Letter to the Sydney Morning Herald in response to two articles by Adele Horan published in the SMH on 12 May 2007:
No excuse to marginalise dads
In both the articles "Bold new path on domestic violence" 12 May 2007 and "Odds still stacked against the children" 12 May 2007, which link domestic violence to Family Court policy, the assumption is that men alone are the perpetrators of domestic violence and child abuse.
In fact the Australian Bureau of Statistics' recent Personal Safety Study found that men are perpetrators in about 70% of cases and women are perpetrators in about 30% of cases. With physical child abuse, the figure is similarly about 70% perpetrated by fathers and step-fathers, compared to 30% perpetrated by mothers and step-mothers. For child sexual abuse, the figure is about 94% perpetrated by fathers and step-fathers compared to about 6% perpetrated by mothers and step-mothers (though the ABS stipulates that this statistic has a relative standard error of 25-50% and should be used with caution).
The ABS study suggests that about 0.9% of the population has experienced child sexual abuse by a parent or step-parent (0.85% by fathers, 0.05% by mothers) , and about 6% of the population has experienced physical child abuse (4% by fathers, 2% by mothers).
It cannot be certain if these are the current trends as they are based on studies of past experiences of adults.
What the ABS Personal Safety Study does not do is distinguish between fathers and step-fathers. It is known from other studies that step-fathers are by far the greater perpetrators of child sexual abuse compared to natural fathers, and also more responsible for physical abuse. So there is a strong argument here that children are safer with the natural father than with the natural mother. Similarly, separated natural mothers are known to be more physically abusive toward their children than separated natural fathers.
The Child Protection Queensland 2005-06 Performance Report shows that women were responsible for 55.5% of substantiated child abuse cases across Queensland in 2005-06.
The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare report showed that for 2005-06, Tasmanian children living with single mothers featured in 40 per cent of child-abuse and neglect cases.
Why do domestic violence campaigns never acknowledge domestic violence by women toward both their partners and their children ?
Yes we do indeed need better ways to distinguish the vast majority of fathers who are a great asset to their children and deserve a fair go!
The Sydney Morning Herald
12 May 2007
Bold new path on domestic violence
By Adele Horin
Not all men who have been violent towards their wives are dangerous, and
they should not necessarily be denied the chance to have a good
relationship with their children, according to a groundbreaking study
commissioned by the federal Attorney-General's Department.
It urges the Family Court to take a more "nuanced" view of family violence
in decisions about where children live and how much time they spend with
parents, usually fathers, accused of violence.
The study, by a team of researchers at the Australian Institute of Family
Studies, says that "while family violence is never acceptable, not all acts
of violence and abuse are the same".
It says researchers in the past have rarely conceded "the possibility that
at least some of the violence may be situational, one-off, reciprocated, or
even at times initiated by women".
The findings have outraged domestic violence researchers who have battled
for decades to establish that all forms of male violence are unacceptable
and are a major factor in marriage breakdown.
The issue of what constitutes violence is critical to the family law
system. In making decisions about children, the courts are required to put
safety first. But under the new family law, enacted last July, they are
also required to put new emphasis on shared care arrangements.
The new study is based on 300 cases filed in the Family Court or the
Federal Magistrates Court in 2003 involving disputes over post-separation
It found over half the cases involved allegations of domestic violence or
child abuse. Most of the alleged behaviour was at the severe end of the
The study was not designed to test "whether women lie", said the
co-researcher, Professor Lawrie Moloney. But overseas research indicated
that allegations of violence were more likely to be true than false.
But he said it was imperative to move beyond the picture of domestic
violence painted by Australian researchers in the past. This view was based
on extreme cases of women and children in refuges who had been subject to
coercive control by men.
The report says "some researchers have been more concerned with getting the
stories out there than with careful sampling or careful definitions".
It posits two forms of domestic violence - situational and "intimate
terrorism" - with only the latter being a serious threat to women's and
It says the family court system should respond in different ways to
different types of violence, ranging from total exclusion of the
perpetrator from a child's life to "a recognition that the violence or
abuse was a single instance that is most unlikely to happen again."
Thea Brown, professor of social work at Monash University, who has
conducted three studies based on Family Court files, dismissed the analysis
"This approach undermines the dangers for women and children in any kind of
domestic violence," she said. "A man who slaps his wife is likely to be
someone who has done it before."
The study endorses overseas research that classifies violence into the two
Controlling violence, also known as intimate terrorism, is dangerous to
women and children, and its perpetrators are almost always men. It springs
from a man's desire to control his partner through the exercise of
physical, sexual and emotional violence, economic power, isolation, and the
manipulation and threatening of children, the study says.
Situational violence involves "fewer incidents of less severity that do not
result in significant injury. It is not seen as part of a larger pattern of
control and usually does not escalate." Some studies say women initiate
this violence in almost half the cases, and women also reciprocate.
The researchers found a dearth of corroborative or detailed evidence in the
case files to back up allegations of violence. As a result the research
found allegations of violence had no effect on most outcomes about child
contact with fathers.
Virginia Geddes, co-ordinator of the Domestic Violence and Incest Resource
Centre, said: "Women are not being heard or taken seriously enough, and a
lot of energy is going into trying to discredit their allegations."
Danny Blay, manager of No To Family Violence, a body for men's behaviour
change programs, said: "It is vital that women and children are believed
when they say they are scared of someone, and that men are challenged to
consider the impact of their behaviour."
The Sydney Morning Herald
12 May 2007
Odds still stacked against the children
By Adele Horin
It is more critical than ever for the Family Court and the Federal
Magistrates Court to work out a better way to sort out good dads from the
bad. Good dads - and the children who love them - got a raw deal under the
old regime of fortnightly weekend access visits. But bad dads, it turns
out, have been treated too generously.
Too often in the recent past the courts have given violent and controlling
men too much unsupervised time with their children. Now that the new family
law that came into effect last year puts greater emphasis on shared
parental time - or 50/50 residence - children may be forced to spend even
more time with bad dads.
I say this in light of a new study of 300 cases filed in the Family Court
and Federal Magistrates Court in 2003 in which parenting matters were in
dispute. The study, funded by the federal Attorney-General's Department and
undertaken by researchers at the Australian Institute of Family Studies,
reveals that partner violence and/or child abuse is alleged in more than
half the cases; and the abuse alleged is judged "severe" in most cases.
This points to a level of domestic violence and child abuse (mainly
physical) in faltering Australian marriages that is even worse than
But of great surprise is the finding that allegations of domestic violence
and child abuse make no difference to the outcome of cases unless strong
corroborative evidence is provided. Where the father is the alleged
perpetrator of violence, as is most common, the children are still highly
likely to be sent to his place for overnight visits - just as if he were a
good father. "Orders for overnight stays predominated … regardless of the
apparent severity or probative weight of evidence underpinning them," the
report says. The bad dads in general get just as much time with their
children as the good dads.
Caught in the conundrum of severing or curtailing children's relationships
with their fathers, or protecting children from potentially dangerous men,
the court has tended to opt for maintaining the relationship. It rarely,
for example, denies a father contact with his children - at most the
contact may be supervised.
But wait, I hear you say, these are allegations of violence. Don't women in
these circumstances lie to exact revenge on their ex-partner? The study,
based on case files, did not have the scope to determine the veracity of
the allegations. That would require cross-referencing with police files and
child protection agencies. But the researchers point to overseas studies
that show "false denials are more common than false allegations".
As one of the authors, Professor Lawrie Moloney, said: "If you had to put a
bet on a random set of allegations, you'd put your money on them being true."
In other words, some women do lie, but most don't. Yet most children with
abusive fathers are being shipped off to them for overnight visits. Even if
the children themselves have not been beaten, the evidence is now
overwhelming that men who are violent to their partners or ex-partners are
bad news for children. The Government has never funded research to follow
up how these children, in unsupervised overnight contact with allegedly
violent men, are faring.
The study, far from exhibiting an anti-male bias, is likely to enrage some
feminists because it raises the question: what is a violent man? It argues
not all violent men are alike - and not all are bad influences on their
children. It argues there are two forms of male violence - situational and
controlling - and only the latter is a real danger to children's welfare.
Situational violence is reactive, occasional and less serious, and is
likely to be reciprocated by women, or even initiated by them. Controlling
violence is when men rule by force, fear and a sense of entitlement; it is
continuing and has been called "intimate terrorism".
The authors argue different forms of violence require different responses -
from prohibiting a violent father's contact with his children to accepting
that a violent outburst is unlikely to happen again.
The Family Court and the Federal Magistrates Court, however, have
understandably found it hard to discriminate. Every day courts hear a lot
of "noise" about family violence. But there is often too little
corroborative or detailed evidence provided, and as a researcher said:
"Some judges tend to throw up their hands." As well, lawyers are under
pressure to settle cases before they get to a judge, even when violence is
alleged. The default position is that children spend time with bad dads -
and that might be doing them damage.
The successful push for 50/50 care will change societal as well as legal
norms. For good dads and the children who love them, having more time
together may be a blessing. But there is urgent need for court officers to
get more help in assessing allegations of violence, and for more research.
Otherwise some children will have no reason to count their blessings.
- Allegations of family violence and child abuse in family law children's
proceedings: Lawrie Moloney, Bruce Smyth, Ruth Weston, Nicholas Richardson,
Lixia Qu, Matthew Gray.