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Can Abbey's heartbreaking story spark family law reform?

Abbey was 17 when took her own life after the Family Court of Australia ordered her to spend time with her father - a convicted child sex abuser.
Abbey was 17 when took her own life after the Family Court of Australia ordered her to spend time with her father - a convicted child sex abuser.

A dead teenage girl 'betrayed' by the system designed to protect her is the one reason we need to investigate and reform Australia's family law system, writes domestic violence fighter SHERELE MOODY.

THERE are about 10 petitions on Change.org urging the Federal Government to overhaul Australia's family law system including the Family Court of Australia.

The petitions focus on a range of areas including "parental alienation" and "equal rights for men".

The petition that really grabs you by the heartstrings - and perfectly sums up what is wrong with our family law system - is titled "The Family Court allowed a convicted sex offender access to my little girl - now she's dead".

Just over 43,600 people have backed Abbey's petition urging Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull to roll out a royal commission into the Family Court.

Penned by Gill, a Western Australia mum whose 17-year-old daughter Abbey killed herself three years ago, the petition paints a dark and terrifying view of one of the family law system's biggest failings - its insistence on forcing children to spend time with abusive parents to ensure "meaningful relationships" are maintained.

According to Gill, Abbey's father was convicted of sexually assaulting the child's best friend in 2002 and jailed for two years.

The abuse happened while the little female victim was sleeping over at Abbey's house.

Gill says she wanted Abbey's father to have minimal contact with her daughter for fear he would abuse her as well.

CHIEF JUSTICE OF FAMILY COURT RESPONDS

However, Abbey's mum says the "family court system" ruled the distressed mum was simply being a 'hysterical woman' and a 'vindictive wife' before allowing Abbey's father to see the girl so she could have a "meaningful relationship with both parents".

"They failed me, a protective mother, who in my attempt to protect my children from contact with their abusive father, was dismissed as a 'hysterical woman' and a 'vindictive wife'," she writes on the petition outline.

Just two months before she died, Abbey wrote a poem to her father, expressing the pain and anguish he forced upon her when he decided to abuse her.

"You took away all my innocence, left me dead inside," the poem reads.

"I'm broken now, torn and ripped in pieces.

This poem was written by 17 year-old Abbey who killed herself after the courts allowed her sexually abusive father to spend time with her.
This poem was written by 17 year-old Abbey who killed herself after the courts allowed her sexually abusive father to spend time with her.

 

Abbey's mum writes in the petition outline: "It's a ruling that would eventually kill my darling girl. It makes me physically sick to imagine what she went through."

The Family Court has since refuted "inaccurate" claims suggesting Abbey was "driven to suicide" by the system. 

Family Court of Australia Chief Justice Diana Bryant said all orders made by the WA Family Court were made in agreement with Gill and with the knowledge of the child protection authority.

Still, if the experts are right, Abbey's story appears to be far from unusual.

Child safety advocates like former Australian of the Year Rosie Batty and Bravehearts' founder Hetty Johnston say there have been times when the  Australian family law system appeared to disregard the behaviour of domestic violence and child abuse perpetrators.

Ms Batty - whose son was violently and publicly killed by his father in 2014 - is working with more than 90 family violence and legal organisations to lobby for wide-spread reforms of the family law system.

Ms Batty told the National Press Club in June that family court reforms should even include a "domestic violence test" that would determine whether or not children could safely spend time with their mums and dads.

Ms Batty said at the time that a young boy became suicidal after spending years fighting a decision forcing him to stay with his sexually abusive father.

She also spoke of a child who suffered "regular panic attacks" because of contact with an abusive parent.

Fairfax Media earlier this year revealed the case of a young working mother whose male partner violently beat her, but the court decided her abuser should have full custody of their child. The court's reasoning - the perpetrator only abused his partner (not the child) and as he was unemployed he would be the better parent because he could spend all of his time looking after the little one.

Ms Batty, during her Press Club speech, called for all judges and magistrates making family law decisions to undergo compulsory training in domestic violence.

"The problem is not in the Family Law Act - it is in the very culture of the family law system that has the responsibility to apply it," Ms Batty told journalists.

The situation is so dire that lawyers often warn mums to avoid seeking no-contact orders or raising allegations of abuse during custody proceedings because they may be seen as trying to alienate the abuser from the kid's lives.

Ms Johnston told Australian Regional Media newspapers this week that she knows a mum who was advised by two legal experts not to bother telling the court about concerns her daughter was being abused.

"She was told that if she was to do that (lodge the paperwork alleging abuse) the court would frown upon it," Ms Johnston said.

"She would be viewed by the court as a vexatious mother, bringing about these allegations and coaching her daughter in these allegations - all of the things we've been hearing for 20 years."

Bravehearts - which is actively promoting Abbey's petition - released a report this year listing 15 cases where the family law system placed children in direct risk of physical harm.

Ms Johnston will raise her concerns with the Family Court at a meeting with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.

Sadly, the debate surrounding reform is often hi-jacked by those who insist dads always get a raw deal because 'vindictive' mums make up stories of abuse to deprive their former partners of custody.

Men's rights activists do their best to keep this narrative going by citing the unsubstantiated claim that 21 Australian dads kill themselves daily over custody and related issues and that one in three victims of domestic violence are male.

NZ Herald

However, research shows false abuse allegations are rare and fathers are as likely to make false claims as mothers and that women are the overwhelming victims of DV and men the primary perpetrators.

Research also shows that where men are victims of family violence, their abusers are often male.

Changing Australia's family law system is not going to be easy.

First we need to clearly define what the problems are, using the lived experience of mothers, fathers and children.

This would be best done via an open royal commission like forum that would shine a light into every dark and sad crevice, just like the the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse has been doing since 2013.

Then we need to get community leaders and experts across the abuse and legal spectrum and both women's and men's rights activists to agree on how these reforms will best benefit children.

Change will be a long and arduous road and this is why stories like Abbey's are vital.

On the face of it, it appears that there is no doubt that this beautiful young woman would still be alive if it wasn't for the processes of a system that appears fundamentally flawed when it comes to juggling questions of access with the complexities of child abuse and domestic violence.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull must heed the calls of our community and make reforming the family law system a priority - for the sake of Abbey and every other child whose life depends on us getting it right.

  • For 24-hour domestic violence support  phone Queensland's DVConnect on 1800 811 811 or MensLine on 1800 600 636, NSW's  Domestic Violence Line on 1800 656 463 or the  national hotline 1800RESPECT (1800 737 732). If you need mental health support contact Lifeline on 13 11 14.

APN Australian Regional Media journalist SHERELE MOODY is also the founder and director of domestic violence story sharing platform The RED HEART Campaign.

Topics:  bravehearts change.org child abuse domestic violence editors picks family court family violence sex abuse


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