Family law changes "a step in the right direction"
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The evaluation - by the Australian Institute of Family Studies - found the reforms had improved the identification of family violence and screening practices and led to modest, positive shifts in parenting arrangements when children's safety was a concern.
AIFS' Senior Research Fellow, Dr Rae Kaspiew said the evaluation was commissioned by the Commonwealth Attorney-General's Department and was based on data from 12,198 separated parents; a study examining the views of 653 family law professionals; and analysis of 1892 family law court files.
"The 2012 family violence amendments are a step in the right direction in a reform agenda intended to improve the system's response to family violence and child safety concerns in parenting matters," Dr Kaspiew said.
"The findings show that 1 in 5 parents had concerns for their safety or their children as a result of ongoing contact with the other parent.
"Most separated parents participating in the research made limited use of family law system services. Those who used formal services tended to be affected by complex issues, such as family violence, substance misuse and mental ill health concerns.
"Our evaluation, carried out two years into the reforms, indicates that the family violence amendments have influenced a shift towards more scrutiny of parenting arrangements.
"An analysis of family law court files showed fewer children were in shared care arrangements where there were allegations of family violence or child abuse, down from 19 per cent prior to the reforms to 11 per cent after 2012.
"The data based on parents' reports shows that there is a strong association between arrangements involving no time or daytime only between a parent and the child where there are safety concerns among separated parents generally.
"However there are some arrangements involving more time than this for children in these circumstances. It's important that parents seek help if they are worried about their safety or their children's safety.
"Of cases that went to court and were decided by a judge, orders for shared parental responsibility decreased from 51 per cent to 40 per cent following the reforms.
"The analysis of court files showed that orders for supervised time with a parent remained stable and were rare. Orders for no face-to-face contact also remained rare."
Dr Kaspiew said the research highlights reservations among family law system professionals about the capacity of the system to adequately deal with cases involving family violence or child abuse concerns.
"The research shows that further refinements in practice are required along with the development of more effective screening processes which still have some way to go. A greater number of cases now have Notices of Risk filed (an increase of almost 100%) and are consequently referred to child protection agencies. Professionals are worried about the burden on child protection agencies and delays for the children involved", she said.
"The need for improvement in practice was evident in the finding that after the reforms 3 in 10 separated parents interviewed said they had 'never been asked' about family violence or safety concerns when using dispute resolution, lawyers and courts to resolve parenting matters.
"While there has been greater emphasis on screening, particularly among lawyers and courts, this has not translated into more parents considering that their concerns about safety were appropriately dealt with."
Dr Kaspiew said the research further underlined the need for a systematic approach to screening for family violence and safety concerns, together with other complex issues, right across the system when parents engage with services, lawyers and courts.
"The findings suggest a need for a sharper focus on family violence, child abuse and other factors that may suggest risk, such as substance misuse or mental ill-health.
"The family law system needs better tools for assessing these issues, professionals need more training and there needs to be a way of prioritising the most urgent cases."
The evaluation findings are contained in three reports to be released soon:
- Responding To Family Violence - a study of more than 650 professionals dealing with family violence
- Experiences of Separated Parents Study - a study examining the experiences of 6,119 separated parents pre the reforms and 6,079 post implementation
- The Court Outcomes Project - an analysis of court administrative data from 1,892 case files.
The Evaluation of the 2012 Family Law Act amendments was funded and supported by the Australian Attorney General's Department.
Read Evaluation of the 2012 Family Violence Amendments: Synthesis Report, a report summarising the key findings of the three evaluation reports.
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