some indication of the effects that this can have at a personal level, with 2–5 years of children’s/young people’s lives being spent engaging with legal processes, and in some instances with multiple professionals associated with child protection, police and family law processes. In some cases, during this time, the children were clearly in unsafe and inappropriate parenting arrangements, as eventually shown by the outcome of the family law proceedings.“
Failures to protect children from abuse are not limited to family court alone but also include problems existing with the professional service providers (that often contract with the court, or work alongside the court). The report indicated problems such as: in a shortage of resources available to needy families, limited staff to meet the demand for services (especially in therapy), difficulty funding programs and/or services and problems communicating and collaborating when multiple providers are used. Once again, systemic failures to identify abuse and/or safety concerns and appropriately respond contribute to systemic failures, and failures that negatively impact families.
Inevitably when other interventions or systems fail, issues are then brought to the attention of family court or CPS. And along with those issues, comes a clamor of providers and their assessments, opinions and recommendations. When brought to the attention of the court system, an outside person – judge, Guardian ad Litem, evaluator, etc – is called to make a decision when a provider can not agree on what is needed or what is best for a child. Yet judges, lawyers and court professionals are the people least qualified to make those decisions or to interpret information because they are not specialists in anything but family law. The break down in systemic responses to abuse, and child safety concerns, must also be addressed because those systems interact with, and influence, court decisions and outcomes.
Efforts are also being made to research and offer solutions to better identify domestic violence, and child safety concerns. The 2015 Family Violence Royal Commissions recommends a holistic approach with an emphasis on violence prevention, and offering supportive services to families. That is to suggest that families receive help and support to possibly avoid court, or minimize their involvement in the legal process. What I found most striking about this approach is that it is based on supporting families, and keeping them intact – parents are seen as important figures to raise their own children, and solve their own problems.
According to the Commission, “Rather than seeing the protection of children solely as the role of statutory authorities, a public health perspective sees the opportunity for all families to have supports to improve their capacity to protect children and creating safe environments for them. However, it is not sufficient to simply “bolt on” preventive programs to the current child protection processes. Researchers and commentators have argued that the role and function of child protection systems need to be reviewed in the context of the wider range of policies and programs aimed at supporting parents and promoting the wellbeing of children.“
The question not answered – and which goes not addressed – is what should be done with a parent who is found to have been abusive, harmful, or toxic to a child. A child’s safety must come first, and be made a priority in any intervention. If a parent is truly abusive, or has caused harm to a child, the safety concern must first be addressed before any other intervention can be attempted. At the same time, if the court system and social service system do not properly identify abuse, that puts the protective parent at risk for being targeted by the system, and unfairly punished.
Clearly more needs to be done in the areas of family court, CPS and government policies directed towards the protection of children.
What reforms or changes do you think are needed?
Or, what has been tried and has not worked?
Plz post your thoughts below!