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Proposed Victorian child abuse laws spark debate

The Victorian government has proposed new laws relating to family violence that have the potential to make a significant difference in the way these matters are handled by the courts.

The laws, proposed by the Napthine government, would make it a crime to not disclose a case of child sexual abuse. The crime carries a maximum three-year imprisonment term.

Although the proposed laws contain a specific exemption for people who fail to report child sex abuse because they feel their safety is threatened, they have come to the attention of victim support groups who believe that the mothers of abused children will be too scared to report their abusive partners – and that these women may end up being unfairly jailed.

Attorney-General Robert Clark said:

The bill makes clear that the protection of children from sexual abuse is of paramount importance, while also recognising the domestic violence context in which child sexual abuse may be occurring. The legislation does not prevent any organisation informing police whenever and however the organisation becomes aware that abuse has occurred.

The proposed laws have already proved to be contentious, with the first debate kicking off this week on breakfast television.

Journalist and host of Studio 10, Joe Hildebrand, caused an uproar with his comments about the proposed laws during the show’s broadcast on the morning of the 2nd April.

Hildebrand was interviewing Rosie Batty, the mother of Luke Batty, an 11-year-old boy who was murdered by his father while at cricket training in January this year.

Greg Anderson, Luke’s father, suffered from mental health problems and was verbally and physically abusive towards Rosie Batty. Rosie told News Limited that while Anderson’s threats towards her were serious, she never feared for her or her son’s life.

Because of Anderson’s behaviour, intervention orders were made, which allowed Anderson to continue to have contact with Luke in public places. Tragically, it was in a public place where Anderson attacked Luke – striking first with a cricket bat and then with a knife.

Luke was not fearful of his father – it was Luke who had asked to spend “a few more minutes” with his father after cricket training. Rosie agreed, thinking her son was safe.

Rosie Batty has since made several media appearances in the hope that her son’s story will bring some awareness to family violence and just how dangerous it can be. However, her interivew on Studio 10 made it evident that she, a victim of family violence, is unhappy with the proposed Victorian laws.

Joe Hildebrand opened the discussion with the following:

Obviously you can’t help but feel a huge amount of sympathy for anyone who’s in an abusive relationship but … you have to get out, you absolutely have to get out. There are huge economic costs associated with that, yes there are often other things, but anything is better than staying in an abusive relationship. Frankly, to say that you’re going to not report a case of child abuse or child sex abuse by your partner because you are scared for your own safety, I’m sorry, it is not an excuse.

Rosie replied to Hildebrand, telling him that his comments were “misguided” and that she was “absolutely outraged”:

I was living in hope that because of Luke’s tragic death it would bring a huge awareness to family violence. This is beyond my comprehension how, again, the woman who is the victim is punished.

Joe needs to look at his views as a man and he needs to step up and get informed. Because when I hear comments like that I am so saddened that the focus is still on the woman. Where the hell is the perpetrator? Why isn’t he being jailed for three years?

Rosie also released a statement after the interview, writing that the onscreen debate “has raised a huge opportunity for discussion and that has to be a good thing. Joe has raised comments that are very popular amongst both men and women and by discussing why this has raised such heated debate will make all of us wiser and more informed”.

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Roberts & Waters: Risk of harm to the child

On the 31st of January, 2014, the Family Court handed down the decision of Roberts & Waters [2014] FAMCA 34 (referred to as R & W); it involved the best interests of the child, and determined whether the father posed an unacceptable risk of harm to the child.

The Family Law Act 1975 (Cth) focuses on the importance of both parents playing a meaningful and active role in the lives of their children after they have separated – unless, of course, it is contrary to the child’s best interests. That said, an important aspect of this objective is protecting children from physical or psychological harm and from being subjected to, or exposed to, abuse, neglect or family violence. This very issue of family violence was a concern in R&W.

R&W involved a separated couple and their child from the relationship, a five-and-a-half-year-old boy. The couple met while the father was a prison inmate, serving time for a charge relating to attempted murder; he also had a lengthy criminal history, including two convictions for assault. Once he was released from prison in 2005, R & W were in a relationship for a few years, but separated in 2009.

The child continued to live with the mother after the separation, and at one point the mother sought an AVO against the father for her protection, which he was charged with contravening. Various interim orders were made for the father to spend time with the child; however, only one overnight visit with the father was permitted by the mother.

Ultimately, the mother and father did agree that once the child was of school age, overnight visits with his father were in his best interest; the mother had no concern that the father would ever harm his child. However in the meantime, “she did not believe that he had any understanding of the emotional and developmental needs of young children”.

A Family Consultant prepared a report of her assessment of the child and his parents. The consultant’s overall recommendations were that while the child had developed a good relationship with his father, she had serious concerns about the father’s parenting capacity and – without a psychiatric assessment- could not make recommendations about the time that the child should spend with him.

Justice Kent considered the submission made by the Family Consultant, as well as the submission made by a consultant psychiatrist who carried out a psychiatric assessment on each of the parents.

His Honour said that he was “not satisfied that the mother is genuinely fearful of the father or concerned that his behaviour may be detrimental to the child”, and noted that the mother had ultimately consented to the child having overnight time with the father.

While Justice Kent still considered whether the father’s behaviour raised concerns about an unacceptable risk of harm to the child, he determined that he was not satisfied that the father’s time with the child should be restricted because of his behaviour.

As a result, it was ordered that the child was to live with the mother, while also spending regular weekends and time during the school holidays with the father.

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Batkin & Batkin: Mother to be arrested if she continues to disobey orders

The recent family law case of Batkin & Batkin [2013] FamCA 44 involved a separated couple and three children that had been born of the relationship.

The trial initially came before Justice Murphy in November 2011.  At the time, Murphy J adjourned the parenting trial until February 2013, and made interim parenting orders by consent of the parties (referred to as the 2011 Orders).

The aim of the 2011 Orders was to reintroduce the father into the lives of the children; they’d had no direct time with him for over four years, due to a “longstanding dysfunctional relationship” between the parents.

The 2011 Orders included orders to engage with a therapist, and follow directions given by the therapist, with a view to re-establishing the relationship between the children and the father.

However, at the commencement of the final trial of parenting proceedings in February 2013, affidavit evidence submitted by the therapist disclosed that:

 

  • the mother had opted out of the counselling process following the 2011 Orders, and that she had indicated to the therapist by way of SMS message that this was “because the boys do not wish to see their father”; and
  • the boys did not express any concern about spending time with their father, they appeared more to be echoing the views of their mother rather than expressing their own independently-formed opinions.

In reviewing the evidence, the Court observed that the mother “appears to have a complete block so far as recognising the needs of [the] children to be able to form their own views of their father”.

As a result, Justice Kent was concerned that the boys had no opportunity to form their own views of the father; they had simply “regurgitate[d] the views expressed by the mother…and…her negative views of [the father].”

As a consequence, Justice Kent was concerned not to make final parenting orders in the matter until the father had a proper opportunity to re-engage with the lives of his sons, and to demonstrate to the Court that spending unsupervised time with them was in their best interests.

The Court therefore adjourned the final hearing and made interim parenting orders, which included:

  • the father would spend four hours per month supervised time with the boys at a nominated contact centre; and
  • at the end of six months, a report would be produced about the outcome of the father’s time with the boys to assess the father’s wish to graduate ultimately to unsupervised time with the boys each alternate weekend.

To ensure that the mother did not continue to obstruct the process, Kent J also included orders which provided that a warrant be issued for the mother’s arrest should she not deliver the boys to the contact centre at the times required.

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Allenby & Kimble: De facto relationship declared to have existed

On 2 August 2012, the Family Court of Australia handed down the decision of Allenby & Kimble [2012] FamCA 614 (referred to as A & K).

A & K involved competing declarations sought by each party under s90RD Family Law Act 1975 (Cth) (FL Act); essentially, the court had to determine whether their relationship constituted a proper de facto relationship under the FL Act.

Courts are generally asked to determine this issue in the context of property claims made by one party against the other party to the relationship. However, property settlement claims cannot be made unless the parties were either married or in a de facto relationship.

 

The FL Act provides that two people will be in a de facto relationship if they lived “together as a couple on a genuine domestic basis”.

The legislation does not define precisely what constitutes a ‘genuine domestic relationship’; however, when determining the issue a court will have regard to various matters, such as the duration of the relationship, the nature and extent of their common residence, the care and support of children and several other factors which you can read about here.

In A & K, Ms Allenby sought a declaration from the Family Court that her relationship with Mr Kimble was a de facto relationship; Mr Kimble disputed that they had a de facto relationship of the kind contemplated by the F L Act.

Ms Allenby and Mr Kimble had been in a relationship for approximately 10 years, but only lived together over the last five of those years. They did not own property together, nor did they pool resources, but they did attend family events together, spend time with each other’s family and travel together.

Upon reviewing the legislation, case law and evidence, Justice Murphy concluded that the parties were in a de facto relationship, and that such relationship had subsisted for a period which included two continuous years up to the date of separation.

His Honour attached particular weight to factors such as that the couple had shared the master bedroom, and that the relationship moved from ‘separateness’ to a cohabitation.

Having overcome this threshold issue, Ms Allenby was free to pursue her property claims against Mr Kimble under the property settlement provisions of the FL Act.

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