Supporting Victim-Survivors of Domestic Abuse

Today Abigail stood to speak in support of families impacted by domestic abuse who are not adequately protected by the Family Court. 

Abigail said: I tell members the story that was told to me by a victim‑survivor of domestic abuse. I want members to think about what they would have done in her position. Meg has two young children. She knows they are being physically and sexually abused by their biological father, so she does exactly what anyone should do: She reports the abuse. Meg becomes their primary carer, but despite an apprehended violence order against their father, he is still granted supervised visits with her children. Her son says that he is scared of his dad. He was physically attacked, with visible cuts and bruises. Her daughter discloses multiple occasions of sexual assault. Neither of the children want to see their father, but the supervised visits remain mandatory. Then after Meg refuses to force her children to see their abuser in a supervised visit, the Family Court revokes her primary carer status. The Department of Communities and Justice determines that she is the risk to her children and they are removed from her care. She has not seen them since Mother's Day last year.

Meg's story is just one of many I heard last weekend at a round table held by Sisters in Law, a group of women who were forced to navigate family law and who are now advocating for broad systemic change. They told of the devastation caused by systemic failures in the interaction between New South Wales and Federal government agencies. The stories of those women who had sought to protect their children, only to lose custody of them to their abusers, were heartbreaking. Yet they are not exceptional. Stories of an abuser's right to see their children trumping the children's right to safety are all too frequent. What would members do if they had reason to believe that their child was being abused by the other parent? What would members do if their lawyer advised them to minimise those concerns to avoid being deemed a risk to their child by the Family Court? How would they weigh the risk of losing custody of their children for being unable to convince a Federal court that they were being abused against the risk of staying silent about the abuse and leaving your children in harm's way in breach of State disclosure laws? Those are the impossible choices parents are being asked to make.

In New South Wales child protection authorities make protection orders based on determinations of significant harm using investigative powers in homes and schools that are not available to Federal courts. But currently there is no requirement for those orders to be tabled or considered during custody determinations. That must change. Either consideration of child protection orders must become mandatory or the Federal courts must hand custody and access determination powers to the New South Wales courts. I understand that family law is frequently a balancing act. We should enable children to have a relationship with both of their parents and ensure children's access rights. We need systems that do not reward false claims. But those aims should not come at the expense of children's safety. The current system cannot be considered adequate when so many are not being protected by it. Frankly, many of those children would have been better off if they had had no involvement with the Family Court.

This is complicated. I do not have all the answers, but I do know that if the result of the current system is that children are suffering and continue to be at risk of abuse, we need to act. The Greens would support an inquiry into these issues. I ask all members to think about other ways that we can begin to solve these problems together. I would like to thank Sally Stevenson and the Illawarra Women's Health Centre for hosting our group, Jane Matts for her explanation of the technical issues within the system, and those who gave up their Saturday to listen and learn: the MP for Shellharbour, Anna Watson; author and investigative journalist Jess Hill; family violence advocate Geraldine Bilston; Lula Dembele from No to Violence; Dr Karen Williams from the National Justice Project; and Kerrie Thompson, CEO of VOCAL. Most importantly, I want to thank the mothers who have lost so much but who are still willing to work so hard to change the system that has wronged them. Together we will work to fix this broken system and ensure that every child is protected from abuse.



For the full transcript see Hansard here.

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