DV and children: an unbearable reality with few solutions

PUT  yourself in these shoes for a few minutes:

Imagine you are a child protection worker; you receive a complaint from a woman and her new partner (step father to her 4 year old son), they have serious concerns relating to the child's alternate weekend visits to his biological father, largely revolving around exposure to hard core pornography and sexual acting out behaviours.  They also tell you there is a current custody dispute between his parents battling its way through the court system.

What next?

If the biological father refutes the claims (which he almost certainly will) and the child tells you very little (also quite likely), where do you go from there? If you think child protection workers, lawyers, police, psychologists or judges have some magic ability to spot the liar in this scenario, think again.  No profession (apart from secret agents intriguingly) has shown itself to be any better than the average Joe in human lie-detecting. http://psycnet.apa.org/journals/amp/46/9/913/


Imagine again, that you receive a frantic phone call from a woman with five children, she is essentially being held hostage by her violent husband, but has managed to briefly escape to the payphone in their caravan park whilst he's at the kiosk buying cigarettes.  If he finds her on the phone, he will go ballistic.  She has no means of escape other than the legs she and her kids can run on. She won't call police because previously that has only antagonised him leading to more harm than good, http://www.bocsar.nsw.gov.au/agdbasev7wr/_assets/bocsar/m716854l4/bb91.pdf  and you both know that a restraining order is of little use against a determined offender. http://theconversation.com/domestic-violence-orders-need-stronger-enforcement-29910

If she can manage to get away from him, he will likely find her, as he is the biological father of her youngest two, and authorities will be sympathetic to his right to access unless it can be proven beyond all doubt he is a danger to them.  That process will take weeks if not months, during which time her decision to separate will act as a well-known trigger for increased violence and even homicide http://www.aic.gov.au/publications/current%20series/tandi/241-260/tandi255.html

So what is your advice to her?

Should she leave, cross her fingers and hope (not) to die; or stay as a protective barrier between her husband and children?  What practical and useful support services do you believe are available to her in this scenario? http://theconversation.com/why-doesnt-she-just-leave-the-realities-of-escaping-domestic-violence-29537

Here is a less drastic example, that nonetheless contains the same conundrum for the "protector" parent.  Imagine your wife has been fighting an unsuccessful battle with depression for the last few years, and despite all the love, support and treatment you can rally, it has now been joined by its substantially more destructive twin: full-blown alcoholism.  You discover she has been drink-driving with your kids in the car (more than once), she has also blown out a massive debt on a credit card you didn't even know existed (potentially putting your home at risk) and she has engaged in several acts of highly irresponsible parenting (neglect, borderline abuse). 

What are your options? 

Should you stay and help her fight the good fight in the hope she may recover?  If you separate now, she will almost certainly gain rights to unsupervised access, in fact she may even get primary or shared custody.  Are you better off staying until your youngest turns 18 years so you can provide some level of supervision (knowing this will expose your children to her self-destructive spiral http://www.nnaami.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=65:raised-on-madness&catid=6:featured-articles&Itemid=8 ), or salvage what you have now to leave and pursue a healthy life, but risk your children having unsupervised access?

What would you do?

These are the more common scenarios the child custody sector still struggles to find solutions for.  None have an obvious answer for the following reasons:

1)      The method of predicting future "dangerousness" based on accurately pinpointing the "problem" parent, or figuring out which parent has exaggerated/minimised their role to further their own purposes, is a long, complicated process prone to an exceptionally high error rate.  

2)      Our child protection and custody systems are bizarrely focussed on parental rights, rather than parental responsibilities.

This leaves the protector parent and their child at risk of being worse off, endangered and even killed for "just leaving" their violent or dysfunctional spouse; and they know it - even if Joe Public and various official bodies don't. http://www.theage.com.au/victoria/rosie-batty-blasts-tv-host-joe-hildebrand-over-family-violence-20140402-35xq7.html   

Regardless of whether the situation is at the very nasty end of domestic violence, or in the more nuanced range of dysfunctional parenting, I've yet to see any successful formula that guarantees victims' safety when choosing between the rock and the hard place.


Dr Rachael Sharman is a lecturer and researcher in psychology, specialising in child/adolescent development. Rachael's research is focused on the optimal and healthy development of the paediatric brain, and has covered the psychological and cognitive impacts of: dietary practices of parents and their children; physical activity; obesity; autism; attention deficit hyperactivity disorder; phenylketonuria; depression; concussion; acquired brain injury; childhood trauma.

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