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Children and Contact in the Context of Parental Separation and Family Violence A Practice Perspective.

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Presentation on theme: "Children and Contact in the Context of Parental Separation and Family Violence A Practice Perspective."— Presentation transcript:

1 Children and Contact in the Context of Parental Separation and Family Violence A Practice Perspective

2 Acknowledgement of Country I acknowledge that we are meeting on the traditional country of the Kaurna people of the Adelaide Plains. I recognize and respect their cultural heritage, beliefs and relationship with the land. I acknowledge that they are of continuing importance to the Kaurna people living today.

3 Acknowledgement of the Author I acknowledge the wonderful work of my Anglicare colleague, Karen Barker, who is the author of the ‘Children Australia’ Journal article of which this presentation is based upon. Karen passes on her apologies for not being here today. Karen’s full article can be found at: Children Australia / Volume 38 / Special Issue 04 / December 2013,pp. 171-177 Link: S1035077213000291 S1035077213000291

4 Introduction, Background and Context Why this topic? What are people telling us? What is the intention of this paper/presentation?

5 Family Violence Context The Family Law Act definition is contained in section (s 4AB). This definition came into effect on 7 June 2012 and is broader that the definition that formerly appeared in the Act. Defines family violence as ‘ violent, threatening or other behavior by a person that coerces or controls a family member and causes them to be fearful ’ (Family Violence Committee, 2012)

6 Types of Violence Coercive Controlling Violence – ongoing pattern, perpetrators goal is power and control over the victim Situational Couple Violence – not normally rooted in desire for power and control, but driven by an inability to manage one’s emotions Separation Instigated Violence – no previous history of violence, often an isolated incident driven by the strong emotions of separation Violent Resistance – when partners try to defend themselves against the other partner’s attack.

7 The Effect of Family Violence on Children Family violence is widely recognised as a serious social problem with a significant body of research demonstrating both immediate and long term adverse effects on children. Frequently resulting in developmental trauma (including sadness, fear, anxiety, loyalty conflicts, sleeping difficulties, loss of friends and problems at school). Children can externalize or internalize the behaviours and show signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. (Richards 2011, Shea-Hart 2009)

8 The Effect of Family Violence on Children Children can be indirect victims from hearing or witnessing the violence, or direct victims who have been subjected to a direct assault by the perpetrator or injured when they try to help the abused parent and get in the way of the attack. (Laing, 2010) Children are often known as the ‘silent victims’. Family violence can often go unreported and child are told not to tell anyone. (Edleson 1999; Kovacs & Tominson, 2003; Tominson, 2000; all as cited in Richards, 2011)

9 The Effect of Family Violence on Children Family Violence increases the likelihood that children will be victims of direct abuse and some studies have reported that this risk can be as high as 30% to 60%. (Edleson, 2001; Hester & Pearson, 1998; Strauaa, 1983, all as cited I Laing, 2010)

10 Family Court When parents separate and want to make arrangements for their children’s care, they are required by the Family Law Act to attempt Family Dispute Resolution. This process however may not be suitable for families with a history of family violence and they may be advised by the practitioner that they are exempt from attending. Then allowing parents to lodge an application for Parenting Orders with the Family Court. (Kaspiew, Gray, Weston, Moloney, Hand, Qu and the Family Law Evaluation Team, 2009; Kaspiew et al, 2009)

11 What Mothers tell us about their Family Court experiences Huge emphasis on “Proof”. The impact and risk posed to children, is minimized or ignored completely. Feeling subjected to character assassinations by the other parent, accused of being an unfit parent, and accorded mental health issues or drug and alcohol addictions. Attempts to protect are construed as restrictive gate- keeping to avoid the child spending time with the father. Accused of being “vengeful mothers” and making false allegations. (Laing, 2010; Ravi & Gill, 2012; Shea-Hart, 2009)

12 What Mothers tell us about their Family Court experiences In court they must face their ex-partner and they become re-traumatized and present as incoherent and chaotic due to stress. In contrast, their ex-partner can be calm and in control. Characteristic of the power and control dynamic. (Beeble, Bybee & Sullivan 2007)

13 Scenario Raylene 28 years, mother to Casey 6 years

14 Family Reports and Independent Court Expert Reports Family reports completed by Family Consultants who meet with the parents, and in some cases the children. Independent Court Expert Reports completed by a mental health professional, such as a psychologist or social worker, and involve a psychological assessment of the whole family. Critics suggest that the courts tend to use experts that fit with the common discourse of the court and their contributions can drown out the voice of the victim and the child. (Blank & Ney, 2006)

15 Independent Children’s Lawyers Role is to talk to all parties involved and provide information and recommendations to the court based on the child’s best interest. In deciding the ‘best interest’ there are two primary considerations: 1)That the children should have the benefit of both parents having a meaningful involvement in their lives 2)The need to protect the child from physical or psychological harm BUT WHICH CONSIDERATION BEARS MORE WEIGHT?

16 Pro-contact Culture Some mothers report being asked: “Does assaulting, controlling or intimidating behavior towards them (the mother) mean he is a bad father?”

17 Finding the Child’s Voice Research suggests children and young people are marginalized and excluded from the right to participate in decisions that affect them. Tension exists between the right of the child to participate and the right of the child to be protected from harm – in family violence cases, children are rarely invited to talk about their level of trauma or anxiety. The tension seems to be around the fear that it may place the child at risk if they disclose something that will make the parent angry.

18 Finding the Child’s Voice The Family Law Act provides for the ascertainment of children’s views as a secondary consideration in the two tier approach – however there is debate regarding the weight given to the voice of the child. (Chisholm, 2009) In some family violence cases, the child’s substantiation of their mother’s report of violence is dismissed on the basis that the mother allegedly ‘coached’ or ‘alienated’ the child. (McInnes, 2003; Shea-Hart, 2009)

19 Scenario Brooke, aged 9, refused to spend time with her father.

20 Finding the Child’s Voice Recently findings from the AIFS Independent Children’s Lawyer Study found the following: -Independent Children’s Lawyers are well placed to meet obligations under the Family Law Acts 60B(4) that give effect to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child to participate in proceedings relevant to their care (Article 9) and to make their views know in relevant judicial and administrative proceedings (Article 12). -The Act also obligates the ICL to ensure that any views expressed by the child or young person about matters at issue are put before the court. (Carson, Kaspiew, Moore, Deblaquiere, De Maio & Horsfall 2014)

21 Finding the Child’s Voice “Just over one-third of the participating ICLs however reported that they often or always had direct contact with the child or young person in their ICL case”. (pg.62) Where direct contact did occur: - 86% of the time it was to familiarize the child with the ICL and their role, - 71% of the time it was to explain the Family Law process - 60% of the time it was to ascertain the child’s views - 51% of the time was to explain the court orders, and - 56% of the time was to explain the process outcomes (Carson, Kaspiew, Moore, Deblaquiere, De Maio & Horsfall 2014)

22 Finding the Child’s Voice The study cites Kaspiew et al, 2013, who revealed that all of the children interviewed had been involved in circumstances where their safety had been compromised. “The children described expectations of the ICL listening to them, protecting them, advocating for them and helping them”. For most however, these expectations were not met. (Carson, Kaspiew, Moore, Deblaquiere, De Maio & Horsfall 2014)

23 Supervised Contact Centres Provide a safe, neutral environment that enables the parent-child relationship to continue while supported by a third party – much needed service. Research suggests that a cautionary lens be applied when analyzing the value of supervision in cases involving coercive controlling violence. Fear – supervised contact services can be used by perpetrators as a means to continue the power and control over the victim. Fear – perpetrators can be on their ‘best behavior’

24 Supervised Contact Centre Reports Frequently requested by the Court. Observational and can be highly influential. Can contribute to the court believing the parent-child relationship is intact and the perpetrator is a good enough parent. Staff must be highly trained in the dynamics of family violence. (Laing, 2010; Parker et al, 2008; Ravi & Gill, 2012)

25 Supervised Contact Centre Reports But these reports can provide valuable information. They can: -describe the level of anxiety or trauma demonstrated by the child -document a child’s reluctance or refusal -Outline incidences of abusive or controlling behavior (towards family members or staff, including breaches of Centre Service Agreements) -Provide informed recommendations

26 Should parenthood ever be dissoluble ? No Some argue there is a need for children to have ongoing contact so they develop a sense of belonging, which assists in creating their identity and sense of self (Altobeli, 2011; Garber, 2007; Johnson, 2005) Yes Others suggest there should be the possibility of ‘no contact’ with the violent parent when there is a history of controlling coercive violence. They argue that the protective parent provides the child with the necessary connection to family and self and self- identity is not assisted by the parent who is a perpetrator The risk to the child is too high without the protective parent present to protect them – the child may become the primary victim of the violence. (Parkinson, 2012; Ravi & Gill, 2012; Laing, 2010)

27 Perpetrators as Parents Research has raised concerns When compared with other fathers, perpetrators have poor parenting skills resulting from their sense of entitlement, self-centred attitudes and overly controlling behaviours They can be more likely to over-use physical forms of discipline and be engaged in other forms of child abuse (Hardesty & Chung, 2006; Morill et al, 2005; Rothman, Mandel & Silverman, 2007)

28 Scenario Joshua 4 years old

29 Conclusion The issue of parent-child post-separation contact is contentious and challenging, particularly where family violence is, or has been, an issue. The question remains - Do children benefit, or not, by maintaining contact post separation with a coercive controlling parent? Further research in these areas is required.

30 Conclusion Literature is consistent – all professionals in the family law system need to have a sound understanding of family violence and it’s effect on women and children post-separation.

31 Conclusion Research on Supervised Contact Centres also note the importance of staff being well trained in understanding the impact of family violence. It should include recognition of the patterns of behavior exhibited by coercive controlling intimate partners as they attempt to groom service providers in an attempt to discredit the victim.

32 Conclusion Children’s Contact Centres should take a child-centred approach to service delivery and seek to find innovative ways to invite children to speak to trained children’s counsellors. Providing a safe space for children to have the opportunity to talk about their experiences and feelings assists children to develop social and emotional resilience to the parent’s separation and exposure to family violence.

33 Conclusion When Children’s Contact Services are staffed by well trained specialist staff and delivered in accordance with best practice standards, they are ideally placed to support the mother and child and to provide a safe venue to facilitate and enhance the visiting parent-child relationship, when an ongoing relationship is deemed safe and in the child’s best interest

34 Conclusion In closing, this is a clarion call to the sector, in which I encourage us all to find ways to meaningfully engage children and young people experiencing family separation, and to find ways to listen and act on what they tell us so that we can better keep them safe.

35 THANK YOU For further information contact: Lisa Whittaker Phone: (08) 9720 9202 or email:

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