Children need to be protected from violent perpetrators and so do their mothers. Mothers who are the victims of domestic violence risk losing their children upon reporting the abuse under new zero-tolerance child protection laws, such as those outlined in the 2013 Child Protection Legislation Amendment Bill (Child Protection Amendment Bill (No 33) 2014). With an estimated 80% of all domestic abuse cases going unreported (Vic Health, 2012) such laws will make the direct victims of domestic abuse less inclined to seek help for fear of forced separation from their children. Removing a child from an abused but otherwise loving and capable parent is not in the child’s best interest, nor is it in the best interest of the victim to have them too intimidated and shamed to speak out.
Domestic violence has overtaken paternal mental illness and drug or alcohol addiction as the leading cause of child protection intervention (Butler 2014). The Family Rights Group (2014) states that cuts to domestic abuse and family support services, including strict means-tested welfare reforms, results in further isolation of victims. The inability of a victim to seek sufficient support, in the forms of stable housing and financial aid, increases their dependency on their abuser. Cathy Ashley, the chief executive of the Family Rights Group, states that women who report the crimes committed against them are told by social workers to leave immediately with their children or they (the children) will be taken into care (Butler 2014).
In order to understand the disempowering and dehumanizing demands of such practices, you first must understand the complex issues faced by victims of domestic violence. The zero tolerance laws indicate that even those who experience such cases daily are failing to understand that victims cannot simply pack up and leave. Not only are victims psychologically manipulated by their abusers, and usually dependent upon them through strategic isolation, they are also most at risk of extreme violence once they have left their abuser.
Clementine Ford, journalist for Daily Life, writes:
In June 2013, WA woman Angela Furullo was murdered by her ex-partner, James Bill Payet, at the hairdressing salon where she worked. Her pregnant daughter was injured in the attack. In April 2013, Kara Doyle’s boyfriend shot her in the groin. Doyle had been planning to leave him. She was dumped at a nearby Caltex Station with severe injuries and died in hospital five days later. Her killer, Mehmet Torun, was recently sentenced to eight years in prison with a non-parole period of five years. In February 2014, Victorian woman Kelly Thompson was murdered by her long term partner. Just 19 days before, Thompson had applied for an AVO against Wayne Wood. After murdering Kelly Thompson, Wood killed himself.
These are just a handful of the devastating acts of violence enacted against women and children every week in Australia. Every single one of these women were either in the process of leaving their partners or had already left them. If women are supposed to ‘just leave’ in order to end the cycle of violence, what is it that these women did wrong? The answer is nothing. They did nothing wrong (Ford 2014).
When a social worker tells a victim of family violence to leave immediately with her children, without time to source adequate housing, financial aid or support for safety, they are putting the mother and child/s life in profound danger. Threatening to remove the mother’s children will only add to the psychological trauma of the victim and make her far less likely to report future acts of violence. This advice condemns victims whilst doing nothing to address the real issue.
Domestic violence does impact on children, who, on average, witness 44% of all violence (Vic Health, 2013). Children are often the victims of revenge killings wherein the perpetrator murders his partner’s children to make her suffer further. As discussed above, such incidents usually occur directly after a woman has left her abuser. This illustrates a definite need for intervention but not the intervention that has been proposed.
We ought to be asking ourselves, as domestic violence is as much a crime as assaulting someone in the street (for example, the now famed ‘coward punches’), if child protection services have sufficient evidence and reports to remove children from the home then why can there not be a new legislation introduced where the perpetrator is court ordered to attend men’s behavioural change sessions? Or, why is the perpetrator not formally charged and facing jail time? Why is more not being done to prevent the violence? Why are there cuts to essential support services? Why is more money not being put into women’s refuges? Why have there been such harsh cuts to welfare payments for single parents?
Seventy-eight percent of people in Australia who are homeless due to domestic violence are women (Ford 2014) and it isn’t hard to see why. There seems only three, bleak options available to women experiencing domestic violence; stay with their abuser and not report the crimes against them in order to avoid having their children removed; stay with their abuser and lose their children; or leave, putting their own and their child’s life at risk, and face a life of poverty and, potentially, homelessness.
In a written interview, on the 10th of June 2013, Susan* illustrates what many women must endure when they make the choice to leave.
It got to the point where I had to seriously consider getting an intervention order against him. His behaviour was erratic and irrational. One moment he would be begging for my forgiveness for what he had done, saying he would love me forever, and at the next he would be calling me a ‘dumb slut’ and saying everything was my fault. I was scared of him, for myself and for my daughter. I had been too afraid to go to court for a formal custody agreement, fearing what he might do if I pushed it that far, so we had our own agreement where he would have her 3 nights a week. Every abused woman with children knows the horror stories that are both real and common. We all fear for our children (Susan* 2013, pers.comm., 10 June)