Child Youth and Family Review and Domestic Violence

This Government has consistently failed to recognise the links between Child Youth and Family Services (CYFS) and intimate partner violence. For me, the recent review of CYFS has highlighted this misunderstanding of the dynamics of domestic violence and its impacts on children and it is very worrying to say the least. Making the connections are important for getting to the cause of violence in the home, and this will help drive forward the solutions. Children are at risk due to these misunderstandings of domestic violence.

At last report, 74,785 children and young people aged under 17 were present at domestic violence police call-out in one year. There is a lot at stake in terms of getting the Government’s response to this right.  Men who abuse their partners are also likely to assault their children.

It has been nearly three decades since the overlap between domestic violence and child abuse was identified. The abuse of women who are mothers usually predates the infliction of child abuse (Stark & Flitcraft 1988). At least half of all abusive partners also batter their children (Pagelow 1989). The more severe the abuse of the mother, the worse the child abuse (Bowker, Arbitell, and McFerron 1988).

The presence of intimate partner violence in a household harms children even if the child themselves is not assaulted. This harm can have lifetime consequences. It can be like living in a war zone with the added harm of what is supposed to be your safe place, and involving the people who are supposed to care for you the most. This kind of trauma untreated can take lives. It was reported last week that “Four teenage girls who committed suicide within 13 months in the Hastings suburb of Flaxmere had all been exposed to family violence.”

Currently, children being present in a household with domestic violence does not trigger CYF involvement. Often, if a notification is made to CYF in this type of situation, they will refer it out to a community organisation. There are several problems with this, and some benefits. The problems are, the community with domestic violence expertise are chronically under-resourced and many are struggling to provide specialist support for children. The watch-dog has no oversight of the needs of children in this situation. The benefit, when this works well, is specialist support grounded in an understanding of domestic violence is provided to the children and the protective parent.

There have been changes to law and practice at the Family Court that have increased the risk to children.  The last round of Family Court reforms added in a presumption of shared care. Considering the incidence of domestic violence in NZ and the difficulties of disclosing, many experts said this would exacerbate risk to children. This was accompanied by the removal of the Bristol clause – a clause which was put into law after a man with a history of domestic violence murdered his children while they were in his court appointed care. Many people raised concerns with the Government over this, especially as an increasing trend for shared care and children being put into the care of abusers was already showing up before these changes.

I have heard that women have been advised by lawyers not to take out protection orders in case the judge thinks they’re trying to alienate their children from their father. This advice seems to be based on the belief some judges will assume a woman is hostile and a bad parent if she accuses her ex of domestic violence or sexual violence. This is not universal, there are many great judges, but it is far too common. This is thought to be a result of the dissemination of now totally discredited research that created a bogus syndrome called the Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS). I would suggest reading this Australian article for more information on this.

I have heard many similar stories in New Zealand, including a judge threatening to give full custody to a man who had admitted to twice hospitalising his partner because he thought she would have left sooner if it had really been that bad and her accusations were damaging the children. I have heard of counsel for the child recommending full custody to an abuser because the mother had English as another language.

I’ve heard too many stories that demonstrate fundamental misunderstandings of intimate partner violence. I’m not the only one, several submissions on the family violence legislative framework sought to change the law and introduce evidence based training for legal professionals to stop this practice.

Misunderstandings about domestic violence can also happen in the child protection system. There is very little to no training on domestic violence for anyone working in the state system responding to child abuse or domestic violence. I have been hearing stories for years of women being abused by their partners having their children taken off them by CYFS for failing to keep their children safe. Anecdotally this seems to disproportionately impact Māori. The impact of this is profoundly bad for the victim parent and the children.

Further the Vulnerable Children’s Act which we are often told is at the heart of the Government’s response to children, introduced a provision 195A Failure to protect child or vulnerable adult, that makes someone liable to up 10 years imprisonment for failing to take steps to protect a child from the risk of death, grievous bodily harm or sexual assault. Instinctively this might seem like a great idea. Children after all can’t or shouldn’t be responsible for keeping them safe – that is the role of adults. The difficulty though is that this typically ends up shifting the focus from the abuser and onto the abused parent and ultimately children can lose both parents/end up at increased risk/get some very screwed up messages about who is responsible, or what is violence.  And nowhere is support for the child guaranteed.

Internationally the most up to date practice clearly states domestic violence best practice needs to be internalised by the child welfare system. It states there needs to be a specific commitment to partnering with adult survivors and to intervening with perpetrators to enhance child safety. If we don’t do that we put women, children and our society at further risk.

We need to introduce domestic violence and child abuse risk assessments into our family court and CYF system and if a risk is found, we need to ensure the child is not in unsupervised care of the perpetrator until the perpetrator has proven themselves safe. This assessment needs to be based on best evidence and it needs to be independently monitored with regular evaluations of practice. We need to properly invest in supports for the child and the non-offending parent to rebuild their relationship alongside properly intervening with the perpetrator. This is how we will keep children safe, we let them know it’s not their fault, we teach them that violence is wrong and that change is possible.

If we are to protect our children and ensure they are safe into the future we must integrate an evidenced based approach to domestic violence into the heart of our child protection services.