Simon Collins

Simon Collins is the Herald’s social issues reporter.

Child inquiry reforms endanger women

The clauses require judges to consider a list of factors, such as the frequency of the violence, before approving unsupervised contact between the allegedly violent parent & child. Photo / Thinkstock
The clauses require judges to consider a list of factors, such as the frequency of the violence, before approving unsupervised contact between the allegedly violent parent & child. Photo / Thinkstock

Sir Owen Glenn's inquiry into child abuse and domestic violence says more children may be abused if they are forced to have contact with violent parents under proposed family law changes.

Inquiry director Ruth Herbert has urged MPs in a submission to retain rules which ban unsupervised contact with the children by any parent alleged to have been violent towards them or their other parent.

The provisions, known as the "Bristol clauses", were passed after Wanganui man Alan Bristol killed his three children and himself following a bitter break-up with his wife, Christine, in 1994.

The clauses require judges to consider a list of factors, such as the nature and frequency of the violence, before approving unsupervised contact between the allegedly violent parent and the children.

Family law reforms, now before a select committee, would abolish the clauses on the grounds that they have been made redundant by later law changes requiring judges to protect children's safety.

The New Zealand Law Society, in another submission on the reforms, said the clauses had become "a blunt instrument which can sometimes have a disproportionately adverse effect on parent, child and family relationships".

But Ms Herbert, who fled from a violent relationship with "a loaded gun pointed at my head", said many women had told the Glenn inquiry they still felt unsafe under the current system, so it should not be weakened further.

"The Bristol clauses are one of the central tenets of family law.

"How is removing them going to improve the safety of the child?" she asked.

She said she found it staggering that the biggest reform in family law for 30 years was almost silent on the safety of women who suffered domestic violence, even though an initial consultation paper said 51 per cent of parents involved in Family Court care-of-children cases had parallel domestic violence proceedings.

"It's staggering that it is so silenced, so minimised, so normalised - it's just that they are emotional parents," she said.

"I've been through a break-up, and I've been through a domestic violence break-up, and I can tell you they are light years different. (A non-violent break-up) is very, very different from when you are leaving for fear of your life."

She is also concerned about a proposal that judges considering who should care for children may take into account parents who are "obstructive towards any person who has, or is seeking to have, a role in the upbringing of the child".

"We have received many examples of the Family Court classifying mothers as obstructive when they try and raise concerns about the safety of their children when in contact with abusive fathers," she said.

She also urged MPs to require comprehensive training of mediators and court staff in domestic violence and child abuse.

Glenn inquiry think-tank members are about to begin a round of visits to about 25 towns, starting in Tauranga, to seek input from people affected by domestic violence and child abuse.


Glenn's concerns

• Violent parents may get more contact with their children.

• Protective parents may lose care of children if they are seen as "obstructing" contact with the other parent.

• No provisions for training mediators and court staff about domestic violence.

- NZ Herald

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