Stacey & Woden: When the risk of child abuse necessitates the Court’s intervention

The case of Stacey & Woden [2015] FamCA 1107 concerns the parenting arrangements for nine-year-old G and his seven-year-old sister, D. The child G lives with his father and spends time with his mother occasionally. The child D spends equal time with each of her parents.

The mother ceased to participate in the proceedings and instructed her lawyers to seek leave to withdraw. The father asked the Court to dismiss all applications and bring the proceedings to a close.

However, the Independent Children’s Lawyer submitted that it was open to the Court to make a finding that one or both of the children are at risk of sexual abuse in the unsupervised care of the father. To bring the proceedings to a close would continue the existing arrangements that involve both children spending extensive unsupervised time with the father.

The Child Protection Services had completed their enquiries and reported to the mother that “Based on the information provided to Child Protection Service during our investigation and information from police investigation, [we have] substantiated that the children are at risk in their father’s care”.

This was contradicted by the mother’s submissions to the Court, who expressed that “the arrangements worked well and I have no concerns for the welfare of the children whilst in his [the father’s care]”. Further that “I believe the children are safe in [the father’s] care”. Despite both parties consenting to the current parenting arrangements continuing, the Court considered the concerns regarding the father to be a justiciable controversy requiring the Court’s intervention.

Given the evidence regarding the risk of sexual abuse of the children, the Court was satisfied that unsupervised time with the father presented an unacceptable risk of abuse of the children. The Court also noted that the evidence is untested, and that they were not satisfied that that the children are necessarily at risk of sexual abuse by the father. However, they noted their obligation to protect the children from potential harm.

In order to fulfil this obligation the Court made a series of protective orders. Restraining orders were implemented forbidding the parties from abusing the children or exposing them to pornography. An injunction was made precluding the exercise of parental responsibility by the father. The Independent Children’s Lawyer was permitted to continue to carry out his obligations to ensure the children’s continued protection from harm. The Court discharged the previous interim orders as they were ignored by the parties.

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