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

Contributor:
Fuseworks Media
Fuseworks Media

Abused children are being ordered into dangerous situations by the very agencies and institutions that should protect them, says watchdog group The Backbone Collective.

In its new Report released today entitled ‘Seen and not Heard - Force’, Backbone claims there is a link between the way abused children and their mothers are treated by the Family Court after they leave domestic violence, and why New Zealand has the worst rates of violence to women and children in the Western World.

Backbone surveyed 291 women who had left violent or abusive relationships, and became involved in the NZ Family Court to learn what the outcomes were for their 591 children afterwards.

Instead of a picture of improved safety, Backbone reports an alarming trend for children to be ordered into the care of their abusive fathers, or into other state care -- both worse situations as the children begin living without the protection of their mothers. Backbone says this leaves already-traumatised children devastated, as what should be a soft landing to safety away from their abusers turns into a nightmare revisited.

One of Backbone’s co founders, Deborah Mackenzie explains, "At Christmas time lots of people think about being with people they love and care about - they choose to get together, share food and presents and enjoy each other’s company. But for the children in this report Christmas is often a time when the Family Court forces them against their wishes into unsafe situations with an abuser. They talk about being locked in rooms, starved, beaten, yelled at, forced to do things that aren't safe and watch other people get hurt. They are not having a loving family time. They are being abused. It makes me so sad to think of all of these children over the holiday period, knowing that they are with an abuser and they are scared and they want to be with their mum and the Family Court is not allowing that to happen."

According to Backbone, the agents for this trend of awarding custody to abusers are Family Courts, judges, psychologists, lawyers and social workers. Some women said they felt Court psychologists and lawyers were at the behest of judges and did not seem able to stand up for what the children want and need to keep them safe and to help them rebuild their lives after living with violence and abuse. Others said that lawyers and psychologists ignore evidence that could protect a child.

Quite why Family Court officials might do this is not immediately obvious. But Backbone is firm on its commitment to report women’s stories about how they and their children’s safety has been worsened by entering the Family Court system after leaving a violent or abusive relationship:

"Mothers...shared their children’s experiences of the Family Court [in this survey] so that we can let the judiciary, other court officials, the Ministry of Justice, the Government and the public know about what it is like to be a child who has experienced violence and abuse and be involved in the Family Court."

Backbone reports that children’s safety is often compromised as Family Court judges, lawyers, psychologists and social workers regularly ignore the wishes and pleas of children, to the detriment of children’s safety:

"In more than half the cases either the children or their mother told professionals working in the Family Court about the worries they had at the abuser’s house but in the majority of cases those worries were not reported accurately to the Court or taken into consideration when care and contact orders were made."

Backbone reproaches Family Court professionals for turning a blind eye to children in the system, saying it flouts New Zealand’s own Care of Children Act 2004, which stipulates that children MUST be protected from violence.

"Children want control over how much time they spend with the abuser and many want no contact at all."

According to Backbone, in many cases where children are put into full-time care of abusive fathers, the evidence used by Family Court professionals to justify this is based on an old-fashioned psychological view that has been discredited in other Western countries as ‘junk science’. The view is called ‘Parental Alienation’ and describes when a child is influenced, or ‘poisoned’ by one parent against the other.

Many women told Backbone that when they tried to protect their children from the abuser, ‘parental alienation syndrome’ was used against them in the Family Court, as a reason for their children to be removed and put into the care of their abusive fathers.

Backbone says using the debunked parental alienation syndrome to justify removing a child from a ‘protective’ mother to give to an abusive father goes some way to explaining why children’s wishes are largely ignored by Family Court professionals. But it says the use of this discredited syndrome must stop as it causes unnecessary damage and risk to children:

"The Family Court is characterising mothers who raise genuine safety concerns for their children as ‘parental alienators’...Children are not being believed about their experiences of violence and abuse, evidence of it...is...disregarded in the court and mothers are being blamed for their children’s fears."

What remains undisputed are New Zealand’s shocking violence against women and children statistics, which place us at the bottom of all countries in the Western World.

Many steps have been taken in the past to curb New Zealand’s violence epidemic, and surveying actual users of the Family Court system and releasing reports like today’s is Backbone’s way of shining the light on the support system that is meant to protect and support children and women who escape violent or abusive partners.

"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."

Academic and Social Worker Paora Joass-Moyle has written a powerful foreword for the report released today, which endorses Backbone’s sad findings.

Joass-Moyle has over 27 years’ experience in social work, and first-hand knowledge of what it was like to be raised without her parents. Much of Joass-Moyle’s research for her PhD has focused on the experience of Maori women and their tamariki, including when involved in the Family Court.

Joass-Moyle confirms that Backbone’s research marries with her own findings -- namely that Maori women and children also report that the Family Court does not believe their experiences of violence or makes light of those experiences. 

Joass-Moyle’s endorsement of Backbone’s findings lends credibility to today’s report which claims the Family Court is failing vulnerable children and placing them in more danger than ever:

"If we are to learn anything about what we are not getting right for vulnerable children in Aotearoa, then we have to listen to, and cease dismissing the experiences of those most affected. It is vital that the voices of women and children as a survivor group are centralised. Especially, in a country that is internationally renowned for having the highest rates of violence to women and children. This Backbone Collective report is critical to getting prevention work right."

Backbone reasons that if women and children are not believed when they report violence, and if reporting it places them in more terrible peril of their abuser, then what is the motivation to report violence or to leave a violent relationship? Having a response system that fails to protect the people who need it will never help prevent or stop violence.

Backbone is calling for a Royal Commission of Inquiry into the Family Court based on the findings of this and earlier reports.

The Collective is more hopeful than ever that its findings and the women and children it represents, will finally be listened to:

"New Zealand...has a new Government and Backbone’s 1100 members hope they will see that...a Royal Commission of Inquiry is the only mechanism that can...fully investigate the practices of the Family Court.

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