CHILD ABUSE experts across the country have expressed alarm today following the arrest of a further three people the AFP alleges have helped parents conceal their children in contravention of family court orders.
The coordinated police action was in response to several high-profile cases involving parents of children who had reported alleged violence or sexual assault by another parent.
The latest arrests follow a series of raids carried out by the AFP in October, in which three people, aged in their 60’s, 70’s and 80’s, were arrested. They face numerous charges alleging their involvement in assisting two women to “abduct” and hide their own children, moving money to these women, and portraying the children’s fathers as child abusers in social media.
Hetty Johnston, Founder of Australia’s leading child protection advocate, Bravehearts, said the latest arrests highlight the urgent need for a Royal Commission into Australia’s family law system. “It must be asked why normally law abiding people are taking such extreme measures,” Hetty said.
Family violence survivors and advocates for child protection have widely raised their concerns on social media overnight, drawing attention to many cases before the Family Court in which allegations of family violence and the sexual assault of children have been ignored.
Professor Cathy Humphreys, Professor of Social Work at the University of Melbourne, called this “a very disturbing situation” (personal communication, October 18, 2018).
Professor Annabel Taylor, Research Professor of Gendered Violence at Central Queensland University said, “this is a complex area where mothers may feel forced to take extreme action to protect their children” (personal communication, October 18, 2018).
Cassandra Seery, Associate Lecturer in Law at Deakin University, also expressed alarm at the functioning of the current family law system. “We are regularly seeing what could be construed as a distortion of the best interests of the child principle,” she said. “This often places children and vulnerable family members at continued risk of harm” (personal communication, November 6, 2018).
An issues paper released this year by the Australian Law Reform Commission highlighted “significant concerns about the skills and knowledge of family law system professionals in… understanding the nature and dynamics of family violence and child sexual abuse and their impact on children”.
Hetty Johnston cautioned about “myths fuelling Australia’s family law system”, including the Family Courts, police and child protection departments. “We know from the research that false allegations of sexual abuse by children are extremely rare, making up only 5% of children’s disclosures of abuse. But claims that a child has been “coached” to make false allegations are taken at face value by many professionals in the system.”
Professor Warwick Middleton, renowned a trauma expert and Associate Professor in Psychiatry at the University of Queensland, stated he also fully supported a Royal Commission into Australia’s family law system (personal communication, November 6, 2018).
Professor Taylor said she was not aware of any cases in which women had arranged for their children to be removed from an abusive situation, simply “for the sake of it” (personal communication, October 18, 2018).
Central Queensland University Domestic and Family Violence Senior Lecturer Dr Silke Meyer said court decisions were frequently failing to focus on the best interests of children (personal communication, October 18, 2018).
Dr Meyer said it must be remembered that parents who genuinely fear for the safety of their children and take them into hiding do not do so lightly. “I don’t think anybody makes the decision to give up their entire life, social and emotional support networks, careers, etc. lightly. So my guess is when parents do, they do so because they believe it is the only possible way to protect their children because the legal system has failed those children” (personal communication, November 6, 2018).
Cassandra Seery said the latest developments were symptomatic of deeper issues that families face when they interact with the Australian legal system. “We are at a critical juncture – it is increasingly clear that the family law and child protection systems are not meeting the needs of children and their families,” she said. “We need to avoid looking at these issues through occupational and territorial silos and adopt a national, multi-disciplinary approach to facilitate better outcomes” (personal communication, November 6, 2018).
Professor Taylor agreed. “As a society we still abysmally fail to protect victims and their children”. She said. “The attitudes of our authorities – the police and Family Court – are forcing women into impossible choices” (personal communication, October 18, 2018).
Hetty Johnston concluded, “Bravehearts strongly believes we should push for a Royal Commission into the family law system because this is the only legal instrument capable of resolving the issues facing our children”.
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