Understandably, there has been much comment in the media concerning the tragedy in Dunedin involving the killing of two children by their father. Unfortunately, much comment seems to have consisted of calls for punitive action. I have seen little inquiry into why this tragedy happened.
It seems, in brief, that after the marriage broke down, the children's mother ended up living in the former family home with them. The father had a protection order made against him where he was forbidden to contact his estranged partner or the children. Unsurprisingly, he suffered mental health issues. Did the father suffer those before the breakdown, or as a result of it? What persuaded the court to ban the father from contact? Why were arrangements not made for him to continue contact with the children in a safe environment?
A fundamental cause of anger, of resentment, of depression and other mental health problems, is where a parent is denied contact with children on top of the breakdown of the family. Usually, it is the father who is denied contact. Occasionally, it may be the mother. The latter is rare because as a culture we seem to be hard-wired to believe a mother is the nurturer while a father is the hunter/gatherer. Often, in this liberated age where women can do everything, there is nothing left for the father to do but to obey his partner. Men are capable of being nurturers when permitted to be so.
We fail families when we apply the strange notion that all fathers are potential wild beasts. Men can be violent. However, women can do anything, including violence. The feature story in the Weekend Herald after the tragedy entitled "Gone too soon: Kids who died at the hands of parents" records "a tragic roll call" of 15 killers in New Zealand. Nine of the killers were male, six were female.
Last week the stuff.co.nz website reported on the sentencing of a young woman who attacked her partner with a knife. Judge Allan Roberts accepted that the female offender had mental health problems and was now getting help from professionals and her family, the website reported. She had lost custody of her two children last year. The judge said he suspected that the female offender would reconcile with her partner, while sentencing her to community work, to supervision, to domestic violence counselling, and to alcohol and drug treatment. Would a male who assaulted his female partner with a knife have received a similar community sentence, or would he have been sentenced to prison?
The Dunedin Multidisciplinary Health and Development Study, which has followed a birth cohort of 1000 babies born in 1972 over four decades, so far, has reported that women are just as likely to resort to violence as are men, although violence by men might be more extreme. The Christchurch Health and Development Study, Christchurch School of Medicine and Health Sciences followed 1300 from 1977. It has revealed a similar result.
Protection orders are often made against fathers who are accused of being "controlling". But women often seek protection orders to control men or to punish men for not paying what the mother considers to be enough child maintenance.
We fail families when we give tax cuts to the wealthy instead of putting money into facilities to support families. Women's refuges are always short of money, and the few facilities for men, such as the Father and Child Trust, struggle for funding.
Instead of calling for more punitive measures against the dead, we need to ask for more resources to support families in need. Moreover, a protection order should be granted only where there is need, not as a punishment or to give one parent an advantage over the other. Protection orders should not be used to cut off contact between parent and child. There should be arrangements for continued, but safe, contact. Protection orders should not remain in force indefinitely. A protection order should expire unless, on review, there is a demonstrable need for the order to continue.
Anthony Morahan is an Auckland barrister who specialises in the family court.