Last week the Federal House of Representatives debated the Family Law Legislation Amendment (Family Violence and Other Measures) Bill 2011. During the debate, the Minister for the Status of Women, Kate Ellis, made a series of false statements to the Parliament and the Australian public.
Regretfully, this disregard for the truth follows a pattern of behaviour by state Offices for Women across the country. In August 2009 after a report by the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research, the NSW Office for Women's Policy issued errata correcting three of fourteen incorrect and misleading statistics contained in its Discussion Paper on NSW Domestic and Family Violence Strategy. In August 2010, the South Australian Ombudsman issued a report finding that the SA Office for Women had published false and/or misleading information on the Don't Cross the Line website, had failed to correct this information, and had failed to act with reasonable diligence and speed once errors were brought to its attention.
In what appeared to be an attempt to bring gender politics into a serious debate about an issue that affects the entire community, the Minister downplayed male victims of family violence by claiming that, "while it is true that men are more likely to be victims of violence [overall], this violence occurs predominantly at the hands of a stranger and in public places, such as the street or the pub, not at the hands of a family member, not at the hands of a partner, not at the hands of those they trust the most and not in their own home."
The Minister is correct that Australian men are indeed more likely than women to experience violence at the hands of strangers and in public places. What she seems to be unaware of, however, is that this does not mean that men are less likely than women to experience violence at the hands of persons known to them, or in the home.
Additional figures only just released from the ABS Personal Safety Survey 2005 show there is no statistically significant gender difference between the prevalence rates for male and female victims of physical assault by known perpetrators in the last 12 months. They also show there is no statistically significant gender difference between the estimates of numbers of male and female victims who experienced physical assault by family members or in the home in the most recent incident in the last 12 months.
The Minister went on to cite statistics on all violence against women (including the 25% perpetrated by other women) which further confused matters in a debate not about violence in general, not about violence against women, but about domestic and family violence. Overinflating statistics about domestic and family violence against women does nobody any good. If anything it lends support to those in the community who deny that domestic and family violence is a serious issue and reduces the credibility of legislation whose objective purports to be to reduce such violence.
Ms Ellis then claimed that separated mothers do not make false accusations of family violence and child abuse to gain a tactical advantage in family law proceedings. The only evidence she was able to provide was "a report in 2007 by the Australian Institute of Family Studies finding that the family violence allegation rates in custody proceedings in the Family Court of Australia or in the Federal Magistrates Court are similar to the reported rates of spousal violence profiles in the general divorcing population."
Surely the Minister must be aware that persons going through custody proceedings in the FCA or in the FMC are 'the sharp end of the stick', and are not at all representative of the general divorcing population. Therefore any correlation or not between family violence allegations/rates is meaningless.
In recent community research by VicHealth, half of all respondents said that 'women going through custody battles often make up or exaggerate claims of domestic violence in order to improve their case', and only 28% disagreed. It is most likely this is because they had personal knowledge of a friend or family member who had experienced this, or had experienced it themselves.
A survey of 68 NSW magistrates concerning apprehended violence orders (AVOs) found that 90% agreed that some AVOs were sought as a tactic to aid their case in order to deprive a former partner of contact with the children. A similar survey of 38 Queensland magistrates found that 74% agreed with the proposition that protection orders are used in Family Court proceedings as a tactic to aid a parent's case and to deprive their partner of contact with their children.
There are many organisations around the country that deal with false allegations of domestic and family violence on a daily basis - Dads in Distress, Men's Rights Agency, Lone Fathers Association, Shared Parenting Council of Australia, Dads4kids Fatherhood Foundation and Dads on the Air, to name just a few. Perhaps the minister would be wise to spend some time talking to these organisations to gather a more accurate picture of false allegations in a Family Law context.
It is clear, however, that the minister and her Government have no interest in investigating the issue of false allegations, as they have commissioned countless studies into the prevalence and impacts of domestic and family violence on separating families, but not a single study into the prevalence and impacts of false allegations. As anyone who has been on the receiving end of false allegations can attest, the impacts are utterly devastating.
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