Push to support new bill to protect children
May 25, 2011
Changes to child custody laws will be put under the spotlight today, writes Adele Horin.
A woman whose ex-husband was jailed for sexually abusing her daughter is resisting Family Court orders to allow him contact visits with their son.
The man was sentenced to three years’ jail and served 18 months for the aggravated indecent assault of a minor – his then 13-year-old stepdaughter.
He was freed on a good behaviour bond and has been granted supervised access visits with the younger child.
The visits, which were supposed to start last October, were intended to lead to unsupervised access after seven weeks.
Now the mother is fearful she might end up in jail because she is in contravention of court orders. “The day he molested my daughter he lost his rights as a parent,” she said. “My son says he’s scared of him and I won’t make him go.”
The executive officer of the NSW Women’s Refuge Movement, Cat Gander, says the case highlights the bind women are in under the Family Law Act.
“State child protection authorities insist women protect their children from danger but Family Court orders insist women facilitate access.”
A rally today outside Federal Parliament will be the first step in a campaign to ensure passage of a new family law bill that seeks to give greater protection to children in access and custody disputes. More than 170 agencies, including Lifeline, the YWCA, the Benevolent Society and Headspace, the youth mental health agency, have formed an unprecedented alliance to push for even stronger protections for children in the proposed legislation.
After several government-commissioned studies into family violence that showed children were insufficiently protected under the 2006 Family Law Act, the federal government proposed a new family violence bill. A public inquiry starts on June 9 in Canberra.
Some men’s groups claim the government’s proposed changes to family law may weaken shared parental responsibility provisions. However, Kylie Temple, project co-ordinator for a mid-north coast domestic violence service, said the 2006 law, in emphasising children’s rights to a relationship with both parents, had compromised children’s safety: “If this mother complies with the federal court order and leaves her child with a convicted sex offender, under state law I am mandated to report the child to the child welfare department for being at significant risk.”
The new alliance wants the committee to take up the recommendations of the former family court judge Richard Chisholm to drop the presumption of equal shared parenting responsibility and the obligation to consider equal time in favour of treating all cases that come before the court on their merits.
The government has proposed more modest changes that will give greater weight to the protection of children above the benefit of children having a meaningful relationship with both parents where family violence was a concern. As well, it proposes to delete the “friendly” parent provision which obliged judges to have regard to whether a parent encouraged the child’s relationship with the other parent.
Ms Gander said that at this stage it was unclear whether the proposed changes would have a smooth passage through Parliament.