A private members bill is being introduced to Parliament this morning to overturn the presumption of equal shared parental responsibility in family law.
At first blush this might sound regressive. Don’t we want to move towards gender equality and more shared parenting?
The answer to that question is clearly a yes – but not at the expense of safety.
Right now, we know that, according to the Australian Institute of Family Studies (AIFS), between 70 to 85 per cent of family law matters involve allegations of family violence and abuse. This should not surprise us given how prevalent these issues are amongst the broader community, with one in four women experiencing partner violence in their lifetime, and family violence being the single biggest reason for calls to child protection helplines.
So, why does this particular change matter? Because, the presumption creates an expectation that shared parenting will ensue and this tends to happen even in cases when children and adults are experiencing and at risk of family violence and abuse.
We know from AIFS research, for example, that despite the extremely high numbers of cases featuring violence and abuse, just 3 percent of matters involve the child being protected from any contact with a parent who poses a serious threat to their safety and wellbeing.
When these results occur in court proceedings, and the presumption is stated in law, all the other matters – the vast bulk of them that are dealt with more informally without going to court – are influenced by them. Tens of thousands of women we support who are experiencing family violence and abuse are met with the expectation that their violent and abusive partner, whom their child(ren) may fear, will likely be ordered unsupervised, overnight access to them, regardless of how violent or abusive he has been.
This needs to change.
No-one is arguing about the desirability of moving towards more equality in parental responsibility and the value of children spending time with their parents when they are safe and loving. However, until we shift the dial on the prevalence of family violence and abuse going on in Australian homes, we shouldn’t be enshrining shared parenting in law. Safety must come first.