Child safety risks feared in law reform

A mother whose three children were killed by her former husband has spoken out about government plans to repeal legislation which was introduced on a senior judge's recommendation after their deaths.

Christine Bristol's three daughters - all aged under 10 - were killed in 1994 by her abusive ex-husband Alan, who then committed suicide. Alan Bristol had shared custody despite her repeated complaints of domestic violence and he was facing charges of assaulting her. In a judicial inquiry into the Family Court's handling of the case, retired chief justice Ronald Davison recommended judges be instructed to refuse open access to abusive former partners unless they were certain the children were safe. The law was changed accordingly.

But the Government's new Family Court reform bill, which has had its first reading and is open for public submissions, plans to repeal the Davison clause.

The replacement clauses make no specific reference to child safety. Instead, the bill refers to a "first principle" that the child's safety must be put first, which opponents say is "too loose".

A network of women's groups, Family Court lawyers and both Labour and the Greens plan to protest amid fears it gives judges too much discretion.

Research by three Auckland University academics suggests courts are predisposed to awarding 50-50 shared care in custody disputes and sometimes downplay the significance of domestic violence.

One clause in the bill talks of "a more flexible and proportionate response to allegations of violence".

Christine Bristol told the Sunday Star-Times: "I am disappointed. It creates too much of a grey area. I am not criticising judges but it needs to be mandated that [they ensure child safety over open access]. There are situations out there where women are still intimidated by estranged partners. The emotional context needs to be understood by courts.

"Child safety is paramount. I am upset that is at risk." She is considering making a submission.

Bristol, who nowadays speaks on child safety to diploma students, said she was extremely happy with the changes that were made as a result of Davison's report; she accepts that laws evolve and change, but the importance of child safety does not.

Women's Refuge chief executive Heather Henare said the bill represented a "real backward step".

"We're concerned some of the reforms will compromise the safety of women and children," she said. "There is a real mixed message where women are getting blamed for domestic violence, [described] as poor parents for not protecting their children, but people who commit abuse are being told they are not a bad parent."

Ruth Herbert, director of the Glenn Inquiry into domestic violence and child abuse (see Focus page 14), said she'd heard many stories of women who felt the court system let them down by allowing abusive former partners open access.

Herbert said it was proven that in 60 per cent of cases involving domestic violence, the children were also abused, and studies show all children in such situations suffer psychologically.

Herbert said: "Why would we make things looser if we want to keep children safe? The rest of the world has gone in the other direction."

The issue has been debated worldwide, with one American study suggesting family courts "frequently minimise" the impact on children of witnessing family violence. Sydney University academic Lesley Laing said Australia had recently tightened its laws. "We have always admired the stronger legislation in New Zealand," Laing said.

Labour's justice spokesman Charles Chauvel held a teleconference last week with family lawyers, and said the changes would make it "harder for women to use the system to keep kids safe from a violent partner". He said the new bill may mean battered wives might be seen as an "alienating parent" by judges for trying to protect their children.

A spokesperson for the Ministry of Justice said the Davison provisions had been superseded by subsequent legislation and the new bill "continues to put children's safety first" particularly through the "key principle" clause.

"This is an important issue. The Government would like the select committee hearing submissions on the bill to focus on it."

Sunday Star Times