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
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
contextual factors in safety planning
Safety planning is a complex, context-driven process aimed at decreasing the immediate and long-term risks
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 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
1. contact and handover violence
Contact orders are not often developed with the safety
2. inhibiting protection
Women who attempt to protect themselves and their children by not taking their child for contact visits with the father
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
4. increased risk of poverty and homelessness
Being forced to live close to an abuser in an expensive
Some women are placed in the difficult position where
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.
GooD Practice HotLiNe
The Clearinghouse Good Practice Hotline is available on Mondays 2-4pm (Eastern Standard Time) on
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.
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:
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
Safety plans may also include advocating directly for
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
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