Safety fears mark the relationships of nearly one in five parents who have separated but around 60% say they have amicable relations with their ex, according to a report by the Australian Institute of Family Studies.
The report, called Parenting dynamics after separation, surveyed parents who had separated since reforms to family law were introduced in 2006 that aimed to encourage more co-operative parenting.
Around 10,000 separated parents who were registered with the Child Support Agency were questioned as part of the initial wave of surveying in 2008. Of those, 7031 were re-interviewed in late 2009 to see if their views had changed.
Most parents said that ongoing contact with their ex did not present any safety concerns for them or their child. However, one in five parents reported that they had safety concerns for themselves or their child as a result of ongoing contact with the other parent.
Of those fathers who expressed safety concerns, 21% said in the most recent survey that those concerns related to a new partner who had started to live with the mother.
“If a parent had re-partnered, this was sometimes a trigger for conflict and in some cases concerns about the child being in the company of the parent and the new partner,” said one of the report’s author’s, Ruth Weston.
“The issue of re-partnering could be dealt with at the early stages. We need to increase awareness about what it means for the kids and what it means for parents.”
Others had safety concerns related to mental health or substance abuse issues, she said.
“People did express the view that they system had scope for improvement (since the 2006 reforms). Difficulties arise from a lack of understanding among professionals about family violence and how it affects parents and children,” said Weston.
Some respondents said they were reticent to raise child abuse concerns for fear that the court would find that they had made a false allegation and force them to pay costs.
“But often family violence occurs and you have no evidence. It’s so hard to ascertain whether it’s occurring or not.”
The Family Violence Bill before parliament proposes to repeal sections of law that force a parent to pay costs if they are seen as raising a false allegation, she said.
Associate Professor Bruce Smythe from the Australian National University’s Australian Demographic and Social Research Institute and a former research fellow at the Australian Institute of Family Studies said it was important to be careful when considering the proportion that had reported fear or conflict in their dealings with their ex.
“Conflict is different to violence and fear and we want to be careful about confusing those two things. A one-off episode of violence can be quite different to a pattern of control and coercion,” he said.
He pointed out that the survey showed a majority reported friendly or cooperative relations with their ex partner.
“People have this view of divorce being full of bad relationships but there’s no doubt that many families have a working, business-like relationship over the kids. The evidence is that when parents get along, the kids can do very well.”
He said family courts need to be able to conduct forensic investigations to ascertain whether allegations of abuse are real or not, but that this would require extra resources and funding.
“Part of the complication is the state-federal divide and some people in the system think maybe you need a huge investment of time, money and energy on that issue alone,” he said.
One strategy to deal with conflict arising from separation was to have child developmental psychologists interview children as part of a mediation session and then report what they had heard to the parents.
“Often the parents are hearing for first time what it’s like for kids who are stuck in a tug of war and it is quite powerful for many.”