Responding to family violence

A survey of family law practices and experiences
Evaluation of the 2012 Family Violence Amendments – October 2015

1. Introduction

This report sets out the findings of Responding to Family Violence: A Survey of Family Law Practices and Experiences (Survey of Practices). This study is the first of a three-part research program, the Evaluation of the 2012 Family Violence Amendments, which examines the effects of amendments to the Family Law Act 1975 (Cth) (FLA) that came into operation in June 2012. The Family Law Legislation Amendment (Family Violence and Other Measures) Act 2011 (Cth) made a series of changes intended to improve the way in which concerns about family violence and child safety are dealt with in parenting matters across the family law system. The Evaluation of the 2012 Family Violence Amendments is funded by the Attorney-General's Department (AGD).

The Survey of Practices has two elements:

  • an online survey examining the views and experiences of professionals working across the family law system (including in the Family Court of Australia (FCoA), the Family Court of Western Australia (FCoWA) and the Federal Circuit Court (FCC)) some 18 months after the family violence reforms came into effect on 7 June 2012; and
  • telephone interviews examining the experiences of parents who used family law system services in the 12 months or so prior to August 2014.

The two further components of the Evaluation of the 2012 Family Violence Amendments focus on the experiences of families (the Surveys of Recently Separated Parents [SRSP]) and the effects of the family violence reforms on decisions and orders in family law court proceedings, whether determined by agreement or judicial decision (the Court Outcomes project).

The SRSP 2014 is based on a methodology that compares the pre- and post-reform experiences of two comparable samples of separated parents. The pre-reform survey data collection examined the experiences of parents who had separated between 31 July 2010 and 31 December 2011 (SRSP 2012). As such, their experiences reflect the way in which the system operated in the two years or so prior to the 2012 family violence reforms becoming effective. The post-reform survey data collection took place from 7 August to 30 September 2014 and involved a sample of parents whose separations took place between 1 July 2012 and 31 December 2013 (SRSP 2014). Their experiences reflect the operation of the family law system some 12 to 18 months after the 2012 family violence reforms became effective.

The parent data reported in this Responding to Family Violence report are derived from the SRSP 2014. The Experiences With Children survey module of SRSP 2014, which collected detailed information about parents' experiences with family law services, was included in this study in order to triangulate the data obtained from professionals through the online survey. This module was applied to a sub-sample of 3,428 SRSP 2014 parents, and an interim dataset based on this sub-sample was generated and analysed for inclusion in this report (n = 2,473). A further report based on analysis comparing the findings of the complete SRSP 2014 dataset with the findings of the SRSP 2012 will be provided to AGD at the end of May 2015.

The third component of the Evaluation of the 2012 Family Violence Amendments is the Court Outcomes project, which examines the operation of the family violence reforms on the basis of an analysis of published judgments, the patterns evident in court orders concerning parental responsibility and parenting time, and administrative data on court filings. The Court Outcomes project report is due to be provided to AGD on 30 June 2015.

This report on the findings of the Survey of Practices provides insight into the effects of the reforms as one part of the overall evaluation strategy. The data therefore support findings about the perceptions and practices of professionals across the system, together with parents' experiences in using the system. Some aspects of the conclusions reached on the basis of these findings may be strengthened, revised or weakened in light of the findings generated in the other two elements of the Evaluation of the 2012 Family Violence Amendments research program.

1.1 Background

1.1.1 Policy setting

The 2012 family violence reforms were intended to improve the family law system's response to family violence in light of the findings or recommendations of three reports (Parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia. House of Representatives, 2011), namely the Evaluation of the 2006 Family Law Reforms (Kaspiew et al., 2009), the Family Courts Violence Review (Chisholm, 2009) and Improving Responses to Family Violence in the Family Law System (Family Law Council, 2009). The 2012 family violence reforms are also consistent with wider policy agendas, supported by Commonwealth, state and territory governments, in relation to family violence and child abuse. In the context of family violence, the National Plan to Reduce Violence Against Women and their Children (Council of Australian Governments [COAG], 2009) guides the actions of governments at all levels to reduce the occurrence of and improve responses to family violence. In relation to child protection, the National Framework for Protecting Australia's Children (COAG, 2009) articulates a national agenda to reduce the prevalence of, and support better responses to, child abuse and neglect.

A range of intersecting strategies and frameworks outside of the federal family law system are also relevant to the way in which issues of family violence and child abuse are dealt with from a systemic perspective and may influence the trajectories of separated families for whom these issues are relevant. For example, in recent years family violence reforms in Victoria have resulted in more reports about family violence to police, substantially more family violence protection orders being issued and more children being named as protected persons on these orders (Sentencing Advisory Council, 2013). Another example in relation to child abuse and neglect, the Keep Them Safe strategy in NSW, supports a greater focus on early intervention and at the same time has increased the mandatory reporting threshold from a child being seen as being "at risk of harm" to being "at risk of significant harm" (KTS Evaluation Steering Committee, 2013).

Each of these strategies, and others introduced in these spheres at state and territory level, may have changed the dynamics surrounding the experiences of families affected by family violence and child abuse. Potentially, this could also change the dynamics surrounding the engagement, potential engagement or non-engagement of such families with the family law system, in parallel with the 2012 family violence reforms being implemented. In Victoria, there is more likelihood that a victim of family violence may have a family violence protection order and also to have a child named on that order (Sentencing Advisory Council, 2013). From a family law perspective, this may mean that issues relating to family violence have been documented and addressed, and may influence decisions about parenting arrangements. In NSW, there is less likelihood that a notification about a child may have been made to the prescribed child welfare authority (KTS Evaluation Steering Committee, 2013). This may also have changed the dynamics from a family law perspective, meaning a lower chance of engagement with the prescribed child welfare authority among children at risk. Therefore, while the focus of this research is on the federal family law system, it is important to note that developments in intersecting policy settings and agencies may also be relevant to the subject matter considered in this research program.

1.1.2 Empirical evidence

The Evaluation of the 2006 Family Law Reforms report (Kaspiew et al., 2009) highlighted the extent to which family violence1 and safety concerns2 are prevalent among separated families, and a need for the family law system to find more effective ways of dealing with these issues. This was evidenced in several different ways in the Evaluation of the 2006 Family Law Reforms, including in the findings of Wave 1 of the Longitudinal Study of Separated Families (LSSF; Kaspiew et al., 2009, pp. 232, 364). The report showed that a history of family violence is more common than not among separated parents and that most parents who reported experiencing physical hurt at the hands of their former partner also reported that the children had witnessed this (p. 26). Subsequently, another survey using a comparable methodology and based on a different annual cohort of separated parents (SRSP 2012; De Maio, Kaspiew, Smart, Dunstan, & Moore, 2013) found similar patterns in the reported prevalence of family violence and ongoing safety concerns, suggesting that the patterns evident among the two survey cohorts (LSSF and SRSP 2012) may be a fairly consistent feature for each annual cohort of separated parents.3

The findings relating to the experience of family violence and safety concerns in LSSF and SRSP 2012 include the following:

  • 20% of SRSP 2012 and 21% of LSSF Wave 3 parents reported experiencing physical hurt before/during separation;
  • 44% of SRSP 2012 and 38% of LSSF Wave 3 parents reported experiencing emotional abuse before/during separation (De Maio et al., 2013, Table 2.4);
  • the parent being interviewed reported safety concerns for themselves and/or their child as a result of ongoing contact with the other parent in 17% of SRSP 2012 cases and 20% of LSSF Wave 1 cases (Kaspiew et al., 2009, p. 28); and
  • 72% of mothers and 63% of fathers in LSSF Wave 1 (Kaspiew et al., 2009, p. 26) and 72% of mothers and 62% of fathers in SRSP 2012 (De Maio et al., 2013, Figure 3.90) reported that their child had witnessed physical hurt inflicted before or during separation.

Findings from Wave 3 of the LSSF have demonstrated that family violence is sustained for five years after separation for a sizeable minority of separated parents. Only one-quarter of the parents in the continuing LSSF sample reported not experiencing physical or emotional abuse before, during or after separation. More commonly, physical or emotional abuse was reported in at least one of these time frames in at least one wave, though physical hurt was much less likely to be reported in the post-separation period. A quarter of parents reported experiencing emotional and/or physical hurt in all three survey waves. One in five reported experiencing physical and/or emotional abuse in Waves 1 and 2 of the survey (Qu, Weston, Moloney, Kaspiew, & Dunstan, 2014, Table 3.6).

LSSF has also shown that concerns for the safety of the parent and/or children as a result of ongoing contact with the other parent are pertinent for between 15% and 18% of parents in each survey wave (Qu et al., 2014, Table 3.7) and were sustained across the three survey waves for about 5% of separated parents (Qu et al., 2014, Table 3.8).

LSSF Wave 3 data have also demonstrated that a group of "high complexity" parents who had reported reaching agreement over parenting arrangements in Wave 1 through family dispute resolution (FDR) were much more likely to report instability in parenting arrangements in the two further survey waves than parents who were in a "moderately" complex group or had no indicators of complexity. The "high complexity" group was also substantially more likely to report continued experiences with family violence and concerns over safety in the five-year period. In this analysis, the complexity classifications are based on the presence of one or more of these three indicators: family violence before or during separation, safety concerns, and inter-parental relationships described as "full of conflict" or "fearful". The high complexity group had two of these indicators, the moderate complexity group had one, and the comparison group none of these indicators (Qu et al., 2014, pp. 61-62).

The 2012 family violence reforms were intended to improve the family law system's ability to provide effective assistance for families with these kinds of issues (Parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia, House of Representatives, 2011). They were intended to support disclosure of concerns about family violence and safety by parents and to encourage responses by professionals that prioritise safety. Central elements were the widening of the definition of "family violence" and recognition of the exposure of children to family violence as a form of child abuse where it results in the child sustaining psychological harm. In addition to the empirical evidence provided by the Evaluation of the 2006 Family Law Reforms and other reports (Bagshaw et al., 2010; Cashmore et al., 2010; McIntosh, Smyth, Kelaher, Wells, & Long, 2010), as noted earlier, the reforms were shaped by other pieces of analysis: the Family Courts Violence Review by Professor Richard Chisholm (2009), the Family Law Council (2009) report, Improving Responses to Family Violence in the Family Law System: An Advice on the Intersection of Family Violence and Family Law Issues, and the Australian and NSW Law Reform Commissions' (2010) report, Family Violence: A National Legal Response.

1.1.3 The 2012 family violence reforms and other initiatives

The amendments introduced a considerable number of changes to the Family Law Act 1975 (Cth) (FLA) while leaving intact provisions that support shared parenting after separation. In seeking to achieve the objective of placing greater emphasis on protection from harm in making post-separation parenting arrangements, the main elements of the Act:

  • introducing wider definitions of "family violence" and "abuse" (s 4AB and s 4(1));
  • clarifying that in determining the best interests of the child, greater weight is to be given to the protection of children from harm where this conflicts with the benefit to the child of having a meaningful relationship with each parent after separation (s 60CC(2A));
  • strengthening the emphasis placed on protecting children from harm by imposing obligations on advisers4 to inform parents/parties that post-separation decision making about parenting should reflect this priority and that they should regard the best interests of the child as the paramount consideration (s 60D);
  • imposing a legislative obligation on an "interested person" (including parties to proceedings and Independent Children's Lawyers [ICLs]) to file a Form 4 Notice/Notice of Risk5 when making an allegation of family violence or risk of family violence (s 67ZBA);
  • when making an allegation that a child has been abused or is at risk of being abused, extending the obligation to file a Form 4 Notice/Notice of Risk to "interested persons" (including ICLs) as well as parties to proceedings (s 67Z);
  • imposing obligations on parties to proceedings to inform the courts about whether the child in the matter or another child in the family has been the subject of the attention of prescribed child welfare authorities (s 60CI);
  • imposing a duty on the court to actively enquire about whether the party considers that the child has been, or is at risk of being, subjected to, or exposed to family violence, child abuse or neglect (s 69ZQ(1)(aa)(i)), and about whether the party considers that he or she, or another party to the proceedings, has been, or is at risk of being, subjected to family violence (s 69ZQ(1)(aa)(ii));
  • setting out the court's obligation to take prompt action in relation to a Form 4 Notice/Notice of Risk filed in relation to allegations of child abuse or family violence (s 67ZBB);
  • amending the additional best interests consideration relating to family violence orders (s 60CC(3)(k)); and
  • amending and repealing provisions that might have discouraged disclosure of concerns about child abuse and family violence.

In pursuing the aim of achieving safer post-separation parenting arrangements, the family violence reforms set out to influence the behaviour of separated parents and the practices of professionals across the family law system, including those working in family relationship counselling services and Family Relationship Centres (FRCs), lawyers and courts. Broadly, they are intended to support parents to disclose concerns about family violence and child safety, to encourage professionals to elicit such concerns and to ensure that outcomes prioritise a child's need to be protected from harm when this principle is in conflict with their right to maintain a meaningful relationship with each parent after separation.

Two further initiatives have also been implemented in recent years to improve practices in relation to family violence in the family law system. The first of these was the roll-out of a national family violence training package, AVERT Family Violence Collaborative Responses in the Family Law System (AGD, 2010). This is a free package intended for use across the family law system to improve understanding of family violence. The second is the DOORS Detection of Overall Risk Screen (McIntosh & Ralfs, 2012), which is a screening tool for identifying and assessing risk from family violence, poor mental health, substance addiction and other problematic issues, again for use across the family law system. This package includes a screening questionnaire together with further materials that can be used to support a more in-depth assessment of a family's circumstances if required.6

1.2 Methodology

1.2.1 Aim and research questions

The aim of the Survey of Practices was to examine how the practices of professionals across the system had changed in response to the 2012 family violence reforms, in addition to examining professionals' attitudes to key aspects of the family law system. An online survey was available for completion between December 2013 and late February 2014, with a different version being made available for each of the different professional groups. Each professional group was asked questions pertaining to their general views on core issues, their own practices and their views of and experiences with the practices of other professionals. In order to examine professional practices from the perspective of parents, a module dealing in some detail with service use was included in the first phases of data collection for the SRSP 2014. The discussion in this report is based on the Survey of Practices data and the Experiences With Services module in the SRSP 2014.

In addition, some critical aspects of the reforms are assessed by comparing responses to questions that were asked in the Survey of Practices and the surveys of professionals (the Family Lawyers Survey 2006, 2008 [FLS 2006, 2008] and the Online Survey of FRS Staff (FRSP Services) 2009) that were conducted as part of the Institute's Evaluation of the 2006 Family Law Reforms. A number of identical or near-identical questions dealing with key issues were asked in these previous surveys and the Survey of Practices. Sample sizes and practitioner profiles are similar in the samples for the Family Lawyers Survey 2008 and the lawyer sample for the Survey of Practices (see further 1.2.3), supporting the comparison of response patterns and providing insight into the differences in attitudes and practices between 2008-09 and 2013-14.

The research questions for the Evaluation of the 2012 Family Violence Amendments reflect the aims of the amendments. They encompass a series of broad-level research questions, together with a series of more specific research questions shaping each of the separate studies contributing to the evaluation.

The broad-level research questions are:

1. To what extent have patterns in arrangements for post-separation parenting changed since the introduction of the family violence amendments, and to what extent is this consistent with the intent of the reforms?

2. Are more parents disclosing concerns about family violence and child safety to family law system professionals?

3. Are there any changes in the patterns of service use following the family violence amendments?

4. What is the size and nature of any changes in the following areas and to what extent are any such changes consistent with the intent of the reforms:

  • practices among the following groups of professionals:
    • advisors (within the meaning of FLA s 63DA(5) [legal practitioners, family counsellors, family dispute resolution practitioners and family consultants]);
    • professionals associated with courts, including judges;
  • court-endorsed outcomes (consent orders) and court-ordered outcomes (judicially determined orders); and
  • court-based practices, as reflected in the manner in which practitioners and judges fulfil their obligations under the Family Law Act 1975 (Cth)?

5. Does the evidence suggest that the legislative changes have influenced the patterns apparent in questions 1-4 above?

6. Have the family violence amendments had any unintended consequences, positive or negative?

In the Survey of Practices, different versions of the survey were available to each of the professional groups to reflect their different practice contexts. In addition to some common questions in each survey, the following emphases were adopted for the different professional groups:

  • legal practitioners: questions concerning the extent to which lawyers have changed the advice they give to clients as a result of the family violence amendments; changes to the nature of the advice given to parents; lawyers' perceptions of the effects the amendments have had on parents' decisions about parenting arrangements; services and system pathways and lawyers perceptions about changes to other aspects of practice (for example, the effects of the wider definition of family violence and the dynamics around both disclosure of safety concerns and negotiation of parenting agreements);
  • judicial officers and registrars: questions about issues such as the workability of the legislation; the effects of the family violence reforms on parties' litigation strategies and the nature of factual issues and evidence adduced in cases that proceed to court; perspectives on changes in court practice (for example, around s 60K notices (see now s67Z, s67ZBA and s67ZBB) and the provisions imposing obligations on the court to enquire about family violence; and
  • non-legal professionals (including FDR practitioners, staff in FRCs and other family and post-separation support services): questions concerning the extent to which professionals have changed the advice they give to clients as a result of the family violence reforms; changes to the nature of the advice given to parents; perceptions of the effects the amendments have had on parents' decisions about parenting arrangements; services and system pathways and perceptions about changes to other aspects of practice (for example, the effects of the wider definition of family violence and the dynamics around the disclosure of both family violence and safety concerns).

1.2.2 Recruitment and survey content

Survey of Practices 2014

Invitations to participate in the survey were circulated via various organisations, including the FCoA, the FCC, the FCoWA, the Family Law Section of the Law Council of Australia, National Legal Aid, state and territory law societies and bar associations, state and territory Women's Legal Services, National Association of Community Legal Centres, Family Relationship Services Australia, and the Australian Psychological Society's Family Law and Psychology Interest Group. These invitations asked those who were interested in participating in the study to follow a link to the online survey. The surveys were available for completion from 9 December 2013 for lawyers and non-legal professionals, and 18 December 2013 for judicial officers and registrars, with all three surveys closing on 28 February 2014.

In addition to demographic and professional background questions, each survey used structured questions to collect quantitative data about the effects of the 2012 family violence reforms. Survey questions covered each professional group's views on various aspects of the family violence reforms and their experiences. As noted in the previous section, these questions included questions about changes to practices and outcomes as a result of these reforms - together with self-assessments of their current practice approaches. 
Each professional group was also provided with the opportunity to answer open-ended questions regarding various issues, including their observations of changes in the ways in which family law professionals have identified, assessed and responded to family violence issues since the family violence reforms, and their views of the range of consequences of the family violence reforms - positive, negative and unintended consequences of the family violence reforms. These qualitative data complemented the insights generated through the structured survey questions. The draft survey instruments were developed by members of the Evaluation Research Team at AIFS. The surveys were programmed in LimeSurvey, and were piloted with the assistance of 17 AIFS researchers (including 15 researchers outside of the Survey of Practices Team) and three external pilot testers (a practising lawyer, a former judicial officer and a practising family consultant). AGD also reviewed each survey instrument. Following this pilot and review process, the survey instruments were updated to incorporate the feedback provided.

Experiences With Services module (SRSP 2014)

The parent component of the Survey of Practices study was carried out as a nested survey within the SRSP 2014, a national study of over 6,000 parents of children aged under 18 years who (a) separated between 1 July 2010 and 31 December 2012; (b) registered with the Department of Human Services - Child Support (DHS-CS) during 2013; and (c) were still separated from the other parent at the time of interviewing.

The sample for the SRSP 2014 was drawn from the DHS-CS database, which has been previously identified as the most comprehensive source for a representative sample of recently separated parents in Australia (e.g., De Maio et al., 2013; Kaspiew et al., 2009; Qu et al., 2014).

Data collection was undertaken between 7 August and 30 September 2014, comprising a 35-minute computer-assisted-telephone-interview (CATI). Sample stratification was carried out by the month of registration within the extraction period, by state/territory of the child support payer's residence, and within month and state/territory by gender of payer. A total of 28,513 records were selected to be contacted for inclusion in the SRSP 2014.

The Survey of Practices was included as the Experiences With Services module asked of all parents interviewed in the first half of the fieldwork period for SRSP 2014, which resulted in a total of 3,428 completed interviews. The distribution by state and gender of the responding sample appears in Table 1.1.

Table 1.1: Distribution of responding sample, by state/territory and gender, Experiences With Services module (SRSP 2014)
State Fathers (%) Mothers (%) All parents (%)
Note: Percentages may not total exactly 100.0% due to rounding.
NSW 27.1 26.0 26.5
Vic. 21.1 23.1 22.2
QLD 25.1 26.0 25.6
SA 10.1 10.8 10.4
WA 9.4 7.7 8.5
Tas. 3.3 2.4 2.8
NT 1.9 2.4 2.2
ACT 2.1 1.6 1.8
Total (n) 1,626 1,802 3,428

The data presented in this report are unweighted and no direct tests of statistical significance were conducted, therefore any differences in the reported data should be interpreted with these two factors in mind.

1.2.3 Sample profiles

Survey of Practices 2014

At the completion of the data collection period, the following responses had been received:

  • Survey 1: Judicial officers and registrars - A total of 42 responses were received from across all Australian states and territories. Of these, 33 responses were submitted as complete and an additional four contained enough data to be included in the analyses, giving a total of 37 responses analysed for judicial officers and registrars. The remaining five responses were not included in the analyses as they were empty (i.e., the survey was initiated, but no responses were entered). The useable responses were received from judicial officers and registrars from the FCC (n = 15), the FCoA (n = 13), and the FCoWA (n = 9).
  • Survey 2: Lawyers - A total of 442 responses were received from across all Australian states and territories. There were 242 responses submitted as complete and a further 74 responses contained enough data to be included in the analyses. The responses from six lawyers who had inadvertently completed the survey for non-legal professionals were added to the lawyers survey data, for items that were identical across the two surveys. Therefore, 322 responses were included in the data analysis for the survey of lawyers. The remaining 126 responses were excluded from the survey as 58 of these did not contain sufficient data to be included in the analyses and 68 did not contain any responses. The useable responses were received from 273 solicitors, 38 barristers, and 11 respondents who did not submit details of their profession. The lawyers included private practitioners (n = 208), lawyers practising at community legal centres (n = 50), lawyers employed by legal aid commissions (n = 34), and other legal services and centres and government (n = 11), with two respondents selecting the answer option "cannot say", and a further 17 not responding to this question.
  • Survey 3: Non-legal professionals - A total of 570 responses were received from across all Australian states and territories. Of these, 222 surveys were submitted as complete, with an additional 72 responses containing sufficient data to be included in the analyses, giving a total of 294 responses analysed for the non-legal professionals survey. There were 276 responses excluded from the non-legal professionals survey analysis - 111 were empty responses, 90 responses did not contain sufficient data to be included in the analyses, 56 responses were completed by someone who stated that they were not a non-legal professional (e.g., a parent, a university student), 10 responses contained inconsistent answers in the demographic section, thus calling into question the accuracy of their responses, six responses were completed by lawyers (these were added to the lawyers survey analysis, as detailed above), two responses were duplicate responses, and one response was based on personal experience of family law only, and not on experience in a professional capacity. Respondents included mediators/FDR practitioners (n = 78), counsellors (n = 40), family consultants (n = 33), domestic violence (DV)/family violence (FV) professionals (n = 24), post-separation services managers (n = 22), service-level coordinators and service managers (n = 22), other practitioners (n = 12), psychiatrists and psychologists (n = 9), intake workers and assessment workers (n = 9), single expert witnesses (n = 7), educators (n = 7), Children's Contact Service professionals (n = 5), community development workers (n = 4), and other professionals such as Men and Family Relationships professionals, managers, and case managers (n = 15), with seven respondents not answering to this question.

It is important to note that while a respondent may have submitted a survey as "complete", this does not necessarily mean that they responded to all questions, as no questions were compulsory. Accordingly, the total number of responses to each question varies. In relation to some questions, primarily those requiring a level of direct experience in a particular area - for example, whether the reforms had resulted in fewer shared care outcomes where there had been high conflict - substantial minorities of participants nominated "cannot say" or "not applicable" responses. Such response patterns suggest that where participants were unable to formulate an experience-based response, those options were chosen rather than responses that would require participants to guess or hypothesise. The survey questions and response options were designed to accommodate this, in recognition of the varied nature of professionals involved in the survey.

Family Lawyers Survey 2008

Data from the FLS 2008 were compared with responses for identical or equivalent questions asked of the sample of lawyers participating in the Survey of Practices. The FLS 2008 received responses from 319 family lawyers, of whom 289 were solicitors and 30 were barristers. The majority of these lawyers were working in private practice (n = 264), with 36 lawyers working in a legal aid commission, 16 lawyers working in a community legal aid centre, and 3 lawyers stating that they "cannot say".

Evaluation of the 2006 Family Law Reforms 2009

Data from the surveys of Family Relationship Services Program (FRSP) staff and Family Relationship Advice Line (FRAL) staff, which comprised part of the Evaluation of the 2006 Family Law Reforms (Kaspiew et al., 2009), were compared with responses to identical or equivalent questions asked of the sample of non-legal professionals from the Survey of Practices. There were 854 responses to the FRSP and FRAL surveys. Respondents included counsellors (n = 221), mediators/FDR practitioners (n = 185), intake/assessment workers (n = 56), educators (n = 36), other administration staff (including data entry; n = 29), reception staff (n = 26), other practitioners (n = 19), and community development workers (n = 18), with 183 respondents selecting "other" when asked what their primary role/occupation is in the organisation.

Experiences With Services module (SRSP 2014)

The pattern of service use of this purposive sample of parents is not representative of service use patterns among separated parents generally, due to the focus of the Survey of Practices and the sampling strategy applied to meet its aims.

Of all the services each parent accessed, the survey instrument was programmed to randomly select one service about which parents were to be interviewed. Table 1.2 shows the distribution of the family law services in the Experiences With Services module. The table indicates that the highest response rates were recorded in relation to lawyers/legal services (aggregate: 44%; mothers: 41%; fathers: 47%). Response rates of note were also recorded in relation to family dispute resolution/mediation (aggregate: 18%; mothers: 22%; fathers: 15%), courts (aggregate: 9%; mothers: 8%; fathers: 9%), FRCs (aggregate: 6%; mothers: 7%; fathers: 6%) and family relationship counselling services (aggregate: 6%; mothers: 7%; fathers: 6%)

Table 1.2: Distribution of family law services for Experiences With Services module interviews
Family law services Mothers (%) Fathers (%) All parents (%) Total (N)
Family dispute resolution (FDR)/mediation 21.8 15.0 18.2 451
Lawyers/legal service 40.8 46.5 43.8 1,083
Court 8.3 9.0 8.7 215
FRC 11.9 10.4 11.1 274
Family relationship counselling service 6.7 6.2 6.4 159
Domestic/family violence (DFV) service 0.9 5.6 3.4 84
Men and family relationship counselling service 1.4 0.1 0.7 18
Mensline 2.5 0.1 1.3 31
Family Relationships Advice Line (FRAL) 0.7 2.2 1.5 37
Parenting Orders Program (POP) 0.3 0.7 0.5 12
Post Separation Cooperative Parenting Program (PSCPP) 1.0 0.8 0.9 22
Supporting Children After Separation Program (SCASP) 1.8 1.5 1.6 40
Children's Contact Service (CCS) 0.3 0.5 0.4 11
Independent Children's Lawyer (ICL) 0.3 0.5 0.4 10
Family consultant (FC)/single expert witness (SEW) 1.3 0.9 1.1 26
Total 100.0 100.0 100.0 2,473

Table 1.3 shows a summary of the key demographic characteristics for the parents interviewed as part of the Experiences With Services module. Notably, the sample included a relatively even distribution of participants by gender (fathers: 47%; mothers: 53%), with 89% of participating fathers and 7% of participating mothers reporting that they were Child Support payers, and 11% of participating fathers and 92% of participating mothers reporting that they were Child Support payees. Most participants reported that they had been legally married to the focus (other) parent (fathers: 72%; mothers: 68%), with 26% of fathers and 30% of mothers indicating that they had lived in a de facto relationship with the focus parent.

Table 1.3: Demographic characteristics of parents interviewed for the Experiences With Services module, by gender
  Fathers Mothers All parents
Note: Percentages may not total exactly 100.0% due to rounding.
Mean age (years) 40 36 38
  % % %
Age categories
18-24 years 3.6 9.7 6.8
25-34 years 23.6 31.5 27.8
35-44 years 44.1 42.1 43.0
45+ years 28.7 16.7 22.4
Gender 47.4 52.6 100.0
Child support status
Pay child support 88.6 7.2 45.5
Receive child support 11.0 92.3 54.1
Pay & receive child support 0.4 0.5 0.5
Highest level of education
Year 11 or less 26.6 21.7 24.0
Year 12 18.8 21.3 20.1
Trade/certificate/diploma 31.3 32.1 31.7
Bachelor degree or higher 23.3 24.9 24.1
Marital status when separated
Legally married 72.3 67.8 70.0
Not married, but living together 26.3 30.2 28.4
Had previously lived together 0.7 1.7 1.2
Never lived with other parent 0.3 0.2 0.3
Never in a relationship with other parent 0.3 0.1 0.2
  $ $ $
Income
Personal income (mean $) 62,458 38,445 49,832
Household income (mean $) 68,216 41,944 54,401
Total (n) 1,626 1,802 3,428
Ethical considerations

The AIFS Human Research Ethics Committee provided ethical review and approval of the Survey of Practices and SRSP 2014 studies. The research and ethics committees of the Family Court of Australia, the Federal Circuit Court of Australia and the Family Court of Western Australia also approved the Survey of Practices professional surveys, thereby authorising court staff to participate.

The nature of the study - involving both professional participants working in high-risk family law cases with complex family dynamics, and parent/carer participants presenting with past and/or current risk issues - raised significant ethical complexities for the research team, including:

  • the need to ensure that data from a potentially vulnerable population, who may have experienced significant levels of trauma, were collected sensitively, and without causing further trauma;
  • the need to be vigilant about the possibility that information disclosed in the Experiences With Services module interviews may trigger a reporting obligation if a participant or their child was revealed to have been abused, subjected to or exposed to family violence, or be at current risk of harm or abuse; and
  • the need to maintain the anonymity of professional and parent/carer participants and to report data in a way that meant no participant who provided information on a confidential basis could be identified.

Several strategies were adopted in order to address these complexities.

First, the Evaluation Research Team comprised researchers with substantial experience in pertinent areas, including three researchers with legal qualifications and a history of family law research. Members of the Evaluation Research Team also have experience working with vulnerable participants on subjects such as family violence, sexual violence and child abuse. Also, the external data collection for the Experiences With Services module was contracted to the same third-party fieldwork agency (with the same management team) that had previously been retained to undertake the data collection for SRSP 2012. Thorough training was provided to CATI interviewers, including training to deal with participant distress and handling disclosures of harm and safety concerns. In addition, prompts were programmed at particular points in the survey to remind interviewers to offer interview participants referral numbers for relevant support services. Of those participants offered these referrals in the Experiences With Services module (65% of all interviews), 69% accepted referral numbers during the interview or by follow-up phone call, email or postal delivery.

Second, an intensive level of supervision and debriefing occurred as data collection proceeded, particularly during the data collection for the Experiences With Services module). 
Detailed duty of care protocols (devised in accordance with the AIFS Child Safety Policy and based on those employed in SRSP 2012) were put in place to facilitate appropriate responses in cases arising in the Experiences With Services module that involved the disclosure of information that potentially triggered a reporting obligation. Although the duty of care protocols were applied to participants in all states and territories, given the specific mandatory reporting requirements in the Northern Territory, only a select team of experienced interviewers conducted interviews with these participants. The Northern Territory survey also included a more specific introduction script that informed potential participants of the mandatory reporting obligations, whereby any disclosures by participants to interviewers of immediate "threats or serious risk of family violence or cases of child abuse" may be required to be reported to the relevant authorities. Participants were also informed that they could refrain from answering any questions that they did not wish to answer. Only five reports were made to the relevant state or territory authorities (with four reports made to the relevant prescribed child welfare authority and one report to the family violence unit of the relevant police department), with these reports being made by senior research staff at the fieldwork agency, in consultation with AIFS.

Finally, in order to maintain confidentiality, significant care was taken to ensure that the data were reported in a way that maintained the anonymity of the informant.

1.3 Summary: Multiple perspectives and change over time

The methodology for this study has several important features. First, through building on the insights generated in previous data collections, the data allow comparisons of attitudes and practices prior to and after the implementation of the 2012 family violence reforms in important areas. They also shed light on the continuing evolution of some key aspects of the 2006 family law reforms and the effects of the 2012 family violence reforms in these areas. Second, comparison of responses among the different professional groups involved in the Survey of Practices 2014 supports an understanding of similarities and differences in core areas between professionals from different disciplines with different roles in the system. The data therefore provide a multi-layered perspective on how the 2012 family violence reforms are operating in different parts of the system. Third, the survey data illuminate the extent to which there are variations in particular views, practices and attitudes across the system, and within and between professional groups. Finally, the inclusion of data from parents on their experience with service use from the interim dataset for the SRSP 2014 provide a client perspective that is important in understanding the implications of the 2012 family violence reforms for families.

These features mean that the Survey of Practices makes an important contribution to the overall program of research for the Evaluation of the 2012 Family Violence Amendments. Through its focus on professionals' attitudes and practices, and parent experiences with using family law services, the study will support the interpretation of the findings of the two other elements of this evaluation program: the SRSP 2012 and 2014, and the Court Outcomes project. On their own, the findings reported here provide critical insight into how the reforms have influenced practice in relation to family violence in the family law system. Firm conclusions on the effects of the reforms on outcomes for children and parents affected by family violence and child abuse should only be drawn on the basis of the evidence from the completed research program.

1 A broad definition encompassing physical hurt and emotional abuse is applied.

2 Parents were asked whether they had concerns for themselves and/or their child as a result of ongoing contact with the other parent.

3 The findings that emerge from SRSP 2014 in this regard will shed further light on the validity of this hypothesis. The small differences in reported rates of family violence and safety concerns in the two surveys are likely to be the result of slightly different sampling strategies being applied (see De Maio et al., 2013, footnote 12).

4 s 60D(2) of the FLA provides that an adviser is: (a) a legal practitioner; or (b) a family counsellor; or (c) a family dispute resolution practitioner; or (d) a family consultant.

5 At the time of administering the surveys for this RFV study and writing the RFV report, the amendments to the Federal Circuit Court Rules providing for the Notice of Risk to replace the prescribed Form 4 Notice in matters issued in all Federal Circuit Court registries were yet to come into operation. The Notice of Risk form was effective on a national basis from 12 January 2015. See Federal Circuit Court Amendment (2014 Measures No. 1) Rules 2014 (registered 22 October 2014).

6 See <www.familylawdoors.com.au>. Note that a validation study has been conducted but was not publicly available at the time of publication.