26 Jan GUEST BLOG: Empowering Voices, Protecting Futures: Advocating for Child Safety in New Zealand
In 2021, Home & Family adopted the Safe & Together Model™ throughout our organisation. All front-line staff are trained in CORE, with remaining staff members taking the introductory course as a minimum. Safe & Together is firmly woven into our practice. This blog demonstrates how the Model enabled us to focus on raising the child’s voice and identify the behaviours that are causing it to be diminished.
Supervised Contact is a core service to New Zealand’s legal infrastructure, as in many other countries. However, as part of the big wheel of custodial decision-making, it is hard to remember that there is a small voice missing. The smallest voice, the child’s voice, may be overshadowed by big themes of custodial decisions. These big themes include ‘parental alienation’, ‘coaching’, ‘developmental limitations’ and other areas that cast the voice of the child into speculation. These themes are a powerful way of discounting and discrediting the voice of the child. But how can we know what they think if we do not hear what they have to say? Do we believe all children view both parents as safe? Are generalisations ever accurate?
In some cases with Supervised Contact, the parent who is visiting the child is not safe and has no intention of being safe. As such, it exposes a child to an unwanted relationship with an adult whom they do not want to see.
Preventing unsafe parenting
Preventing visitations from unsafe parents poses a significant challenge, often placing the safe parent in a precarious position. Do I allow my child to see someone who they are afraid of? How can I be assured of safety?
For the general population, we can act simply to prevent unsafe adults from being around our children. This is a decision-making right we have as parents. However, not all parents have this luxury, and they are expected to follow the decisions of the Judge on who gets to see and have contact with their child. Judges of the Family Court have a difficult job balancing the views of both parents. They compile information to understand the truth of the current situation and weigh the likelihood of safety alongside parental rights and the ‘Rights of the Child.’ Their legislative authority in New Zealand is embodied in the fact that they make decisions that are highly complex and instrumental to New Zealand’s legal process.
However, within this Court process, the term ‘parental alienation’ exists. It can be used as an allegation to support a parent who has not seen their child for a significant period of time. Even with Supervised Contact directions, some use it to allege resistive behaviours in parents who have day-to-day care of the child.
The use of the term is highly successful internationally in changing custodial arrangements for children, particularly by parents who have also been the perpetrators of family violence. This empowers those with a history of abuse to use this term with great effect. It also undermined the protectiveness that day-to-day carers demonstrated towards their children during the time abuse that occurred in the family home.
The struggle for advocating
Home & Family, as advocates against family violence and coercive control, encountered numerous cases where children were compelled to have visits with a parent who was violent and abusive. This is despite expressing genuine fear and concerns about seeing this person.
The court system in New Zealand sometimes dismisses the child’s pleas for safety, viewing them as coerced by the protective parent. This troubling dynamic may lead to severe consequences. Examples are children refusing visitations, attacking the protective parent out of fear, or even running away during time with the unsafe parent. Home & Family is at the forefront of advocating for children living in such challenging circumstances. We strive to bring about positive change in the legal system’s approach.
Success Stories in advocating
One notable success involved a 14-year-old girl who, due to frequent angry episodes and controlling behaviour from her father, sought refuge from the court-ordered custody agreement. Home & Family stepped in, offering the girl an opportunity to express her concerns to a family harm practitioner. She was able to shed light on the troubling dynamics of her father’s household.
The girl revealed a distressing environment where she felt isolated, unsafe, and controlled. Her father’s unpredictable temperament and restrictions on communication left her anxious and incapacitated. The stark contrast between her treatment and that of her younger brother, who had a positive relationship with their father, was evident. The father’s actions hindered the girl’s educational and social development. It also had severe implications on her mental health, leading to anxiety, insomnia, and even suicidal thoughts.
Advocacy in Action
Home & Family practitioners, armed with the girl’s compelling narrative, crafted a detailed letter to the Family Courts and Lawyer for Child. We highlighted the father’s patterns of control, the disparate treatment of his children and the profound impact on the girl’s well-being. Emphasizing the girl’s age and cognitive capacity, the letter urged the court to consider her perspective in any potential adjustments to the parenting order.
The Lawyer for the Child listened to the information presented, allowing the girl to share her experiences freely. As a result, court-ordered visits between the girl and her father ceased, granting her autonomy over the matter. The positive change was swift and transformative. The daughter experienced a significant improvement in her mental health and overall well-being.
Advocating for Child Safety
Home & Family’s advocacy efforts, supported by the Safe & Together Model, underscore the importance of empowering children to voice their concerns. This ensures their perspectives are considered in legal proceedings. The agency fosters a collaborative approach between practitioners, legal professionals and the children involved. We can create a system prioritising child safety and well-being and restoring healthy family relationships. Together, we can continue to build a future where no child is forced to endure the trauma of unsafe visitations. Children can continue to have their voices heard and validated. Their voices are given priority in relation to their future. Perpetrators are no longer able to continue patterns of abuse through weaponising systems.
Resources for additional learning:
Season 4 Episode 10: Ensuring the Voice of the Child is Heard, and Child’s Best Interests are Considered in Domestic Abuse Cases
By Guest Blogger Zara Robson is Team Leader of the Integrated Safety Response department. Zara is also a Safe & Together Trainer and a strong advocate of the Model. Home & Family is a child-focused agency providing services in Christchurch, New Zealand, including crisis response.