Experiences of Separated Parents Study

Evaluation of the 2012 Family Violence Amendments – October 2015

Executive summary

This report presents the findings of a core element of the Evaluation the 2012 Family Violence Amendments project - the Experiences of Separated Parents Study (ESPS). The research, commissioned and funded by the Australian Government's Attorney-General's Department (AGD), is based on a comparison of two nationally representative samples of the Survey of Recently Separated Parents (SRSP): the SRSP 2012 cohort of parents, who had separated between 1 July 2010 and 31 December 2011 (n = 6,119); and the SRSP 2014 cohort of parents, who had separated between 1 July 2012 and 31 December 2013 (n = 6,079). The family violence amendments introduced by the Family Law Legislation Amendment (Family Violence and Other Measures) Act 2011 came substantially into effect on 7 June 2012 and, as such, the SRSP 2012 survey represents parents' pre-reform experience of the family law system, and the SRSP 2014 represents parents' post-reform experience of the system.

The samples for the two surveys were derived from the Department of Human Services - Child Support (DHS-CS) database and substantially replicate the approach applied in the Longitudinal Study of Separated Families (LSSF). The LSSF research program involved a national, longitudinal study of parents who had at least one child under 19 years of age, who separated after the 2006 reforms to the Family Law Act 1975 (Cth) (FLA), and who were registered with the DHS-CS. Data collection for the LSSF took place in 2008 (Wave 1), 2009 (Wave 2) and 2012 (Wave 3). Together, these studies allow an understanding of the experiences of separated families over a substantial period of time.

The core focus of the SRSP 2012 and 2014 studies were on investigating parents' experiences of family violence and safety concerns (including children's exposure to family violence) and their experiences in disclosing family violence and safety concerns to family law system professionals. The research also explored parents' use of services, patterns in parenting arrangements, child support arrangements and parent and child wellbeing. The data collected informed conclusions about the effect of the 2012 family violence amendments and further developed the evidence base established in the LSSF research program.

Main findings

Family violence and safety concerns

The SRSP 2012 and 2014 data indicate that family violence is a common experience among separated parents, with a majority of participating parents in both cohorts reporting either physical or emotional abuse. Overall, the findings indicate similar profiles in the nature and frequency of family violence and safety concerns in the 2012 and 2014 samples.

Most parents reported experiencing a least one type of emotional abuse before/during or since separation. Overall, mothers reported experiencing emotional abuse in greater proportions than fathers, both in the before/during separation time period (2012: 68% cf. 58%; 2014: 67% cf. 57%) and in the post-separation period (2012: 63% cf. 56%; 2014: 61% cf. 55%). While there were no statistically significant differences between the 2012 and 2014 cohorts in relation to reports of experiencing emotional abuse before separation, a small but statistically significant decrease in the post-separation time period was reflected in the 2014 cohort's reports of the most commonly reported form of emotional abuse - insults with the intent to shame, belittle or humiliate.

Overall, mothers in both cohorts reported experiencing most of the nominated emotional abuse items more frequently than participating fathers. In relation to the intensity of the emotional abuse experienced, a substantial proportion of parents' reports (and predominantly mothers' reports) in each cohort recorded the highest level of reported intensity, which reflected very frequent experience of at least five emotional abuse items (2012: fathers: 8%, mothers 18%; 2014: fathers: 9%, mothers: 17%).

A substantial minority of parents in both the 2012 and 2014 cohorts reported experiencing physical hurt before/during separation (20%), with mothers reporting these experiences in greater proportions than fathers in both cohorts (2012: 24% cf. 16%; 2014: 23% cf. 16%). The reported incidence of physical hurt after separation declined to 5% for fathers and 6% for mothers in the post-separation period for both cohorts. Differences between the 2012 and 2014 cohorts emerged in relation to the effects of physical hurt, with higher post-separation affirmative responses from parents in the 2014 cohort with respect to the categories of "bruises and scratches", "fractured or broken bones", "gunshot, stab wounds or burns" and "other injury".

In the context of a generally stable pattern in reports of experiences of three categories of family violence measured in the SRSP (emotional abuse, physical hurt and attempts to force unwanted sexual activity), some areas of difference were evident between mothers and fathers. That is, a higher proportion of mothers than fathers reported experiencing each type of violence measured, while a higher proportion of fathers reported that they had not experienced any of the three violent and abusive behaviours before/during separation in either cohort (2012: 41%; 2014: 42%) compared with mothers' reported experiences (2012: 31%; 2014: 32%).

In view of the 2012 amendment to the definition of family violence in FLA s 4AB to encompass "violent, threatening or other behaviour by a person that coerces or controls a member of the person's family (the family member), or causes the family member to be fearful", new questions were included in the SRSP 2014 to capture parents' experiences in this regard. In the before/during separation time period, participating mothers were more likely than fathers to report that the behaviour of the other parent had caused them to feel fearful, coerced or controlled, although these reports were more evenly dispersed between parents in relation to feelings of coercion and control. In the post-separation period, mothers were again more likely to report that they felt fearful, while fathers reported in greater proportions than mothers that they "often" felt coerced or controlled in this time period.

Overall, feelings of fear, coercion and control were more commonly reported by parents who had experienced physical hurt and/or attempted unwanted sexual activity as opposed to emotional abuse. Differences of statistical significance were identified between mothers and fathers who reported feeling fearful, coerced or controlled and experiencing either form of family violence, with these differences emerging both before/during and since separation. Mothers' reports of their feelings of fear, coercion and control were also substantially higher than those made by fathers (see Appendix Figures B10 & B11).

The most commonly reported effects on day-to-day activities made by parents who had reported experiencing family violence in the 2012 and 2014 cohorts related to mental health, with statistically significant increases in the reported experiences of mental health issues emerging between the cohorts both before/during separation (2012: 52% cf. 2014: 66%) and since separation (2012: 52% cf. 2014: 60%). Mothers reported experiencing most of the nominated effects in greater proportions than fathers, and mothers also reported experiencing two or more effects in greater proportions than fathers.

Children witnessing family violence

Parents in both the 2012 and 2014 cohorts indicated that their children had witnessed reported emotional abuse or physical hurt in similar proportions, with a greater proportion of mothers than fathers reporting that their children witnessed the family violence before/during separation (mothers - 2012 and 2014: 64% cf. fathers - 2012: 53% and 2014: 54%), and since separation (mothers - 2012: 64% and 2014: 50% cf. fathers - 2012: 53% and 2014: 43%). The decrease in reported post-separation exposure to family violence may reflect greater awareness of the harm caused to children by such exposure, through their interaction with family law system professionals in the post-reform context. When considering parents' reports of the forms of family violence to which their children had been exposed, a higher proportion of mothers than fathers also reported that their children witnessed physical violence compared to emotional abuse alone, with these affirmative reports being particularly pronounced in the post-separation context.

Children's exposure to family violence that resulted in feeling fear, coercion or control was an issue that was also specifically examined in the 2014 survey, given that the definition of abuse in relation to a child in FLA s 4(1) was amended by the 2012 family violence reforms to include exposure to family violence (as defined in s 4AB) that causes serious psychological harm. The SRSP data indicate that the majority of children whose parents reported family violence causing feelings of fear, coercion or control had some exposure to this behaviour. Although the post-separation exposure was lower than in the before/during separation period, the data indicate that most children were nevertheless exposed to behaviour causing these effects, and that fathers' reports were higher than mothers' in this time period, reaching a level of statistical significance.

Safety concerns

Overall, most parents in both cohorts reported that they did not hold safety concerns for themselves or their child arising from ongoing contact with the other parent. However, around one in six parents (17%) in both cohorts did report holding these safety concerns for themselves and/or their children, with an increased proportion of parents in the 2014 cohort reporting that they tried to stop or limit contact because of these safety concerns (2012: 49% cf. 2014: 52%), though this increase did not reach a level of statistical significance.

Among parents who held safety concerns, significantly more mothers than fathers in both cohorts reported trying to stop or limit contact with the focus parent (mothers - 2012: 62% and 2014: 63% cf. fathers - 2012: 28% and 2014: 36%), though the proportion of fathers attempting to limit contact in 2014 increased significantly in 2014.

Care-time arrangements

Similar patterns in the distribution of care-time arrangements emerged in the SRSP 2012 and 2014, which were also similar to those evident in the Wave 3 of LSSF. Where the 2014 SRSP cohort differed, these differences were subtle but statistically significant and, as in the previous section, consistent with the objectives of the 2012 family violence reforms. Most children in both cohorts were reported to be living in majority mother care-time arrangements (where the child spends up to 34% of nights with the father) (2012: 50%; 2014: 46%). There was a statistically significant increase in parenting arrangements involving children spending 100% of nights with the mother and time with the father during the daytime only, from 25% in 2012 to 28% in 2014, and a decrease in majority mother care-time, from 50% in 2012 to 46% in 2014.

Analyses that focused specifically on the patterns evident among parents with family violence and safety concerns indicated that there was a statistically significant increase in 2014 of care-time arrangements involving children of such parents spending 100% of nights with the mother and no nights with the father. Overall, the change emerging in the 2014 data reflected a shift for such children to have daytime contact only rather than toward arrangements involving no time at all with the father. In circumstances where safety concerns were reported, the findings indicate that 23% of children were in arrangements involving daytime contact only with the father in 2014, compared with 19% in 2012. Decreases in reports of some shared care arrangements (where the child spends 53-65% of their time with the mother and 35-47% of their time with the father) and equal time arrangements were also identified in relation to parents reporting safety concerns, though these were not statistically significant decreases.

Generally, mothers reported safety concerns in greater proportions than fathers in the context of care-time arrangements ranging from 100% mother care time through to equal time, whereas fathers reported safety concerns in greater proportions than mothers where care-time arrangements ranged from 100% father care time through to shared care arrangements where the father was the primary carer. In relation to the varying forms of family violence, the data also show that experiences of physical violence were reported in circumstances where either parent had majority or 100% care time of the focus child, while emotional abuse alone or no violence showed no discernable pattern among the different care-time arrangements.

Experiences with the family law system: Patterns in service use

The 2012 family violence amendments were not intended to directly influence parents' use of family law system services and, overall, the findings on service use suggest minimal change between the 2012 and 2014 cohorts in this regard. Where change is evident, it is in a direction consistent with the intention of the 2012 family violence amendments.

The overall pattern of service use among the 2012 and 2014 cohorts indicated a greater tendency for the 2014 cohort to make no use of services or supports, and where services were used, the 2014 cohort reported less use of counselling, relationships and family dispute resolution (FDR) services, lawyers, and legal services at the time of separation. This change in patterns of service use reflect the lower use of services reported by parents not affected by family violence, because the patterns in service use by parents affected by physical hurt or emotional abuse remained largely stable between the two cohorts. The only statistically significant change in service use patterns between the two cohorts among parents affected by physical violence since separation was a decrease in the use of counselling/mediation/FDR services by parents who had experienced physical hurt, with 71% of these parents using one of these services in 2014, compared to 77% in 2012.

Data relating to the parents' reported progress in sorting out their parenting arrangements indicate that compared to the 2012 cohort, the 2014 cohort was less likely (to a statistically significant extent) to have sorted out their parenting arrangements (2012: 74% cf. 2014: 71%). In particular, the reforms have not been associated with parenting arrangements having shorter resolution time frames for some parents affected by family violence. While parents in both cohorts affected by physical hurt (and to a lesser extent emotional abuse) were more likely than parents not affected by these issues to report that their parenting arrangements had not been sorted out, majorities of parents in each category in each cohort (save for fathers in the 2014 cohort reporting physical violence since separation) indicated that their parenting arrangements had been sorted out.

Overall, parents' reports of the pathways that they used to sort out their parenting arrangements were similar among the SRSP cohorts, with most parents (69% in 2012 and 2014) reporting "discussions" as their main pathway. Approximately 10% of the parents reported using counselling/mediation/FDR, with lawyers used by 6-7% of participating parents and courts by 3%. Of those using FDR, a greater proportion of parents in the 2014 cohort (41%) reported reaching an agreement when compared to parents in the 2012 cohort (36%), with this difference reaching a level of statistical significance. The highest rates of agreement via FDR in both cohorts were parents who reported no violence before/during separation (2012: 44%; 2014: 53%). Agreement rates were marginally higher for parents in the 2014 cohort where emotional abuse before/during separation was reported (2012: 36% cf. 2014: 39%). Where physical violence before/during separation had been reported, the agreement rates were substantially higher for parents in the 2014 cohort (38%) than in 2012 (30%), to a statistically significant extent. While patterns remained relatively stable in relation to the use of legal services and courts to reach agreement, where parents used the court system, consistent with the objectives of the 2012 family violence amendments, parents (and mothers in particular) who had experienced physical violence before/during separation in the 2014 cohort were more likely than parents in the 2012 cohort to bring safety issues to court hearings, with this increase reaching a level of statistical significance (2012: 44% cf. 2014: 54%).

Disclosure of family violence and safety concerns

The 2012 family violence amendments included strategies aimed at supporting better identification of family violence and safety concerns by family law system professionals and encouraging parents to disclose these issues. Accordingly, parents' experiences of being asked about (and of disclosing) family violence and child safety concerns were an important focus in the SRSP 2012 and 2014 surveys.

Overall, examination of the 2012 and 2014 SRSP data relating to professionals asking about and parents disclosing family violence and safety concerns suggests subtle positive improvement, consistent with the intention of the 2012 family violence reforms.

Statistically significant increases were evident in the proportions of parents who reported being asked about family violence and safety concerns when using a formal pathway as the main means of resolving their parenting arrangements. Increases were evident among parents who used the three formal pathways (FDR/mediation, lawyers and courts), but particularly evident for those using lawyers and courts, with increases of approximately 10 percentage points in the proportions who reported being asked about family violence and safety concerns. Notably, however, close to 30% of parents in the 2014 cohort reported having never been asked about either of these issues in each formal pathway, indicating that the implementation of consistent screening approaches has some way to go.

In addition to the increases in parents' reporting that they were asked about family violence and safety concerns, the findings also suggest small increases in the proportion of parents who disclosed concerns. A small but statistically significant increase in the proportion of parents who reported experiencing family violence before/during or after separation to one of a range of possible services and organisations (not confined to the family law system) was evident (2012: 53% cf. 2014: 56%), with mothers in 2014 being more likely to report violence than fathers (63% cf. 49%). Physical hurt was more likely to be reported in 2014 than emotional abuse, and the most common service reported to was police (25%). Of note, just over 40% parents did not report family violence to any service in 2014.

Parents self-selected into non-disclosure for a varied range of reasons, including that the family violence or safety concerns were not serious enough to report (2012: 43%; 2014: 38%) or that they could deal with the issue themselves. These findings mean that for a substantial number of people, a history of family violence has not been documented or corroborated, which may or may not have significant implications, given that non-disclosure does not necessarily equate to family violence at the lower end of the spectrum of severity.

More specifically, the proportion of parents who reported disclosing family violence or safety concerns to family law services increased by about 3 percentage points between 2012 and 2014, with the change reaching a level of statistical significance. The findings on the proportions of parents who reported disclosing family violence or safety concerns in the context of making parenting arrangements when using particular pathways demonstrates that increasing increments of parents reported disclosing each type of concern across each pathway in both 2012 and 2014, although reports of disclosure were lowest for parents who used FDR and highest for parents who used courts. Notably, where participating parents reported in the survey either having current safety concerns or having experienced family violence, safety concerns were more likely to be disclosed than family violence.

Mixed findings emerged from the examination of the consequences of disclosure of concerns when assessed against the objectives of the 2012 family violence reforms. Reports of experiences with different pathways varied among participating mothers and fathers, but there were small shifts, and these were mostly evident in a negative direction for parents with family violence and safety concerns for both genders, using all formal pathways (FDR, lawyers, courts). The exception to this was in relation to lawyers and family violence: positive responses among mothers were stable and increased among fathers. Other aspects of the examination of the consequences of disclosing family violence or safety concerns based on parents' reports of what occurred indicate that there were limited short-term effects, though there was some evidence of an increase in referrals to other services and marginally greater use of personal protection orders (relating to safety concerns only) and safety planning.

Parents' views on the efficacy of the family law system

Overall, the views reported by parents participating in each cohort regarding the efficacy of the family law system suggest some positive changes in directions consistent with the intention of the 2012 family violence amendments.

From the perspective of gender, positive views in most areas on measures of efficacy increased incrementally among both mothers and fathers, but among mothers to a greater extent than fathers. Fathers in both cohorts were less satisfied with the family law system than mothers, but this disparity had not widened.

In relation to the experiences of parents reporting family violence, the data suggest a marginal improvement in the views of parents affected by family violence, although this was true to a greater or lesser extent according to the measure and whether the experience involved was physical hurt or emotional abuse. Differences among these groups were evident in different areas, suggesting uneven effects of the reforms, consistent with findings reported in relation to service use. Less positive findings emerged in relation to the family law system protecting children's safety, with agreement among parents with safety concerns for themselves and/or their child in some areas changing little if at all, and with negative shifts for some sub-groups. These findings suggest a particularly mixed set of views and experiences among parents.

Mixed and uneven experiences were also reflected in data relating to nominated pathways. In relation to pathways involving lawyers and courts, there were no clear or consistent statistically significant findings. There was some evidence that the reforms supported the resolution of parenting matters in agreement-based pathways, specifically "discussions" and mediation/FDR.

Finally, in relation to reported awareness of the 2012 family violence amendments, the data indicate a marginal increase among parents in the 2014 cohort, with fathers affected by physical violence and mothers affected by physical violence and/or emotional abuse being more likely to have specific knowledge of the changes in 2014 compared with 2012. Nevertheless, the vast majority of parents (95%) were unaware of the 2012 family violence amendments.

Summary

The findings of this report are based on data from two separate samples, each of over 6,000 separated parents, who had separated either before or after the 2012 family violence amendments. Overall, the findings described in this report suggest some positive shifts in a direction consistent with the intention of the reforms in some areas, and limited or mixed effects in other areas. Consistent with the intention of the reforms, there is evidence of increased emphasis on identifying family violence and child safety concerns across the system, but particularly among lawyers and courts. More parents who used formal services reported being asked about these issues, and increases in parents reporting disclosing were also evident, particularly in relation to safety concerns. There is also evidence that parents with safety concerns were more likely to seek support from family law system services to stop or limit contact than they were before the reforms.

The evidence on parents' experiences of professionals' responses to disclosures of family violence and safety concerns suggest the reforms have had limited effects in this area, particularly for parents who reported using lawyers and courts as their main pathway for parenting arrangements. In contrast, the reforms appear to have supported the resolution of parenting arrangements through agreement-based pathways ("discussions" and FDR/mediation) for parents who had and had not been affected by family violence. The aspect of the reforms likely to be linked to these outcomes are the clarification of advisors' obligations in s 60D, which requires lawyers, FDR practitioners and other professionals to inform parents that the most important issue in making parenting arrangements is their children's best interests. This obligation, together with an obligation to inform parents that where there is a conflict between protecting children from harm and maintaining their relationship with each parent after separation, protection should be given greater weight, were added to the existing obligation to inform parents that they may consider equal or substantial and significant time arrangements.

There was some evidence of an increased emphasis on measures designed to support safety. There was also a subtle shift towards making more arrangements for children to live with their mothers and have daytime-only contact with their fathers where there had been family violence, with a corresponding decrease in arrangements involving overnight stays in these circumstances. Where parents relied on lawyers and courts for making parenting arrangements against a background of family violence or safety concerns, they were, on average, just as likely to indicate they did not consider the professionals' responses to their concerns were adequate, especially in relation to safety concerns, after the reforms.