Monday, February 17, 2014

Family Law Act must be changed to make child safety the priority (Australia)

Kudos to Susie O'Brien for an excellent piece. Not mentioned, however, is that the Australian fathers rights movement was behind the legislation that has put all these children at risk, and killing too many.

Family Law Act must be changed make child safety the priority

Herald Sun February 18, 2014 12:00AM

You might be surprised to know the rights of an abusive, violent parent comes before the

You might be surprised to know the rights of an abusive, violent parent comes before the rights of their child.

WHEN it comes to family violence, there is a huge gap between the rhetoric and the reality. We all want women and their children to be safe from abuse, but at present the system is particularly stacked against the kids.

Perhaps we should expand the Herald Sun Take a Stand campaign to include a specific focus on keeping children safe from violence as well.

The murder of Tyabb boy Luke Batty exposes a system-wide failure to protect at-risk children.

For a start, there is far too much emphasis on the rights of parents to have access to their children and not enough priority given to ensuring the safety of their kids.

You might be surprised to know the rights of an abusive, violent parent comes before the rights of their child.

That’s right. Under the present law, a father can threaten to kill his partner, hit her and set her house on fire and he can still get access to their children.

This is very wrong.

Clearly, the law needs to change. Violent men should not be allowed to play happy families every second weekend.

If his former partner isn’t safe, why does anyone think his kids will be?

We need to urgently rewrite the Family Law Act to ensure the safety of children comes before the right of children to see both parents.

At present, the first principle for decision-making in the act is ensuring the “best interests of the child”. The primary consideration for working out what is in the best interests of the child is “the benefit to the child of having a meaningful relationship with both of the child’s parents”.

Unbelievably, the safety of the child is the secondary consideration.

Any serious threat of violence, or actual violence, should immediately strip away any shared parenting rights.

We also must re-examine the intervention order (IO) system. At the moment the prerequisites for an IO being granted are so broad that serious cases of harm are getting lost amid minor family disputes.

Last year, more than 33,000 IOs were granted in Victoria and it’s rising steeply each year.

There needs to be a new category of order separating the most serious cases from the rest: for instance, in cases where there is mental illness, threats to kill and significant harm.

Intervention Orders keeping violent men away should also take priority over any Family Court order granting access. At the moment, if there is any conflict, the federal family law takes precedence. That is very dangerous.

In addition, breaches of intervention orders should be taken more seriously. And any breach of such an order should automatically stop you from contacting your children.

It beggars belief at present that men can violate a violence order and still get to hang out with their kids.

However, alongside this crackdown we must build more accountability into the system. We need to redefine violence in the Family Law Act to cut down on frivolous and vexatious claims.

At the lower end, abuse can be no more than threatening behaviour that causes the family member to be fearful. There is no requirement that any fear experienced by the victim of the violence is reasonable.

Similarly, we need to ensure that it’s not too easy for people to get an intervention order. At present there is no requirement that there is any independent verification or evidence of abuse.

If the burden of proof is too low, then it can open the floodgates.

Courts must be given more funding to act much more quickly.

The law used to say that courts must take “prompt action” in parenting proceedings where family violence or abuse may be relevant. Now judges must act within “eight weeks if appropriate”. That’s right. Eight weeks.

If you need things sped up, it can be done in six weeks.

It’s hardly adequate when people’s lives are at risk.

There is plenty of evidence to show how important these issue are. A recent Australian Institute of Family Studies survey of 7000 separated parents found one fifth is worried about their safety or their child’s safety as a result of ongoing contact with their former partner.

This concern is justified: as the Herald Sun reported this week, seven children and babies have been killed in only 20 months in family violence attacks in Victoria.

One more thing: I have talked about violence perpetrated by men in this piece. Yes, I know women are violent and women do kill their children. But as a woman, I don’t apologise for focusing on men given that women are three times more likely than men to experience violence by a partner.

Men are also overwhelmingly the perpetrators of this violence. I’d really like more men to talk about how to stop male violence.

Ultimately, I want us to harness our passion and outrage about Luke’s death.

Perhaps the one positive thing can be the chance to save other children from facing the same fate.