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The times they are a-changin’

Updated: Feb 11, 2023

Two random but strangely connected articles caught my eye this week, and I thought they were worthy of comment, given they represent a fundamental shift in how law enforcers view domestic abuse.

The first was about the Melbourne family court borrowing Lucy the chocolate Labrador from the Victorian Public Prosecutions for three months to provide support to family court litigants. The second was about New South Wales police charging more than 600 abusers in a domestic violence crackdown.

Late last year, I researched court cases involving allegations of domestic violence to see how often a mother who alleged abuse lost her children to their father. The research was for my response to the United Nations call for inputs on custody cases involving violence against women and children.

What I found was that in 12 cases where a mother alleged abuse, the father was granted sole parental responsibility and the children ordered to live with him.

In the interests of fairness and equality, I also looked at cases involving a father alleging abuse against the mother. I found two cases and in each of them the father was granted sole parental responsibility and the children permitted limited time with their mother.

There were only five cases where a mother alleged abuse, and she was granted sole parental responsibility and the children were ordered to live with her. In one of them, the father was allowed supervised time with his 12-year-old daughter despite having been convicted of the sexual assault of her half-sibling.

After collating these results, I was understandably saddened. Although not a statistically representative sample (words I remember from my very old Economics degree) it was enough to make me believe the often-cited hype about family courts giving children to abusive fathers.

I believe there are a number of reasons why this happens. One of them is that courts don’t believe abuse targets and instead support abusers. It’s understandable when domestic abusers often present as cool, calm and collected giving evidence in family court proceedings.

Abuse targets, usually suffering from complex trauma, present as scatty, unfocused, aggressive, hyperactive, or frozen (depending on which trauma response has been triggered by the cross-examination). Their memory is impaired by the abuse and they often cry quite a lot.

So it’s possible to see why a court would accept the evidence of a calm and precise witness over one that doesn’t make much sense.

The reason the story about Lucy the service dog gives me hope is that it means the court may just be beginning to understand that giving evidence in court is re-traumatising for domestic abuse targets. And that they need support, not punishment.

I’m also pleased about the police crackdown on perpetrators of abuse because, historically, what a man did to a woman in the privacy of their home was no one else’s business. Not many Queenslanders realised that rape within marriage was legal here until 1989.

Think about that for a minute.

In (most of our) lifetimes, a husband had complete control over his wife’s body and she had no legal right to stop him. It’s tough to change conditioning about the “man of the house” being the decision-maker, in respect of all things including bodily autonomy.

So, for the police to finally accept that abuse targets, particularly women, need help and someone with power to protect their rights is huge. The fact that 1,153 charges were laid as a result is heartening.

In summary, the reason these two stories about the support dog and the police raids have given me so much hope, is that they flip the narrative about domestic abusers and their targets. We’re finally seeing moves away from victim blaming and towards holding abusers accountable. At last.



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