16 December 2007- Family Integrity #327 — psychological abuse
New rules could instantly bar parents from kids
New weapon in tug-of-love cases
Sunday Star Times | Sunday, 16 December 2007
Warring parents are set to gain a new lever to bar their partner from access to the children.
Ruth Laugesen and Emma Page report.
Parents could be instantly banned from any contact with their children for months at a time under new proposals to allow claims of psychological abuse to be treated in the same way as allegations of violence in family breakdowns. And, in much the same way as the anti-smacking debate divided opinion, experts are warning the proposals could cause problems for the Family Court when it tries to decide the difference between psychological abuse and normal and necessary parental control. Under current laws, violence allegations result in an immediate, temporary ban on the accused parent from having access to his or her children, or having only supervised access, until the allegations can be heard a process which can take months. The law change would mean a claim of psychological abuse would be treated the same way. The proposal, in a Ministry of Justice discussion paper released last week, suggests widening the Care of Children Act to recognise psychological abuse as another form of violence. About 10,500 applications for day-to-day care are made each year and at this time of year, family lawyers are also dealing with an influx of calls over Christmas Day access arrangements. About 125,000 Kiwi families with dependent children are headed by a solo parent and one in six New Zealand children lives in a blended family with a step-parent. South Auckland lawyer Paul Maskell, chair of the Law Society’s family law section, said it often took three months for the truth of an allegation to be settled. And he said that although widening the definition of violence to include psychological abuse had some merits, it also carried the risk that it would be used as a lever by warring partners. “It will make that task harder for judges to determine whether children are safe when you extend that definition. Physical violence is pretty easy to identify it is or it isn’t. One wants to be able to ensure the right evidence is available for the court in the first place,” he said. The paper said psychological abuse could include “intimidation, harassment, controlling behaviour, threats of physical abuse and also includes causing or allowing a child to see or hear the physical, sexual or psychological abuse of a person with whom the child has a domestic relationship”. “The nature of parental control and responsibility for children may make it difficult in some situations to determine whether a parent is abusive or simply exercising necessary parental control,” the discussion paper said. Expanding the definition might lead to an increase in allegations and counter-allegations of violence and also to an increase in orders for supervised contact or orders of no contact between the violent party and the child. “The impact of such orders can be significant, severely limiting or preventing contact between a parent and a child,” the paper said. However, Auckland family lawyer Geoff Harrison said he believed the law change would make no difference. He said judges already took into account a wide range of information relating to a child’s welfare and the parent’s attitude when they decided who would look after a child or have access. This included psychological abuse.