Backbone Collective releases report on children's experiences of the Family Court

Thu 14 Dec 2017

The Backbone Collective has released another report on the Family Court, this time focusing on the experiences of children. The report Seen and ...

The Backbone Collective has released another report on the Family Court, this time focusing on the experiences of children.

The report Seen and not Heard: Children in the New Zealand Family Court. Part One – Force is based on a survey of 291 women who had left violent or abusive relationships and became involved in the Family Court. Collectively they have 591 children who are or were involved in Family Court proceedings. The report describes the picture painted as "deeply troubling."

Findings include:

  • Nearly half of all the perpetrators had a history of hurting previous partners or children and/or had been charged and/or convicted for breaching a Protection Order against another partner
  • Over half the mothers said the children saw or heard the abuser physically assault her and 44% said the abuser had physically assaulted the child/ren.  
  • Overall 54% of the children were being ordered into care and contact arrangements that were different from what they wanted
  • Many of these children are worried about their sexual, physical and psychological safety when they are in the perpetrator's care
  • Only 2% of mothers said a risk assessment to determine the risk of dangerousness and lethality had been undertaken in their case
  • 83% of the mothers said that the Family Court had not made their children any safer
  • In 95% of cases the perpetrator was the child/ren’s father.

15% of respondents (38 women) identified as Māori. Between them, these mothers had 88 children. The report says children of Māori mothers were more likely to be ordered into the abusers’ day to day care, more likely to be ordered in care and contact arrangements with the abuser and less likely to have the children’s experiences reported accurately to the court by professionals working in the Family Court. The Māori mothers were more likely to report that Child Youth and Family/Oranga Tamariki had been involved in their Family Court case compared to non-Māori mothers.

The report states the Family Court is characterising mothers who raised safety concerns for their children as ‘parental alienators’. Both this and Backbone's earlier Family Court survey found that professionals in the Family Court use ‘parental alienation’ or similar terms in nearly half of all cases:

“Backbone has heard from many mothers who have told us that those working in the Family Court accuse them of being responsible for their child/ren not wanting to have contact with the abuser rather than seeing that the violence and abuse the children have been exposed to is the cause. … Despite the doctrine of parental alienation being internationally discredited for many years it is still being routinely applied by psychologists, Lawyer for Child and social workers and judges in the NZ Family Court.”

The report found that children whose fathers had been deemed ‘unsafe’ for care or contact (except sometimes for unsupervised contact) by the Family Court "appeared to have had far fewer damaging health impacts" than those children whose abusive father was deemed as being ‘safe’ and who therefore had court ordered care or contact with their father. This was despite exposure to often serious violence and abuse before their parents separated, for those children whose fathers were deemed 'unsafe.'

The report also provides information about types of abuse perpetrated before and after separation, other risk-related behaviours of abusers, children’s worries about care and contact with their fathers, how professionals responded to experiences of abuse, care/contact children wanted with the abuser compared to what was ordered by the court, and mental and physical health impacts experienced by children.

The report notes the Foreward of the Family Violence Risk Assessment and Management Framework (2017) which says "The government is committed to reducing family violence, keeping victims safe, and managing perpetrators more effectively so all New Zealanders can live free from violence. We know that identifying risk, intervening earlier and in a more coordinated way is critical to achieving this."

In a media release Backbone says "There is simply too much to lose by remaining silent on the issue of child safety in New Zealand. We rank the worst in the Western World in terms of violence against women statistics and child abuse and neglect. If we don’t start improving the way we respond to these social problems we will only compound the damage done."

Backbone says further findings from the survey will be provided in separate reports over the coming months, including the role of various professionals working in the courts, and CYF/Oranga Tamariki processes and responses to women and children who have experienced violence and abuse.

The report says "Once again Backbone is providing the New Zealand Family Court in New Zealand with access to rich data about a large number of service users’ (children’s) experiences. Backbone hopes those in authority treat this taonga with the respect and dignity it deserves."

Backbone is calling for a Royal Commission of Inquiry into the Family Court.

Election 2017 policies

The Labour Party's family violence policy stated it will "Review the family court reforms and support the statutory agencies to meet the objectives for safety in our communities."

New Zealand First spokesperson Tracey Martin said "Unfortunately what we are being told by women and their families, and by the lawyers having to navigate the system to try and keep their clients safe is that the changes made to the family court over the last nine years have made it harder for women to seek protection and justice not better. Because of this evidence we cannot commit to retaining all the changes made by the National Government. We must talk to those who must use the system, keep what is working and replace what is not."

Green Party spokesperson Jan Logie said "The Green Party supports a victim-led review of the functioning of the Family Court and in the interim we believe independent domestic and child abuse expert advisors in the courts should provide advice and monitor the application of the law."

"We believe there would be value in developing an accreditation system for all people engaged in the Family Court to ensure they understand the most up-to-date evidence on domestic violence and child abuse, and that their practice and decisions are consistent with this."

Background information

See these previous NZFVC stories:

Backbone releases report on Family Court appeals and complaints

Media investigates Family Court orders and "disturbing" footage of uplifting children

Backbone Collective: "overwhelmingly negative feedback" on the Family Court

Backbone Collective releases first report on the Family Court
Story includes a list of relevant research and resources

New collective for survivors of violence against women launched: The Backbone Collective

Related news

This week a District Court Judge's decision to discharge a man without conviction after he violently assaulted his partner, daughter and a man he believed she was romantically interested in has attracted criticism. In his comments, Judge Brandts-Giesen said:

"Really, this is a situation that does your wife no credit and does the [male] no credit."  

"There would be many people who would have done exactly what you did, even though it may be against the law to do so."

"I consider that the consequences of a conviction are out of all proportion to what happened on this occasion."

Victim advocates have criticised the judge's decision and comments. The NZ Herald reported barrister and victim advocate Catriona MacLennan said the judge's comments and decisions "... display a complete lack of understanding of domestic violence." In an interview with Newstalk ZB, Ms MacLennan also said the Chief District Court Judge needs to step in and review these cases, and that judges need more training.


'Christmas no fun' for kids living under orders from Family Court, Voxy, 15.12.2017

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