Anger at law that fails children

  • Adele Horin
  • May 4, 2009
Emotional...rally organiser Barbara Biggs with supporters in Sydney yesterday.Emotional…rally organiser Barbara Biggs with supporters in Sydney yesterday. Photo: Sahlan Hayes

THE names of 22 children killed by their fathers on access visits hung from a makeshift clothesline in a city park yesterday as more than 100 women and some men gathered to vent their anger at the Family Court of Australia and the law it must enforce.

At the emotion-charged rally, a mother named Carolyn pinned a photo of her two sons to an orange and a blue T-shirt on the line where their fate was revealed: “shot and killed”. She tried to talk but handed her story to rally organiser Barbara Biggs to read.

“When the police came to the door, I was the one who told them my boys were dead,” she said. “I didn’t grieve when it was confirmed. I’d already spent seven years grieving every time they went on an access visit. Every time I feared they would not return.”

The rally was part of a national campaign to push changes to the Family Law Act, which critics say is putting children’s safety at risk after amendments in 1995 and 2006 put greater emphasis on shared parenting.

Some women in the crowd covered their faces with scarves to protect their anonymity but others spoke openly of their experiences and expressed anger at the law’s strict confidentiality provisions that they said protected the perpetrators of abuse and violence, not the children.

The act prohibits the media from reporting identifying details of families involved in Family Court proceedings, even when the children are dead, or have reached the age of 18 and wish to tell their own accounts of court-ordered access.

A Sydney University academic, Lesley Laing, told the rally and its supporters that women with abusive or violent partners enter a family law system where the “ideological view is that shared parenting is the norm and anyone opposing that is swimming against the tide”.

She said almost 50 per cent of Australians surveyed believed women in custody battles made up or exaggerated claims of abuse and violence even though the evidence was to the contrary.

Carolyn said the day she left her abusive husband in 1995 he had threatened to kill the children. It took him another seven years to do it.

She said it was unfortunate that 1995 was the year the act began to change in favour of fathers’ rights. The boys’ father had originally won custody but when that was reversed two years later, she reluctantly agreed to access visits, having been told by the court she was malicious.

Few in the crowd were dry-eyed when Carolyn’s words were read: “How many children must we bury before something is done about this failing judicial system that is supposed to be there to protect our children?”

A 13-year-old boy who had come with his mother and grandmother from a regional town to attend the rally said he had been the subject of a custody battle for more than five years. He was required by the court to live with his father, who wanted to take him overseas. “I want to live with my mum,” he said, “and maybe see my dad once a month for an hour or two.”

Also coming under fire from speakers were court-appointed experts, including psychologists and psychiatrists who, it was charged, made hasty assessments of parents that carried huge weight in court.

Carolyn said a court-appointed expert had assessed her as having difficulties with “social functioning” and “anxiety” while her ex-husband was said to have a “reasonably balanced profile” with no pathological or criminal features evident.