The spectre of tiny Darcey Freeman falling to her death at the hands of her father last week shocked and outraged the world. There has been a public outcry of disbelief with more than 1,200 local and international news articles on the tragedy.
The attention about this case was possible because the act was so public and it ended in death.
Equally distressing are the many other cases of horrific abuse never reported because of laws preventing children in Family Court of Australia (FCA) cases being identified. Only cases which end in fatal tragedies tend to be reported.
As a journalist and author of a book about my own child abuse, I am regularly contacted by parents with worrying decisions by the FCA which put children at risk. Stories of parents with convictions of domestic violence and child sexual abuse being given full custody, shared care or unsupervised contact with their children. Often the protective parent is labelled pathological for alerting authorities to disclosures of abuse.
The problems in the FCA are twofold.
The first problem began in the early 1990s with a sensational group of black-hooded men protesting about fathers’ lack of access to their children after divorce. These hoodlum activists spoke for many good fathers who were denied access to their children by blanket rulings giving mothers custody unless they were considered unfit. However, they also represented violent, controlling fathers unfit to parent their children.
The law, being a blunt instrument, was amended to favour access for both parents. This was strengthened a decade later by the Howard government which implemented a shared care approach to custody.
However, the basic human rights of the child have been repeatedly breached by this new blanket rule. Parents’ rights to their children have taken precedence over the children’s right to be and feel safe.
Second, enter Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS), invented by American counsellor, Richard Gardner. PAS was allowed as a defence in American family courts two decades ago, then spread to the UK and Australia.
Gardner’s self-published idea of PAS posited that many parents invented stories of abuse to “get back” at estranged spouses. He toured the US teaching lawyers how to defend their clients accused of child sexual abuse and domestic violence charges by counter-accusing that the other parent suffered from PAS.
Despite no validity as a legitimate syndrome, his remedy was to give full custody to the accused and the “PAS” parent to have no, or only supervised, access to the child.
Following the exposure of PAS as crackpot science, its use as a defence is banned here, but the notion still persists among FCA staff, now called by other names such as maternal alienation.
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