saftey planning with women and children for practioners ?

July 22, 2013 § Leave a comment

issues in good practice

saFety PLaNNiNG WitH WoMeN aND cHiLDreN: cHaLLeNGes For PractitioNers iN a Pro-coNtact cLiMate by PrisciLLa MccorristoN,

st GeorGe DoMestic VioLeNce serVice, NsW

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Since the introduction of the Family Law Amendment (Shared Parental Responsibility) Act 2006 (Cth), women and children affected by domestic violence have had to navigate a more complicated and risky legal landscape. The legislation created a pro-contact climate, evident not only in the responses of the Family Court and family law practitioners but also in other agencies, such as police and child protection services.

Social workers seeking to support their clients now face
a much more difficult task. Drawing on the experiences
of clients at the St George Domestic Violence Service (SGDVS), this article seeks to alert readers to the specific difficulties associated with safety planning in a pro-contact climate. It explores the interaction of context and risk in the safety planning process prior to and since 2006. The article concludes by pointing to the practice implications for social workers working with this client group.

contextual factors in safety planning

Safety planning is a complex, context-driven process aimed at decreasing the immediate and long-term risks
to the safety of women and children affected by domestic violence. Safety planning starts from the time violence is identified and continues until there is no further contact with the abusive partner/parent. Good practice is based on an understanding that the contexts within which women live can either assist or hamper efforts to plan for her and her children’s safety. These contexts are multi-layered, operating at both a personal and institutional level.

At a personal level, the capacity to experience harm from domestic violence can either be exacerbated or minimised by women’s immediate social and financial circumstances, their community and culture, and any specific risks posed by the abusive partner. Separation from the abusive partner is a key factor to be considered when assessing

a woman’s personal context, as it is the point at which the coercive control that is a feature of domestic violence often begins or is exacerbated (Mouzos & Makkai 2004). Controlling tactics used by abusive men post-separation often change in response to the new context and, in the worst case scenario, separation may be a precursor to homicide.

As well as a woman’s personal context, the risk of domestic violence may be increased or reduced by institutional contexts, including her access to formal supports (such as local community groups, social services and police), child protection practice and legal frameworks.

One of the key objectives of safety planning is to identify the personal and institutional factors that can create a supportive environment for women and their children. A supportive environment is one which assists women victims to focus on their safety and does not blame them for the violence. If a woman lives in a supportive community, the perpetrator has access to fewer means besides his own individual acts to facilitate his violence.

Prior to the changes in family law in 2006, safety planning was focused on assisting a woman by:

à working with her to identify the specific tactics the abusive partner was using to maintain coercive control over her and her children, and implementing strategies to minimise their effectiveness

à helping her to understand how her abusive partner’s tactics would change in response to changes in her behaviour

à identifying strategic ways of thinking and acting to assist her to reduce risk of violence and increase her safety and the safety of her children

à raising her awareness and understanding of the impact of violence on children

à informing her of increased risk at separation and post- separation

à advocating with a range of services, including police, housing services and Centrelink

à supporting her and her children to move towards a life free from violence and abuse.

While assisting the woman with these tasks, the domestic violence professional usually supported the woman and her children through the separation from her abusive partner. Separating safely was often supported by the assistance of police and local courts. Protection orders were used to help prevent further acts of violence.

In November 2011, Federal Parliament passed important family law reforms. The Family Law Legislation Amendment (Family Violence and Other Measures) Bill 2011 gives increased protection

to victims of family violence (for more details, see
the ‘Legislation and Policy Update’ on p. 11 of this Newsletter). However, the reforms do not alter
the underlying presumption of shared parental responsibility and it is anticipated that service workers will continue to grapple with the subsequent implications for safety planning outlined in this article.

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The process of separating safely might take weeks, months or, occasionally, years. However, safe separation could be negotiated in most cases once the woman was clear in her own mind that she was experiencing domestic violence and that she could not change her partner’s abusive behaviour.

impacts of family law on safety planning since 2006

Since 2006, the interaction between family law and
child protection practices has become one of the most important contexts that impacts on safety planning. The risks involved in separating, coupled with the increased difficulties imposed by shared care, mean that women must weigh up many factors before leaving. The role
of supportive systems becomes more crucial but such support is not often evident in family law practices. The current family law context creates new constraints to safety planning, such as:

1. contact and handover violence

Contact orders are not often developed with the safety
of the woman or her children in mind. Each time contact between children and their abusive father occurs, the potential for violence is present. Many clients report handover/contact as the only time the violent partner
has access to them after separation and, hence, it is the time violence is most likely to occur. Clients report being threatened with violence, verbally abused and being pushed, hit or slapped when handing over their child
for contact. They also report damage to their property, commonly their cars. Abusing the mother in front of the child is also a form of ‘demonstration’ violence, highlighting to both the child and the mother the power the violent parent still has over them.

2. inhibiting protection

Women who attempt to protect themselves and their children by not taking their child for contact visits with the father
risk more punitive orders being made against them. These include contravention orders, orders for ‘make-up time’ and, potentially, the handing over of care to the abusive father. This last outcome is the one abused women fear most and so they continue to comply with contact orders, even when children are re-exposed to the abusive parent and their mother is placed in the distressing position of not being able to do anything to protect her children. This situation creates ‘betrayal trauma’ for the children (Frey 2008).

Advocacy on behalf of child victims has also become a more difficult task in the current landscape. Clients report that schools and childcare centres are reluctant to take action on behalf of children (e.g. school counselling) where both parents share ‘parental responsibility’ for the child, as they feel they need permission from both parents.

3. reduced capacity to escape

SGDVS clients have been required to disclose their current address to the courts. This information has then become available to the abuser, leading to threats to the woman’s personal safety or shows of power, such as abuse of pets
or damage to cars or property. Clients have reported being required to remain within a ‘fifteen kilometre radius’ of one another to facilitate shared care. Such requirements increase risk by giving the violent partner ready access to his ex- partner and isolating her from family supports in other areas.

4. increased risk of poverty and homelessness

Being forced to live close to an abuser in an expensive
city (like Sydney) can also impose financial hardship on women. In addition, many clients have reported making the decision not to pursue their rights to an equitable share of marital property or to child support in the hope that the abusive partner will not pursue care time.

Some women are placed in the difficult position where
they must use all available assets to fund their legal case. Women in this situation have to decide between attempting to protect their children via expensive legal action versus having financial resources for their children.

Homelessness caused by escape from a violent home presents additional concerns. Abusive men may make allegations to the Family Court about the incapacity of their ex-partner to properly care for their children if they do not have stable accommodation. Women may be caught in

a ‘catch twenty-two’ situation: act to protect their children yet run the risk of ‘losing’ them because they are unable to provide them with housing.

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GooD Practice HotLiNe

The Clearinghouse Good Practice Hotline is available on Mondays 2-4pm (Eastern Standard Time) on
(02) 9385 3843.

case studies

SGDVS has worked with many families where the mother has left the father in order to escape violence directed at her and her children, only to be forced to hand over the children for contact with their abusive father. These are just two examples.

In Family A, the father was deemed an unacceptable risk to the children by the Family Court. The judge ordered contact through a family contact centre. The child reported to the mother that she hid from the father but was required to come out and ‘play’ with the feared parent by the contact centre workers. This child continues to be forced to have contact with this feared parent.

In Family B, the mother was instructed by her solicitor ‘not to fight’ over care arrangements. Her children are now required to spend fifty percent of their time with their father. The children spend alternate weeks with their father, during which time their father allows them no contact with their mother. When the children are with their mother, she reports the father continues to control the children through phone calls he makes

at least daily. The oldest child has developed a significant anxiety disorder.

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newsletter .47

5. ‘Legal bullying’

Women may be subject to ongoing ‘legal bullying’ by abusive partners making vexatious claims or using the family law system to intimidate their partners. One client attending the SGDVS reported: ‘He just keeps chasing me in the [Family] Court… He can’t keep a solicitor [because he is so abusive to them] so I’m afraid he’s going to represent himself again… [and] I’ll have to face him and answer his questions [in court]’.

Given these constraints, women must consider a range of questions before deciding to leave an abuser. A woman must:

  • à  weigh up risk to the child or children of staying with the violent partner versus leaving him and him seeking shared care
  • à  work out when her child or children will be old enough to manage living between two homes and have enough skills to manage living with their abusive parent
  • à  consider how to put mechanisms in place to manage the violence that will occur at handover of the child or children
  • à  consider how she is going to survive if she is forced by Family Court rulings to remain in close proximity to the abusive partner post-separation and disclose her address.

    challenges and directions for practice

    The landscape created by family law poses many dilemmas for family violence support workers. It is essential to recognise the validity of women’s concerns when they are considering leaving a violent relationship. A woman and her children could be ‘worse off’ in the short to medium term if she decides to leave her violent partner, especially if her children are very young.

    Practitioners addressing safety planning in the family law environment need to:

  • à  work with women to identify and plan for the risks associated with staying versus the risks associated with leaving
  • à  recognise the importance of documenting disclosures of violence and tactics used, especially when those disclosures occur contemporaneously
  • à  facilitate access to good legal advisers who have an understanding of domestic violence
  • à  recognise that a large part of our work is ‘systems’ focused, so continue to actively advocate for our clients with a range of agencies
  • à  plan for the work to be long-term and episodic in nature, as family law processes are slow and protracted.

    Safety planning with children has become a necessary part of the work, as children may spend years having unsafe contact or living in ‘shared care’ situations with an abusive

father. Workers must assist women to engage in safety planning with their children or work directly with children to safety plan, if it is developmentally appropriate.

Safety planning with children needs to be done in a way that attributes responsibility for the abuse to abusers, not children, and that does not make children feel that the adults they turn to for protection are condoning abuse by teaching them how to live within an abusive situation. Safety plans may include teaching children how to:

à avoid conflict with dad, in order to stay safe
à remove themselves from a situation if they feel they are

at risk
à work together to protect each other on a contact visit à access assistance if possible
à escape if necessary.

Safety plans may also include advocating directly for
the child victim, who can become the primary target
for their father’s coercive controlling tactics. Supporting women’s parenting and working to help them strengthen their relationships with their children is crucial to good practice. A safe relationship with the non-offending mother is important both for children’s safety, as well as their long term wellbeing.

conclusion

Safety planning in the current context is much more complicated than it was prior to 2006. Despite the Commonwealth Government’s recent reforms, the underlying presumption of shared parental responsibility remains central to family law and safety planning will continue to be a challenging task for service workers.

The author would argue that Australia is now a significantly more dangerous place for women with children who
are in domestic violence situations. As such, our work requires that we act as ‘enlightened witnesses’ to women’s struggles against the violence and the impact of trauma on their lives and those of their children (Herman 1997); and continue to advocate for change in the family law and child protection practices in Australia.

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reFereNces

Frey J 2008, ‘Betrayal trauma’, in G Reyes, JD Elhai & JD Ford (eds), Encyclopaedia of psychological trauma, John Wiley & Sons, New York

Herman J 1997, Trauma and recovery: the aftermath of violence – from domestic abuse to political terror, rev. ed., Basic Books, New York

Mouzos J & Makkai T 2004, Women’s experiences of male violence; findings from the Australian component of the International Violence Against Women Survey (IVAWS), Research and Public Policy Series, no. 56, Australian Institute of Criminology, Canberra

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