Are mothers and children being silenced in the Family Court?

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Australian researchers have found that only 5 per cent of fathers and 5 per cent of mothers made false allegations of child abuse in the Family Court*…


On June 28-29 the Weekend Australian published a lengthy article by sexologist Bettina Arndt. The article was entitled “Weapons of divorce wars are cruelling men’s chances of happiness with someone else”. She says that women falsify claims of domestic violence in the courts to disadvantage their former partners.

She sympathised with those accused of child abuse and domestic violence because they are supposedly disadvantaged in finding new partners.

Staff in domestic violence shelters might argue that women should check men’s histories more carefully before they become their sexual partners given the frequency with which they provide shelter for the second and third wives of violent older men. When the woman is Asian (as many are) and has a young child, she can be in a difficult situation if she does not have Australian citizenship. She may not be entitled to welfare benefits and, at the same time, she may not be allowed to return to her home country if the father refuses permission for the child to leave. While the women are supported by local churches, the staff of shelters complain that the abuser can go overseas and bring back a new wife every two years.

As my colleague, Dr Elspeth McInnes wrote, “Bettina Arndt’s claim that women invent domestic violence, reflects a dangerous scepticism underpinning domestic homicides, where victims have struggled unsuccessfully to get criminal and family law systems to protect them. Far from inventing violence, the evidence shows a minority of victims make reports because of the stigma attached to speaking out. The premise that victims make up violence is deadly because it protects perpetrators”. Dr. McInnes referred to recent cases where women and children have been murdered after unsuccessfully seeking help from police.

Research has shown that one third of Australian and New Zealand children witness their mothers being physically harmed and one Australian woman a week is said to be murdered by her partner.

Arndt then quotes a statement allegedly made by retiring Judge David Collier and published in the Sydney Morning Herald that child sexual abuse cases in the Family Court are often concocted by lying mothers, allegations described as “horrible weapons” used to shut the father out of the child’s life.

How did David Collier know that the mothers were lying? Did they confess or was this just his opinion?

Or was he influenced by an adviser, a psychiatrist or Independent Children’s Lawyer not academically qualified in child development and child abuse?

Did ‘expert witnesses’ advise the judge that the mothers who believed their children’s disclosures of abuse were the dangerous parents because they emotionally abused the children by believing them?

Did they accuse the mothers of “training” the child to lie, thereafter recommending that the parents accused of abuse should be granted residence while the mothers be restricted to occasional, supervised contact?

It is important to remember the fact that unsubstantiated does not mean that it didn’t happen. It might mean that state child protection services didn’t assess the disclosures knowing that a case was in the court or a court order already existed. The problem is that the Family Court was neither created nor resourced to investigate child abuse allegations and when the SA court sought assistance from state services, Freedom Of Information (FOI) applications showed that help was refused on about 40 occasions each year.

CEOs and even ministers of child protection services have often expressed the belief that state police and child protection services are not allowed to investigate disclosures of abuse if there is a Family Court case involved unless “it is a matter of life and death”. Even when a South Australian child was the sole carer of a father with 2 convictions for child sex offences, violence and was dying of AIDS, the department said it could not intervene. Children’s Commissioners say that this widespread belief is false.

Unsubstantiated might mean that the abuser threatened the child into silence and s/he was too afraid to reveal all to complete strangers. It might also mean that the accused parent had residence of the child and was the one responsible for taking the child for assessment.

Child sex offenders are masters of manipulation. They not only groom the child, they groom all those responsible for the child’s safety. The labelling of the mother as mad or bad might mean that the abuser groomed and charmed the police, social workers and even the judge.

I know mothers who have paid up to $1M for family lawyers and have received bills for $37,000 for one Family Court ordered report from a NSW psychiatrist. Some have lost their homes and been declared bankrupt in their unsuccessful efforts to protect their children. Would they suffer so much simply to spite their ex?

The day after David Collier was reported to be suggesting that some mothers lie in court, the Australian newspaper published the massive increase in child sex abuse cases in WA. Professor Stephen Smallbone confirmed that most cases occur in the family setting. Describing their abusers as monsters, the Commissioner of Police had already told the Sydney Morning Herald that there had been a massive and unacceptable increase in the abuse of very young children in NSW. The young are chosen because abusers are safe from prosecution if their victims lack the maturity and sophisticated communication skills needed to undergo rigorous cross examination in a criminal court. And, the stats show that if the fathers seek residence in the Family Court, the chances are high that they will succeed. The chances are so high that Family lawyers and Women’s Legal Services are said to be advising mothers not to disclose child abuse or domestic violence in the Family Court.

So, it is a serious concern that while schools teach young children to report inappropriate sexual behaviour to someone they trust, if they report sexual abuse by their fathers and a Family Court case is involved, there is the possibility that they will be sent to live with their alleged abusers while their mothers may be restricted to occasional, supervised contact, banned from taking them for medical treatment, banned from discussing further evidence of abuse and even banned from reporting it. The psychological effects on the child can only be imagined.

That leaves the big question: “Who is protecting our most vulnerable young children from incest?”

Professor Freda Briggs is the author of “Smart Parenting for Safer Kids” and “Child protection : The essential guide”

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