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In 2009, the Australian Attorney-General commissioned research into family law and family violence in Australia, with a focus on the relationship between people's experiences of family violence and decisions made about post-separation parenting, with and without assistance from service providers in the family law system. The study included adults and children who had separated after 1995 and after the introduction of the Family Law (Shared Parental Responsibility) Amendment Act (Cth) in 2006.
This article reports key findings of two national online surveys with adults and children in relation to post-separation parenting, which formed part of the larger research. Adult respondents described how family violence affected their parenting arrangements and their use of family services to assist with parenting decisions. There were gender differences in the reported experiences of and responses to violence, with women reporting more serious forms of violence than men. Many adults felt dissatisfied with service providers' acknowledgement and appreciation of the impact of family violence on adult and child victims. Adults were most dissatisfied with services for decision-making regarding planning for their children's care post-separation. Their concern for their children's safety was supported by children's own reports. The study raised many questions about how well family law policies, as expressed in the legislation and implemented in the national service system, respond to violence in families such as those who were involved in this research.
Background to the research
In 2006, the Australian Government introduced legislation amending the Family Law Act 1975 (Cth), despite considerable debate about the changes. The amended legislation was aimed at creating a more meaningful relationship between children and parents following parental separation. To this end, it incorporated new concepts of shared parental responsibility and equal shared time, new policies relating to discouraging adversarial and legalistic approaches to dispute resolution, and new services to support the new concepts and policies, including a new national network of family relationship centres. There was significant support for the changes and they were endorsed by the Labor opposition (e.g., Ludwig 2006); however, there was also much criticism of the changes, especially regarding the degree of protection the changes would offer women and child victims of family violence (e.g., see Chisholm, 2006).
The research that is the subject of this paper (Bagshaw et al., 2010), along with research on the impact of shared parenting on children (Cashmore et al., 2010), was commissioned by the Australian Government's Attorney-General's Department in 2009 and was undertaken by researchers from the University of South Australia, Monash University and James Cook University. Other reports examining the question of family violence in the federal family law context released in the past year include a report on court processes by Professor Richard Chisholm (2009), a report on improving responses to family violence in the family law context by the Family Law Council (2009) and the report of an inquiry into laws dealing with family violence by the Australian Law Reform Commission (2010).
The overall aim of our research was to examine the impact of family violence (domestic violence and child abuse) during and after parental relationship breakdown from the perspective of children and parents, and the impact of the Family Law Amendment (Shared Parental Responsibility) Act 2006, specifically in relation to the effect that a history or existence of violence within the relationship had on:
* the decisions that people make about accessing the courts and dispute resolution services; * decisions people make while using courts and dispute resolution services; and
* post-separation parenting arrangements.
The researchers are from three Australian states and from the disciplines of psychology, social work, sociology, criminology, law and education. They gained the views of a total of 1,153 adults (90%) and children (10%) who had experienced parental separation from 1995 to the present, allowing a comparison of respondents from the periods before and after the 2006 amendments (Bagshaw et al., 2010).
This article summarises findings from two national online surveys, which formed a part of the research, in relation to the third research question: the effect that a history or the existence of violence within a relationship had on post-separation parenting arrangements, from the perspective of adults and children.
In the larger study, the researchers used an explanatory approach (Weinbach, 2005), beginning with an extensive review of the literature. They collected quantitative and qualitative data via national online surveys (931 adults and 105 children) and telephone interviews (105 adults and 12 children) involving voluntary, anonymous, self-selected children and adults who had separated post-1995, and who had experienced family violence. This section focuses on the design of the online surveys. It is important to note that some respondents only answered some of the questions, which accounts for the discrepancy in numbers in some of the statistics and tables in this article.
The literature review informed the development of questions for the two online surveys--one for adults and another for children--which were implemented nationally. Survey Monkey was used to construct the online survey, enabling the researchers to sort quantitative data into categories and convert it into tables and graphs. Survey questions also sought qualitative responses. Bagshaw and Chung (2000a) and others have argued that quantitative data alone cannot measure or show the more complex, non-physical aspects or the subtle nature of the abuse of power and control in family violence, hence the survey was designed so that respondents could make qualitative comments. As Chisholm (2009) has pointed out, "understanding of family violence requires examination not only of physical actions but of the context and meaning of the actions to those involved" (p. 36).
A content analysis strategy (Grinnell, 1997) was used to identify major themes in the respondents' qualitative comments. Given that prior studies suggest that men and women's constructions and experiences of violence can differ (see Bagshaw & Chung, 2000a, 2000b; Mulroney & Chan, 2005; Richardson & May, 1999), the responses of the men and women surveyed were also compared.
The adult survey was divided into nine main sections. (1) The first three sections asked for background information, the nature of the respondents' relationships with their ex-partners and the overall impact of family violence and family law on their parenting relationships post-1995 and post-2006. Section four asked about respondents' experiences of and satisfaction with the family services they had accessed during and since their separation. (2) Section five asked more specific questions of parents about their children and parenting post-separation, pathways to parenting arrangements, their understandings of family law, and patterns of care after separation. Section six focused on the adult respondents' experiences of family violence--the types, duration and frequency, changes over time, harm arising from the violence for adult victims, the contexts of post-separation violence, disclosing violence, service responses to disclosures, and domestic violence orders. At the beginning of this section, family violence was defined as follows:
Family violence includes abuse of one family member (including a child) by another and can involve physical, sexual, psychological, social and financial abuse and neglect. Normally the abused person is fearful of and/or intimidated by the abuser and feels relatively powerless. (Bagshaw et al., 2010, Vol. 2, p. 3)
Section seven focused on the adults' perceptions of the nature and effects of family violence on their children. Section eight asked about respondents' experiences of accessing family services following separation, and section nine asked specific questions about the impact of changes brought about by the Family Law Amendment (Shared Responsibility) Act 2006 (Cth) and how respondents' understandings of those changes had helped or hindered what they wanted to do since they had separated.
The questions in the children's survey were also divided into sections, which covered demographic data, a profile of the respondents, information about where they resided, time spent with each parent, contact arrangements, exposure to their parents' arguments pre- and post-separation, their perceptions of their own and their parents' responses to conflict and violence, who the children had sought help from, how safe they felt when with each parent, their views about children's rights to have a voice in parenting decisions, actions the children took to keep themselves safe when exposed to violence, and what things about their lives they would have liked to have been different.
Links to the online surveys were placed on a secure website and information about the surveys was spread nationally through newspaper advertisements and radio interviews. In addition, an email request from the two co-directors of the research team was sent out through the Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs' (FaHCSIA) state and territory office network to the Chief Executive Officers (CEOs) of a range of family relationship services. Email requests were also sent to the CEOs of other relevant services and service networks, such as the family courts, legal services, domestic violence services and services for men and children. Almost all organisations that were contacted helped in publicising the research and the link to the online survey. Some asked the research team to submit additional ethics applications or research requests. No such applications were refused.
The University of South Australia's Human Research Ethics Committee (HREC) and Monash University's Standing Committee on Research on Humans approved the research for the overall project and the instruments used at each phase of the research. Approval was also granted by the ethics committee of James Cook University. At the request of some of the services, the study was also approved by the University of Tasmania, the Research Committee of the Australian Association of Social Workers, and the Family Court of Australia's Research and Ethics Committee.
Links to supportive services such as the Children and Teens First …