Thursday, 8 November 2012

Don't Judge by this

Well knock me down with a feather but Stuff have produced an irresponsible, unbalanced article about women and the justice system.  In a profile on Family Court Principal Judge Peter Boshier leaving that role and moving to the Law Commission, the reporter picks out a story from Judge Boshier of how tough the Family Court is to work in.

It's a story about a mother "lying" about sexual abuse; "turning her son against his father" and Judge Boshier awarding sole custody to the father, reluctantly, but because he knew it was best for the son.

Is this case the real outline of what happened in that family?  Who knows? 

I can't even begin to tell you how many women and children I've worked with for whom trying to talk about sexual abuse has been near impossible.  Near top of the list would be the woman who was concerned about her children in the care of her ex-partner, a dentist.  She had seen him drug his dental patients in order to sexually assault them, so had a laboratory run blood tests for her children after a visit with their father.  The tests confirmed the presence of drugs.  Of course, that wasn't considered "evidence" in the Family Court, because there was no proof the father had administered the drugs and the children were both young and in one case, learning disabled, so their views did not count.  After a year and a half in court, she won sole custody, when the court appointed psychologist finally stopped blaming her for the fact her children were absolutely terrified of their father.  Last time I saw her, she was still picking up the pieces.

So excuse my scepticism of Judge Boshier's understanding of this case - I'm just aware of how many times the Family Court gets it wrong, particularly in terms of sexual abuse. 

Actually though, what bothers me most about this article is not whether or not that particular story is accurate.  It's the fact that in eight years worth of Family Court chiefdom, the story Judge Boshier has chosen to tell, or that Stuff have chosen to report on, is so wildly misrepresentative of what happens in Family Court.

This is the kind of reporting which reinforces ideas that sexual abuse is made up, and women lie.  We lie.  We cannot be trusted. 

I get that reporting on the soul-destroying slew of misery that is the Family Court - violence perpetrated within families mostly by men who may well not want to live with the consequences of what that has done to their relationships with their ex-partners and children - is not sexy.  Or, when violence is not a factor in relationship breakdown, trying to decide how to resolve custody to ensure children have all they need to flourish.  Also, not sexy.

That's why when the Family Court was opened to the media at the beginning of Judge Boshier's tenure, the actual reporting of cases did not increase.  Because despite the claims of Men's Rights groups in the 1990s, the Family Court isn't a haven of militant feminazis.  From one of the reporters in this research:
This sense of unease is evident in others, such as Martin van Beynen of The Press: “An hour in Family Court in Christchurch and I already have pages of misery, dysfunction and dislocation in my notebook.”
Back to the wild misrepresentation from Stuff and Judge Boshier.  Men's Rights groups have campaigned outside judges and lawyer's houses, parliament and courts for a number of years.  Their central argument is that the Family Court is tough on them because it stops them seeing their children for unfair reasons like domestic violence:
More specifically, before 2004, men’s groups contended that the Family Court operated to disadvantage fathers after a separation, especially regarding custody of the children. The regulation of domestic violence was also seen by these groups as a particular feature of gender bias perpetrated by the Family Court. They argued that the Domestic Violence Act 1995 “isolat[es] children from loving fathers because the child is automatically included in the order.”
It's been a very effective argument.  The climate created by Men's Rights groups has put the Family Court under pressure when this so-called "gender bias" - the idea that it might not be ideal for men who use violence towards women and children at home to automatically have access to parenting - is actually just good, clean, proven-by-research how-we-bring-up-healthy-children stuff.

How effective it's been can be seen in a number of research papers produced over the years exploring mothers experiences of the Family Court by Auckland academics.  Their research shows that mothers have pressure put on them because "shared care is inevitable"; that even when the custody situation appears to be just being used to provoke further torment (he doesn't turn up), Courts continue to insist on shared care; that children's wants and needs are frequently assumed to have been manipulated by mothers when those wants and needs include less contact with a father who has been violent or neglectful.

The single most salient point in this for me is that in all the years of working with women who have experienced domestic violence, I've only known a handful of women who didn't want their children to have some kind of relationship or regular contact with the children's father.  The vast majority of the women wanted their children's father to parent well - because parenting alone is hard work.  Yet for many of those mums, that's not what has been on offer.  It's a flaming shame that Stuff and Judge Boshier are contributing to public misinformation.  I bet the Men's Rights groups will be posting this up with glee.


ChundaMars said...

I usually enjoy your posts LJ, and don't find much reason to comment myself much, but there are multiple problems with this one.

First, a small point, but the article in question does not appear to have been written with the intent of being "about women and the justice system" at all. And the case that irked you is only a small portion of that article.

You've insinuated that the Judge was incorrect in his handling of the case, and that the woman involved couldn't possibly have been lying. Why is that?

To back up your opinion, you point out other anecdotal cases that you know of, and I have no reason to doubt the picture as you paint it in that case... but the facts in one case in no way reflect on the facts in an unrelated case. While there are clearly plenty of cases of abusive men going through the Family Court, don't you think it also possible that there are cases where women would make untruthful allegations, and each case should be taken on its merits? Which, of course, the Judges are there for...

On that note, yes, LJ, people lie. Quite often. And I'm sure they lie when the stakes are high, like, say, they fear their children might be removed from their care, even if only half the time. And if you subscribe to the subtitle at the top of this site, then yes, women (who are, of course, people) lie.

"I'm just aware of how many times the Family Court gets it wrong, particularly in terms of sexual abuse". I think you just found unlikely allies with this quote LJ, not that you'd want them: Men's Rights Groups. I've read a number of stories (no personal experience here) of men saying just what you have said, but rather because they have had their children removed from their care for false abuse allegations i.e. the courts have got it wrong, but the other way. And as you allude to, it will be a messy business within the Family Court at the best of times, and getting it right 100% of the time would be some sort of miracle.

"Their central argument is that the Family Court is tough on them because it stops them seeing their children for unfair reasons like domestic violence". Now this is a horrible misrepresentation LJ. It's domestic violence ALLEGATIONS that get children taken from their fathers, domestic violence ALLEGATIONS that see fathers instantly treated as de facto abusers. An innocent father having an allegation made against him and instantly being denied access to his children? Plenty of those stories around too. So please don't try to paint this up as Men's Rights Groups arguing for abusers to have access to their children, because that is not what they want at all.

None of this negates the horrible things that some men do to the people they should be loving and caring for, but nor should every person with a Y chromosome who walks through the doors of the Family Court be treated as a de facto abuser. Nor should every person with two X chromosomes be treated as a shining angel who never lies.

One thing's for sure, I don't envy the judges their (presumably) high salaries for dealing with this sort of thing on a daily basis...

Anonymous said...

Agree with ChundaMars.


LudditeJourno said...

Hey Chunda Mars - actually, what I said about Judge Boshier's story was "who knows?" but that I was sceptical. And my anecdote was, like his, one story out of thousands, and for that reason PARTIAL. That was my point.
Your point about Men's Rights groups and "allegations" is exactly what I am challenging - the stories we hear about how awful the Family Court is, are a minority of men's stories, not backed by research, not backed up when the Court was opened to media, yet extraordinarily resilient because Men's Rights groups have done such a good job.
The research shows no evidence of this so-called "gender bias" against men. Nor is there any evidence of "false allegations" of sexual abuse stopping men seeing their children - but plenty evidence, in the studies I've linked to, of the reverse.
Finally Chunda - the disconnect between the Family and District Courts on sexual abuse means the Family Court can be making decisions about contact in situations where a child sexual abuse case is pending, without being aware that the Police have charged one parent with child sexual abuse. Because the two courts function independently. The claims you are making just do not hold up to the evidence, I'm sorry, but they do demonstrate how fabulously effective Men's Rights groups have been in framing the discussions. Thanks, LJ

ChundaMars said...

With regards to gender bias LJ, from the report itself you linked to: "The Law Commission concluded that although it was difficult to assess the existence and extent of bias (and whether in fact there was a systematic gender bias) in the Family Court, the perception of a bias could be just as damaging."

Which basically means that gender bias is difficult to prove or disprove. Is it then possible that Men's Rights groups are perceiving gender bias when there is none? Certainly. Is it possible that there sometimes IS gender bias in play, but this is almost impossible to prove? Also possible.

With regards to false allegations - no evidence? Really? As in, it never happens? Because that's what you're saying LJ, and that would then confirm that you completely disbelieve the Judge's explanation of the case in the story that he found it so hard to preside over, as that is a clear case of a false allegation. Or are you getting carried away, and what you really mean to say is that cases such as this are rare? In which case, what do you think is an acceptable number of false allegations before Men's Rights groups should be allowed to advocate for their members?

What is it about that case in the article that upsets you so much? Do you know it to be untrue? Or do you think the Judge should not have chosen to tell it? And who are we to decide what case a Judge chooses as a difficult one from his time on the Family Court?

Personally I think it would be interesting to know WHY he found that case such a difficult one that it stands out from his 8 years on the Family Court. Is it because, perhaps, it was one of the rare times he granted full custody to the father? Maybe he struggled to separate a child from its mother, much more so than separating a child from its father? Certainly from the article it seems he made the right call: "The decision was a good one, with the boy flourishing under the care of his father." (More evidence that the abuse allegation was false - children don't generally flourish under the sole custody of their abusive parent, I'm sure you'll agree.)

The disconnect between the Family and District Courts is terrible LJ, and if custody cases are being heard without knowledge of previous abuse from a parent, then that needs to change. That doesn't really change anything about your original post though, or your reading of the article.

Really LJ, I guess I'm interested to know what you think should have been done differently in this article.

ChundaMars said...

Oh, and because I only just read it now, that research paper you linked to is hardly a weighty piece of evidence LJ. Interviewed 21 women. 21? That's it? That's a tiny, tiny sample. And what about interviewing some of the men involved? After all, this is the Family Court - presumably for every woman contesting custody there is a man on the other side (in the vast majority of cases I assume).

I'm sure they heard some terrible stories, but if you wanted to choose 21 men to tell their stories I'm sure you'd hear some too. Which, incidentally, is exactly what Men's Rights groups probably do.

Anonymous said...

Hey there, in response to what you have said, Chunda Mars, allegations of DV or sexual abuse do not, on their own, get children removed from homes.  An allegation of DV is taken seriously by CYF and the police if it is accompanied by evidence -and if it is part of a repeated history. If the parents are separated, then unless the allegedly offending parent has a violent record it doesn’t tend to affect visitation and custody.  Because, as women I know have been told, ‘What happened in your relationship with him isn’t about his relationship with the kids’.

Likewise, an allegation of sexual abuse by a woman about the children’s father is not going to result in children being summarily removed from his care.  It just doesn’t happen this way, because removal requires a court order, and courts require evidence. 

You’re right that each case needs to be considered separately.  But what has happened is that Men’s Rights groups argue that fathers – across the board – get a raw deal.  The arguments are pretty much as you have stated them, that women sometimes lie and so what they say must be considered carefully and backed up by evidence.  Men's rights groups argue that men are negatively impacted by a society that tends to describe them as predators and poor caregivers, when they should each be judged on their own merits.  The final part of this is a fair point, but the premise is flawed.  Our society doesn't actually describe men like this.   In fact, our society positions men, and fathers, as rational and mothers as irrational (at best) and sometimes hysterical.  So it is women who are disadvantaged in situations where rationality is the 'norm'.

Because it is rational, isn't it, to share care of a child between parents.  And irrational and hormonal to not want that child out of your sight.  A gut feeling that things are not right for your child is irrational, the pain of separation from children that women describe is hormonal.  Sure, men talk about that pain too... But it doesn't get positioned as irrational and hormonal.

I think fathers are very important.  But I do not see many women spending time trying to escape good fathers... I see far more working to stay in family situations that aren't great, just to maintain that bond for the kids.


K said...

Good reply Rebecca,
And I have heard/seen first hand similar situations to what you describe.

Sexual abuse perpetrated upon children is easy to get away with especially when perpetrators are ingratiated into society and we still have their "good character" being used as PROOF POSITIVE that they simply could not have abused a child.

ChundaMars said...

K is right, that was good reply Rebecca. (And the other point you raise K, people of "good character" using this as some kind of proof they can't offend, is something that comes up time and again isn't it?)

Most, if not all come to think of it, of the stories I've read about children being denied contact with their fathers after DV allegations have been from American sites, so if it doesn't work that way here that's good to hear.

I think our society does tend to think of men the way you describe, but I agree also with the way you describe women are often portrayed - how we as a society can hold all these conflicting and destructive ideas about each gender beggars belief! Any man can tell you what it is like to feel "watched" when with young children, just as any woman could give an example of feeling threatened when out alone, for instance. It's one of those things I'm sure is hard for the other side to ever really appreciate.