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Children and Domestic Violence: Women’s Experiences

As is abundantly clear from the case studies, women’s concerns about their children are central to their efforts to negotiate their own safety. Often, it is concerns about the effects of the violence on their children which precipitates women’s decisions to separate and/or seek a protection order. Sometimes women remain in the relationship with the abuser – or reconcile with him – because they feel that doing so is in the best interests of the children. The later is especially a possibility when women feel that the abuser is likely to gain the day-to-day care of, or unsupervised contact with, their children. Both these outcomes are represented among our participants.

In these ways, children’s exposure to domestic violence is a major theme to emerge from the case studies. Another major theme relates to women’s experiences in seeking orders from the Family Court giving them the day-to-day care of their children. These experiences encompass Family Court–ordered counselling, mediation and defended parenting proceedings. This chapter reviews women’s experiences in these regards. However, first, it is useful to briefly review relevant contemporary research and innovative policy.

Research and Policy Relating to Domestic Violence and Child Abuse

Recent research highlights unequivocally the close links between domestic violence and child abuse, through both the direct abuse of the child as well as the harmful effects on the child of living with and often witnessing domestic violence.235 Depending on the context, methodology and definitions used, it has been found that between 30% and 100% of the children of abused women are themselves abused.236 Many of these children, therefore, sustain the psychological

“double whammy” of being both witnesses to their mother’s violence and the targets of their father’s violence as well. 237

The co-occurrence of spousal violence and child abuse (physical, sexual and psychological) is well illustrated nationally in child fatality reviews.238 For example, in the Commissioner for Children’s Investigation into the Deaths of Saliel Alpin and Olympia Jetson,239 Olympia, Saliel and their mother were repeatedly abused over a period of years by the mother’s partner. Indeed, chillingly,

235 See, for example, Graham-Berman, S., & Edleson, J. (Eds.). (2000). Domestic violence in the lives of children.

Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, and Jaffe, P., Lemon, N., & Poisson, S. (2003). Child custody and domestic violence: A call for safety and accountability. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

236 Appel, A. E., & Holden, G. W. (1998). The co-occurrence of spouse and physical child abuse: A review and appraisal. Journal of Family Psychology, 12(4), 578-599; Bancroft, L., & Silverman, J. G. (2002). The batterer as parent:

Addressing the impact of domestic violence on family dynamics. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage; Edleson, J., Mbilinyi, L., &

Shetty, S. (2003). Parenting in the context of domestic violence. San Francisco, CA: Judicial Council of California. Retrieved from http://www.mincava.umn.edu, at p. 9; Whitney, P., & Davis, L. (1999). Child abuse and domestic violence in Massachusetts: Can practice be integrated in a public child welfare setting? Child Maltreatment, 4(2), 158-166. Note that some commentators confuse the picture by referring to a single co-occurrence rate. Calculating (a) the proportion of abused children who have mothers who are being abused and (b) the proportion of abused mothers whose children are being abused produces somewhat different figures. The former consistently produces a lower figure than the latter. That is, while perhaps half of the children identified as being abused have mothers who are also being victimised, a rather larger proportion – some estimates are as high as 100% – of the children of battered women are themselves abused.

237 Edleson, J., Mbilinyi, L., & Shetty, S. (2003). Parenting in the context of domestic violence. San Francisco, CA: Judicial Council of California. Retrieved from http://www.mincava.umn.edu, at p. 17.

238 See, for example, the reports into the deaths of James Whakaruru, Coral Burrows, Delcilia Witika, and Craig Manukau.

239 Commissioner for Children. (2003). Report on the investigation into the deaths of Saliel Aplin and Olympia Jetson.

Wellington: Commissioner for Children.

the girls feared that their stepfather would kill them and after many years of Child, Youth and Family interventions, that is exactly what happened. Interestingly, the death review states that the police attended domestics at the Alpin home “at least” 18 times.240 The question inevitably arises, what might have happened if effective safety-focused interventions had been offered as a result of any of the first 17 attendances?

In a recent harrowing New Zealand example of how children become involved in a parent’s violence, the Dominion Post reported:241

A Christchurch man bashed his former de-facto partner to death in a blind rage over a stolen Nazi flag … at one stage [the killer] got the couple’s 12 year old son to help drag her unconscious, body back inside his flat. [The deceased’s] five year old son, from another relationship, witnessed much of the beating.

Given the co-occurrence of child abuse and domestic violence against women, we have significant concerns about many Family Court judges’ apparent lack of attention to the literature on the significant deleterious effects on children of being the targets of and/or witnessing domestic violence. As an example, Principal Family Court Judge Boshier states (quoting from Judge Jan Doogue) that there is little research on “the benefits or otherwise of contact between a violent parent and their children.”242 However, the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges’ website belies this assertion,243 as does the work of a myriad of American, Canadian and British child psychologists working in this critical area.244 Bruce Perry’s work on the permanent impacts of domestic violence on the neurobiology of child witnesses is especially sobering.245

In his March 2006 report on 29 child homicides in the UK,246 Lord Justice Nicholas Wall reiterates the English Court of Appeal’s acceptance of the report by psychologists Claire Sturge and Danya Glaser. This report, requested by the UK Official Solicitor to deal with the implications of domestic violence for contact orders, specifically deals with the benefits and risks for children of direct and indirect contact to violent non-residential parents. Sturge and Glaser conclude:247

… there should be no automatic assumption that contact to a previously or currently violent parent is in the child’s interests; if anything, the assumption should be in the opposite direction and the case of the non-residential parent one of proving why he can offer something of such benefit not only to the child but to the child’s situation (i.e.

240 Ibid, at p 28.

241 Reported NZPA. (2005). Nazi flag row led to death. Dominion Post, 8 November, p 6.

242 Boshier, P. (2006). The Domestic Violence Act ten years on. Sppech at Te Unga Waka Marae, Epsom, 27 March.

Retrieved from http://www.justice.govt.nz/family/media/domestic-violence-act-ten-years-on-march-2006.html.

243 See, for example, Dalton, C., Carbon, S., & Olesen, N. (2003). High conflict divorce, violence, and abuse:

Implications for custody and visitation decisions. Juvenile and Family Court Journal, 54(4), 11-34.

244 See, for example, Graham-Berman, S., & Edleson, J. (Eds.). (2000). Domestic violence in the lives of children.

Washington, DC: American Psychological Association; Jaffe, P., Lemon, N., & Poisson, S. (2003). Child custody and domestic violence: A call for safety and accountability. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage; Edleson, J., Mbilinyi, L., & Shetty, S.

(2003). Parenting in the context of domestic violence. San Francisco, CA: Judicial Council of California. Retrieved from http://www.mincava.umn.edu.

245 See, for example, Perry, B. D. (1997). Incubated in terror: Neurodevelopmental factors in the “cycle of violence”.

In J. Osofsky (Ed.). Children, youth and violence: The search for solutions (pp. 124-148). New York: Guilford Press.

246 Wall, N. (2006). A report to the President of the Family Division on the publication by the Women’s Aid Federation of England entitled Twenty-nine child homicides: Lessons still to be learnt on domestic violence and child protection with particular reference to the five cases in which there was judicial involvement. London: Royal Courts of Justice, paragraph 8.28.

247 Sturge, C., & Glaser, D. (2000). Contact and domestic violence: the experts’ court report. Family Law, 615-629.

act in a way that is supportive to the child’s situation with his or her resident parent and able to be sensitive to and respond appropriately to the child’s needs), that contact should be considered.

Indeed, echoing Sturge and Glaser’s conclusion, Madam Butler-Sloss in the Re L decision stressed:

The family judges and magistrates need to have a heightened awareness of the existence of and consequences (some long-term) on children of exposure to domestic violence between their parents or other partners. There has, perhaps been a tendency in the past for courts not to tackle allegations of violence and to leave them in the background on the premise that they were matters affecting the adults and not relevant to issues regarding the children. The general principle that contact with the non-resident parent is in the interests of the child may sometimes have discouraged sufficient attention being paid to the adverse effects on children living in the household where violence has occurred. It may not necessarily be widely appreciated that violence to the partner involves a significant failure in parenting – failure to protect the child’s carer and failure to protect the child emotionally.248

Lord Justice Wall in his 2006 report also underscores the negative effects on children of witnessing domestic violence and cautions:

Reinforcement needs to be given to the lead provided by Drs Sturge and Glaser (and accepted by the Court of Appeal in Re L) that it is a non-sequitur to consider that a father who has a history of violence to the mother of his children is, at one and the same time, a good father. The opportunity should be taken, either in a judgment or a lecture to make this point, with the concomitant that it needs to be considered in all cases where there is domestic violence. This would, in my view, ensure a more rigorous approach to safety in these cases of being both witnesses to their mother’s violence and the targets of their father’s violence as well249

Lord Justice Wall concludes his report by recommending mandatory multidisciplinary training for Family Court judges in the UK on domestic violence issues prior to appointment and also annual refresher courses updating research on domestic violence issues for all Family Court judges.250 In the following chapter, we make a similar recommendation in relation to Family Court judges and other professionals working in the Family Court.251

Children’s Involvement in the Violence

In our case studies, everyday places and events sometimes became sites of violence. For example, in Te Rina’s case study, she was hit by her partner, Pera, while she was holding their baby son.

She dropped the baby and he hit his head. Pera continued to assault her while she attempted to comfort the baby and their older child who was screaming. Similarly, Katrina also talks about being assaulted while holding the baby and needing to comfort other young children at the same time. She remembers:

The toddlers were screaming and I had to put the baby down on the sofa and [I see]

there’s blood all over my baby.

248 Re L (A Child) (Contact: Domestic Violence) [2001] Fam Law 260, at p. 271.

249 Wall, N. (2006). A report to the President of the Family Division on the publication by the Women’s Aid Federation of England entitled Twenty-nine child homicides: Lessons still to be learnt on domestic violence and child protection with particular reference to the five cases in which there was judicial involvement. London: Royal Courts of Justice, paragraph 8.28.

250 Ibid, at paragraph 8.29.

251 Lawyers who act for the child, supervised contact facilitators, Family Court counsellors, and child in the middle facilitators.

Mele recalls the worst physical assault she witnessed her mother, Lily, receiving. She was six and this time it was her father who was holding the baby:

I remember waking up to screaming downstairs … I opened the kitchen door and there is blood everywhere in the kitchen, the dining room. I remember going into the lounge and Masi was standing over my mother. He was drunk. She was screaming and crying for him to stop. He was holding the baby. He tried to hit my mother and missed. The baby’s forehead was bleeding. While he was holding the baby, he was hitting my mother at the same time. She was begging for mercy. He was ignoring me.

I was trying to stop him and he was hitting me in the process of trying to hit her. So I sat on [my mother] and tried to cover her as best as I could. He was doing whatever he could, kicking, punching. I actually got off the lightest. He was grabbing stuff from out of the cupboards: pots, pans. He got a milk bottle and it smashed me in the eye. I only got a black eye.

During the incident, Lily screamed for Mele to leave the house and call the police. Mele did not want to leave her mother’s side. She believed Masi would kill her mother if she left.

After Lily obtained a non-molestation order, Mele remembers Masi continuing to come back. She and her brother Tavita had the job of calling the police when he showed up.

He came back, in and out. We were told not to open the door to him. We used to always call the police when he was around. The cops would come with the dogs and take him away. He wasn’t allowed anywhere near us. The police would come, get him, chuck him in the cells, release him and it was all the same again.

Violence was what life was all about for Mele. To her, at the age of seven, it was normal. As well, she recalls that her mother’s spirit began to waver:

She got sick of calling the police and I think that’s what broke her. I remember he became a permanent fixture in the house. Her kicking him out became less and less.

With Masi back home, Lily became pregnant. She fell into a deep depression and on her return from hospital, placed the cot and baby in Mele’s bedroom.

I had to go to school and look after my brother at the same time. I would fall asleep at school all the time; I would have to get up in the middle of the night. It wasn’t just the Samoan culture thing of being the oldest. My mother had given up. At the age of seven, I was running the house on some levels.

Mele’s story has two sad and predictable outcomes. Not only did Mele look after her brothers and the household, she became the woman of the house in every sense. Masi began to sexually abuse her when she was seven years old. And when he grew up, Tavita, Mele’s younger brother, became an adult abuser of his wife and children.

Lyla’s son has also been affected by violence. He has witnessed the violence against his mother and also been the direct target of violence himself. As Lyla remembers:

At the age of 14, he ran away from us because my partner threatened him and told him to get out. So I said, “You better go.” So I watched my own boy at the age of 14 walk out. That was really painful. I sacrificed – I put up with my partner and let my big boy walk out.

Subsequently, Lyla’s “big boy” was diagnosed with schizophrenia. Lyla blames herself.

I knew it was because of me. Part of me told myself that part of it was rejection, because I left him behind and chose the partner over him. A lot of it has to do with our relationship and how the partner bullied him, like, you know, “You should get out and work, and you are a big boy now.” Things like “Don’t smoke our drugs.” [Steve would]

physically abuse him, going up to him with a fist in his face to find out where I am. He would say to my son, “Where is she? You know where she is?”

Tiare’s five children also witnessed Fetu’s violence against her. Whenever he was on one of his drinking binges, Fetu was violent and he did not care who was present at the time. He would

often beat Tiare in front of the children: Tiare talks specifically about what happened to two of her children. Her daughter, who looks after her, still fears raised voices and drunken people. Her son punches, kicks and verbally abuses her. Tiare told us:

When my son got big enough, he started hitting me, even if his father was there.

Indeed, again predictably, once he became an adult, not only did Tiare’s son beat her; he also became an alcoholic and a drug addict. Though asked many times, he has refused to leave Tiare’s home He often threatens his mother and continues to physically and verbally abuse her. He steals her mail and tears up her bills. As a way to try to protect herself, her nephew lives at her house.

When he’s there, Tiare’s son won’t hit her.

Sometimes it was the violence to the children that motivated our women to separate from their partners. For example, after her mother convinced her to reconcile with Jatinder, Pinky recalls that Jatinder began to beat their sons. One day, for example, their younger son talked back and refused to obey his father. Jatinder was terribly angry and swore to beat him so much that his mother would not be able to save him. He also bragged that he was not afraid of the police.

Pinky left again and moved into a refuge. As she told us:

It was my bad luck that I had to go through this all over again.

Once the Family Court awarded Jatinder unsupervised access, Pinky’s worries about her children increased. Each time before visiting their father, the boys, especially her younger son, would cry because he did not want to go. When they returned, they would tell Pinky that they were terrified of their father when he was drinking. The younger son told her that he would hide himself in the house when he was visiting Jatinder. Pinky voiced her concerns and fears for the safety of her sons to her lawyer but her lawyer told her that the problem was with Pinky, that it was Pinky who was stressed and anxious, not the boys.

One day Pinky was asked by her younger son’s teacher to meet with her. When Pinky arrived, the teacher told Pinky that her younger son had confided in her and told her that he did not like to go and visit his father but that his mother forced him to go. The teacher advised Pinky that she should call the police and not force the boys to go to their father’s house because it was having a detrimental effect on them.

Because of the unsupervised contact order, however, Pinky feels powerless to protect her children. She now questions whether she might have been able to shield her sons from Jatinder’s violence, if she had not separated and continued to take the violence and abuse upon herself.

Sonal’s children, too, were the direct victims of violence. In fact, it was an attack on her younger son which precipitated Sonal’s decision to apply for her third protection order and separate from Ranjit.

Tessa remembers that Tasi was physical with their daughter “to get at me”. She recalls that “one time Tasi put her on the roof of the house because he was trying to hide her from me”. Tasi’s mother also used threats to take the little girl to control Tessa. She told Tessa, for example, that if she didn’t behave, she would take her granddaughter to Samoa

Rachel’s children saw Chris’s violence against their mother. They were the targets of his violence as well. For example, one time Rachel was assaulted while the children were in the bath. Rachel told us: “They witnessed him punching holes in the wall right by my head.” Another time, when Rachel refused to respond to Chris’s jibes (“I just kept my eyes low and didn’t say anything”), Chris became physically and verbally aggressive to his daughter Rebecca instead. He cornered her in the bathroom, towering over her and yelling:

“You fuckin’ useless bitch! You are fucked up, a screw ball.”