For victims of domestic violence and their children, the lockdown poses an extra risk. Kirsty Johnston reports.

As soon as Amy heard that New Zealand was going into lockdown last Monday, she thought of her daughter, and began to panic.

"I was like, ''oh god what am I going to do, she's not with me, it could be weeks before she can come back,'" Amy says. "I began to worry about her safety."

Amy's daughter is eight-years-old. Like thousands of children across the country, her life is split between two households, an arrangement dictated by a parenting order made in the Family Court.

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Her father is Amy's abusive ex-partner. Amy (not her real name) left him after he was removed from her house by the police for assaulting her. During their relationship, his violence had escalated from emotional, to psychological, to physical - and Amy worried it would escalate further, and her child would become his next victim.

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Initially, Amy was granted a protection order, but at the Family Court hearing her child's lawyer said it would be easier to co-parent if she gave it up. So she agreed, and was granted shared custody anyway and now their daughter goes to her father's every second week despite Amy's misgivings.

"I really worry about her emotional wellbeing. About the kind of psychological abuse he perpetuates. I mean, she's not allowed to mention me at his house. He's told that I'm going to die, that she'll never see me again," she says. "She has really bad separation anxiety from me as well, so the idea of her being away so long, it's horrible."

Women who reported issues to Backbone said they were worried for their children's safety during prolonged visits with a parent who had been abusive. Photo / 123RF
Women who reported issues to Backbone said they were worried for their children's safety during prolonged visits with a parent who had been abusive. Photo / 123RF

After the lockdown was announced, Amy waited to hear what it would mean for shared care.

On Tuesday, March 24 Principal Family Court Judge Jacquelyn Moran released a set of guidelines.

They said that children in the same communities could continue to go between homes, as long as no one was unwell or had been overseas.

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"The overriding consideration is for parents to make decisions that are in the best interest of their children," Moran said.

Amy was relieved, and messaged her ex-partner to say she'd see him at handover. He replied to say he didn't think it was a good idea, that it would make their bubble too large. Amy called her lawyer, who called his lawyer, but there was no response.

On the day of handover, he didn't turn up.

"I'm devastated. I'm totally and utterly heartbroken but it's not about me it's about my daughter," Amy said. "I haven't talked to her. I mean what I am supposed to say? The government says you can come home but your dad won't let you? I can't do that."

Amy's lawyer will now have to file an urgent application in the court to get her parenting order upheld and her daughter returned.

Domestic violence advocates The Backbone Collective say Amy's case is one among dozens reported to them since lockdown was announced, by women who feared for their children's safety.

While the current police and media focus had been on the likely upswing in domestic violence where women were living with abusers, there had been little guidance about how to keep children safe, they said.

Deborah Mackenzie, a co-founder at Backbone, said many abusers were already using the lockdown as an excuse to make changes to their arrangements, in breach of parenting orders.

The Family Court has asked parents to make decisions that are in the best interest of their children. Photo / 123RF
The Family Court has asked parents to make decisions that are in the best interest of their children. Photo / 123RF

On the flip-side, there were mothers who wanted to breach parenting orders themselves, because of their safety concerns.

"These are women whose partners committed violence, and they're worried it will happen again," Mackenzie said. "When they go to these fathers there's heightened danger - they're all locked up together, and the usual checks and safety valves that are there - like going to school and having teachers and other parents looking in on them - are gone."

In those cases, the women were concerned they would be punished by the Family Court once lockdown ended, and it would drag them into further, costly litigation and they would risk losing custody of their children.

Currently, the guidelines state that the pandemic "should not be seen as an opportunity for parents to unilaterally change established care arrangements without cause or otherwise behave in a manner inconsistent with the child's best interests or the court ordered care arrangements."

However, Mackenzie says that ruling fails to acknowledge that many of these relationships aren't about "conflict" but violence. Calls to be "reasonable" were unrealistic when dealing with abusers, she said.

"They're treating it like women can negotiate with these ex-partners. When in fact, they're the least equipped to have any influence on the other parent's behaviour. They're scared."

Sarah, a mother-of-two in Auckland, said she felt there was no recognition from the Court that most abusive relationships were about one person attempting to control the other - which wasn't going to suddenly stop amid a crisis.

In her situation, her ex-partner had a new partner and step-children, but was refusing to tell her how that affected his "bubble" - for example if the children were also going to other households.

"I don't know anything about how far the bubble goes - but I do know it's three homes and that's too many," Sarah said.

Sarah's daughter has a respiratory condition, so Sarah (whose identity we agreed to keep safe) proposed she keep her at home and they do virtual contact instead.

"But he didn't want virtual contact, he wanted to have them for 14 days instead - and then I'd have them for 14 days, which is inconsistent with our normal agreement, where they go to his house for a maximum for a week."

Domestic violence advocates want clearer guidelines about how victims should keep their children safe during Covid-19. Photo / 123RF
Domestic violence advocates want clearer guidelines about how victims should keep their children safe during Covid-19. Photo / 123RF

Sarah said in addition to her daughter's respiratory problems, she was worried about her mental health. Her father recently began confiscating the daughter's phone while she was at his house. Sarah - and her psychologist - had already been concerned about how that affected her prior to the lockdown, she said.

"There's been a long period of [her father] trying to alienate her from other people in her life. When that failed his next best attempt to control her was the phone," Sarah said.

"She recognises it herself, that she's withdrawn. She said to me 'The more time I've spent with him the worse I've felt'. That was really heartbreaking to hear that."

Sarah wants to hold her ground, but is scared what it will mean for her with regards to the Family Court. Their parenting order was due to be re-examined and she was fearful her ex-husband would use this opportunity to make it look like she was trying to keep the kids away from him.

"But that's not my concern, my concern is everyone's safety. The more homes in the bubble the more Covid-19 can spread," she said. "His concern isn't public health, it's about forcing me to agree to an alternative arrangement."

Family lawyer and domestic violence expert Ruth Busch said she found the court's advice disingenuous.

"They're saying 'put aside your differences' but in many of these situations goodwill hasn't been a feature of their relationships for years," she said.

"It's very hard to read those orders and not read them as a continuation of the old narratives about women - that they should 'move on' or that abusive behaviour was just confined to that relationship, that she's trying to alienate the other parent."

Busch said while the Family Court would not agree, experts knew from research that there were a lot of unsafe orders made, particularly where women felt they were forced into arrangements so they didn't look "hostile".

During lockdown, when violence was predicted to escalate, she said if any order was breached, the court needed to look very carefully at why before making a ruling.

"Let them err on the side of safety. That's the legal test. The welfare and safety of the child. Any decision made around this time in the court should be weighed on the presumption that protecting the child is the most important," she said.

Busch said she would like to see a clear and unambiguous message that victims of violence will be protected by the court during this time.

"We need that, because as this goes on, who knows what is going to happen. We are only on day four, what's it going to be like on day 28?"

Backbone wrote to the Court itself, to Director-General of Health Ashley Bloomfield and to Justice Minister Andrew Little seeking an explicit guideline for people who were co-parenting with an abusive ex-partner with regards to the lockdown. They quoted statistics from their own surveys, one which showed 37 per cent of children suffered physical injuries while in the care of the abuser post-separation.

Their request asked the court to "ensure protective parents are not penalised for reasonable measures they take to keep their children safe and healthy during this lockdown period.

"We maintain that it is not sufficient nor safe to treat non family violence cases and family violence cases in the same way," it said.

When asked if he would consider such a guideline being released, Little said it was his expectation that parents strive harder than ever to rise above the conflict between them and do the best for children.

"If a parent isn't confident about the safety of the arrangements of their child, the child should stay where the parent knows they are safe, but parents should not be using the current emergency to leverage other agreements from each other."

Judge Moran responded to the Herald to say no judge had the power to issue blanket orders that apply to all children and families, even in the current pandemic environment.

However, if an individual parent or caregiver felt the situation had become abusive and that it is genuinely urgent, they could make urgent application to the Family Court for an amendment to a parenting order in the normal way.

"If it is warranted, a Family Court Judge will treat this as priority proceedings," she said.

Mackenzie said it was unsafe and unreasonable to force survivors of violence into more litigation during lockdown - particularly given the cost and the risk of opening the door to further "litigation abuse".

"The government should be stepping up to help protect these vulnerable children and not expecting their equally vulnerable mothers to do this," she said.

Amy, who was filing her court order today, said even the idea of having to communicate with her ex through the court filled her with fear.

"But I have no other way. I have this order but I can't just call the police and say he broke it," she said.

"I wish I could. Because the law is the law and he has to stick to it. But the problem is too many abusive men in this country think they're above the law."

THE SCALE OF VIOLENCE

• 1 in 3 ever-partnered New Zealand women report having experienced physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence in their lifetime.

• When psychological/emotional abuse is included, 55 per cent report having experienced IPV in their lifetime.

• Between 2009 and 2015, there were 92 IPV deaths. In 98 per cent of death events where there was a recorded history of abuse, women were the primary victim, abused by their male partner.

• According to MSD research, children were present in the house while the violence was occurring in 87 per cent of the incidents in which their parent was the victim.

• Responding to family violence accounts for 41 per cent of a frontline police officer's time.

DO YOU NEED HELP?

If you're in danger now:

• Phone the police on 111 or ask neighbours of friends to ring for you.
• Run outside and head for where there are other people.
• Scream for help so that your neighbours can hear you.
• Take the children with you.
• Don't stop to get anything else.
• If you are being abused, remember it's not your fault. Violence is never okay

Where to go for help or more information:

Ngā Wai a Te Tūī Māori and Indigenous Research Centre and the New Zealand Family Violence Clearinghouse are partnering to provide information on preventing and responding to family, whānau and sexual violence during COVID-19.
• Shine, free national helpline 9am- 11pm every day - 0508 744 633 www.2shine.org.nz
• Women's Refuge: Free national crisis line operates 24/7 - 0800 refuge or 0800 733 843 www.womensrefuge.org.nz
• Shakti: Providing specialist cultural services for African, Asian and middle eastern women and their children. Crisis line 24/7 0800 742 584
• It's Not Ok: Information line 0800 456 450 www.areyouok.org.nz
Covid19.govt.nz: The Government's official Covid-19 advisory website