The protection of children from abuse and violence is one of the most important roles for every parent. While this should be obvious and, in the vast majority of cases, parents take that responsibility seriously, circumstances can arise where children are exposed to abusive or violent behaviour by adults who are otherwise good parents and role models for their children.

Adult behaviour arising from relationship breakdown

When a relationship, whether marriage or de facto, breaks down, the adults involved often behave in a way that is very different from normal. This can range from heated arguments to physical violence between them. Sadly, it is too often the case that children get caught up in these confrontations, either by seeing the adults fighting, or hearing them. It’s obviously difficult to protect children from this, which is child abuse, even if the child is not physically touched. Telling the child to go to their room while Mum and Dad are fighting, verbally or physically, in the living room, is no solution.

Taking it out on the kids

Then there are situations where the adults’ arguments boil over onto the children and they are yelled at or, worse, physically abused. At the extreme of such behaviour, all too frequently there are media reports of babies being shaken so violently by a parent during an argument with the other parent that the infant suffers brain damage or dies.

Sexual abuse 

Perhaps the worst kind of violence towards children is sexual abuse, which can damage a child psychologically for life. There can be many reasons for such abuse, but it is often associated with the breakdown of the parents’ relationship. In a warped kind of way, a parent may punish the other parent for ending their partnership by abusing a child. Child sexual abuse is not confined to parents, as is shown by the decades long history of abuse by priests, teachers and others that the child trusted. Sexual abuse of a child is, surely, the ultimate breach of trust.

Particular issues about child sexual abuse

Family Lawyers helping their clients in situations where there has been an allegation of child sexual abuse are often confronted with two issues. First, such abuse is reported to the police (as it always should be), the child is likely to be interviewed on two or more occasions by different police and/or psychologists. The child gets more and more anxious as, in their minds, this is becoming really serious and the perpetrator (usually Dad, Mum, or Uncle Jim), is likely to go to jail. As a result, the child becomes less and less likely to disclose all the details of the assault to the police, or the psychologist who is interviewing them. As sexual assault is a criminal offence, and the alleged perpetrator has to be found guilty “beyond reasonable doubt” by a criminal court, and as it’s often the child’s word against the adult, even if the police decide to proceed to court, many prosecutions will fail.

Secondly – and this is another form of child abuse, there have, regrettably, been many cases where a parent has alleged that the other parent has abused, sexually or otherwise, a child, but when the case went to court, it was held that the parent had made up the allegation, to “get back” at the other parent as part of their relationship breakdown. The courts have changed the custody of children from one parent to the other in such situations.

So, what about protecting children from child abuse and family violence?

  1. Perhaps the best way is to try to ensure that children are not exposed to their parents’ fighting, either verbally or physically. This may not be easy - seek counselling and/or mediation at an early stage to try to resolve differences and eliminate emotional boil overs in the home.
  2. Consider one parent leaving the home to live elsewhere, and so remove the conflict. .
  3. If all else fails, seek an Intervention Order from a Magistrates Court. That can forbid family violence and, if necessary, remove the perpetrator from the home. But be careful, these Orders usually include the children and can result in the parent that the Order is made against not seeing them for months, which can seriously harm their relationship with that parent, and make settlement between the parents more difficult.
  4. If there is evidence of sexual abuse, the first responsibility of parents or carers is to protect the child. Contact with the alleged perpetrator must be stopped immediately, the police notified and an application made to the courts to suspend any orders allowing the alleged perpetrator to have unsupervised contract with the child. The test used by the Family and Federal Circuit Courts is whether there is an “unacceptable risk” to the child.

How a Family Lawyer can help

Family Lawyers are experienced in these issues of child abuse and family violence and can help you through the difficult process of relationship breakdown, so that the impact on the children is minimised.

If you would like further information, please do not hesitate to contact Tonkin Legal Group on (03) 9435 9044 to arrange an appointment with one of our experienced Family Lawyers.