Executive summary

This report presents the key findings from the Survey of Recently Separated Families (SRSP) 2012. This study examined the experiences of 6,119 parents who separated between 31 July 2010 and 31 December 2011. The research, commissioned and funded by AGD, focuses on parents whose main use of family law system services occurred around 2011 and provides insights into the operation of the family law system five years after the family law reforms of 2006 and 12 months prior to the legislative reforms introduced by the Family Law Amendment (Family Violence and Other Measures) Act 2011 (Cth) (2011-2012 amendments). A central aim of the study was to gain a more detailed understanding of parents’ experiences of, and system responses to, family violence and concerns about child safety.

Main findings

Family violence and safety concerns

The survey findings provide an important benchmark for parents’ experience of family violence and safety concerns before the introduction of the 2011- 2012 amendments. The survey data highlight that experience of family violence is common among separated families, with a majority of parents reporting either physical or emotional abuse before or during, or since separation.

Substantial proportions of parents (over half of both mothers and fathers) reported that the other parent had directed emotional abuse towards them. This abuse frequently took the form of insults with the intent to shame, belittle or humiliate, and this experience was the most frequently occurring with around fourth-fifths of mothers and fathers indicating it occurred sometimes or often before or during separation.

Notably, some differences were evident in the experiences of emotional abuse between mothers and fathers, with a higher proportion of mothers than fathers reporting experiences of such behaviour. Analysis based on a cumulative “intensity” score reflecting the number of different types of emotional abuse and the frequency with which each was reported indicates that the intensity of emotional abuse varied considerably.1 Intensity scores for most parents who reported experiencing emotional abuse before/during separation were clustered in three out of five potential categories, indicating low to medium intensity. Differences between fathers and mothers were more marked in the two high-end categories of the scale, with 18% of mothers compared with 8% of fathers scoring 21 or more.

A substantial minority of parents reported experiencing physical hurt from the other parent. One in five respondents reported that physical violence was experienced before or during separation. The reported incidence of physical hurt diminished between the period before/during separation and since separation (from 16% to 5% for fathers) and (24% to 6% for mothers). The most commonly reported impact of experiencing family violence was deterioration in the mental health of the parent.

Overall, most parents stated that they did not have any safety concerns as a result of ongoing contact with the focus parent. Of those who did express safety concerns (20% of mothers and 14% of fathers), fathers’ concerns tended to concentrate on their child’s safety, while mothers indicated safety concerns for both themselves and their child. There were also differences in

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See section 3.1.4 for a detailed explanation of this calculated score.

 

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parents’ responses to such safety concerns, with over twice as many mothers compared to fathers attempting to limit their child’s contact with the focus parent due to such concerns.

Overwhelmingly, in cases where safety concerns were reported, the focus parent was seen as the source of these concerns, with anger, mental health issues, and violent or dangerous behaviour most frequently being cited as the behaviours generating safety concerns.

Experiences with the family law system

Extensive data was collected on parents’ use of family law services in the survey. The most common services accessed by separating parents were Family Dispute Resolution and lawyers, with generally little difference in fathers’ and mothers’ use of these services at the time of separation.

Most parents had sorted out their parenting arrangements for the focus child by the time of the interview, though this was less common for those who reported experiencing family violence. The majority of parents who had sorted out, or were in the process of sorting out the parenting arrangements for their children, nominated “discussions with the other parent” as the main pathway for negotiating arrangements.

The survey data also confirm that parents who reported past or current family violence and /or the presence of safety concerns indicate a higher rate of use of family law services. For example, of the 72% of fathers and 75% of mothers who reported having sorted out their parenting arrangements at the time of the interview, 8% who had experienced physical violence nominated the courts as their main pathway compared to 1% of parents who reported no family violence.

Disclosure of family violence and safety concerns

The research provides important insights in relation to parents’ disclosure of family violence and safety concerns. The data show that although slightly more than half of the sample parents who experienced family violence before or during separation disclosed these behaviours to police or other services, a sizeable minority (47%) of parents did not.

For those who sought advice from a family law service to resolve their children’s care time arrangements, a higher proportion (seven-tenths) disclosed safety concerns compared to family violence (four-tenths). Importantly in terms of parents’ disclosure and professionals eliciting such disclosures the research indicates an uneven set of behaviours and practices. A substantial minority (around four in ten) parents reported “nothing happened” in response to their disclosures of family violence and safety concerns. Furthermore, family law professionals did not ask about family violence in a substantial minority of cases (36%) where parents resolved their parenting dispute through a formal pathway such as the courts, a lawyer or family dispute resolution).

The most common response from professionals was a referral to another support service where disclosures about family violence or safety concerns occurred. Safety planning, being advised to apply for a court order to restrict contact between parties and protect victims or potential victims from violence, and a reduction in the time a parent spent with their child were also commonly reported after family violence had been raised.

Among parents who disclosed family violence or safety concerns to family law professionals, around half felt that doing so had influenced the outcome of the parenting arrangements in some way. Shared care-time was the most common parenting arrangement among parents who felt

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that disclosing family violence or safety concerns had had no influence at all on the outcome of parenting arrangement negotiations.

Parents’ views on the effectiveness of the family law system

Findings on parents’ views on the effectiveness of the family law system in various areas highlight mixed views among parents and considerable uncertainty in relation to the effectiveness of the family law system in dealing with family violence issues. Around one-third of parents reported they did not know how they felt about the effectiveness of the family law system in dealing with family violence issues. Fewer than one third of parents agreed that the family law system effectively addresses issue of family violence, with levels of disagreement with this statement more pronounced among parents who had experienced family violence (29% of parents who had experienced physical violence before separation; 17% who reported emotional abuse; and 10% of parents who did not report family violence).

Very low awareness of the 2011–12 amendments was evident among parents in the SRSP 2012, with just under 10% of both mothers and fathers indicating they were aware of any changes. Only 2% of parents said that knew any specific information about the changes, and this was most evident among parents who had reported family violence, particularly mothers who had experienced physical violence.

Child and parent wellbeing

The survey data also provide insights into child and parent wellbeing in the context of recent parental separation that may also have involved experiences of family violence.

Overall, parents’ reports on the wellbeing of the SRSP 2012 focus children indicated that the majority were faring well. Mothers’ reports on wellbeing measures tended to suggest a more positive picture than fathers’ reports, and younger children as a group seemed to be experiencing fewer problems than older children.

The picture was less positive when the presence of family violence was considered. A comparison of children’s wellbeing according to the violence categories used in the analysis indicates that children in the physical violence group showing the most problems, and children in the no violence group the least.

Analysis based on different experiences of family violence reinforces evidence of the detrimental effect on children of being exposed to family violence. The five analysis groups included: no violence occurred, violence occurred but never witnessed, witnessed before/during separation, witnessed since separation, and witnessed before/during and since separation. Lower wellbeing was evident for children in the four groups in which violence was reported. This was particularly marked for children who witnessed violence both before/during and since separation.

Where parents had reported that their children had witnessed physical violence or emotional abuse, every tenth parent was asked to describe the impact this had on the child. 2 The four most commonly reported issues were: impacts on mental health; adverse impact on relationships, child less sociable and more withdrawn; behavioural issues, including anger, aggression, causing harm; and increase in behaviour that suggested violent behaviours were being adopted by the child.

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question of all qualifying participants.

Due to constraints within the study regarding the budget and interview length, it was not possible to ask this

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Parents’ reports of their own wellbeing suggest a varied picture, with high satisfaction being evident in some areas and lower satisfaction in other areas. Most parents indicated they were satisfied with their relationship with their child and their own safety; however, only 45% were highly satisfied with their life as a whole and 25% with their financial situation. Where wellbeing was considered in the context of the three analytic groups of family violence, results were consistent with the overall patterns in child wellbeing: the no violence group had the highest levels of wellbeing, the physical violence group the lowest, and the emotional abuse group in between.

Child support

The vast majority of SRSP parents reported that they either paid or received child support, with 1 in 10 parents reporting that they did not have to pay or receive child support. The majority of fathers reported that they paid child support (81%), while the majority of mothers reported that they received child support (85%).

The main method of transfer for child support payments was directly between parents, with almost two-thirds of all parents naming this as the method, followed by payments via the DHS Child Support Program (33%) and other methods, such as in-kind payments (3%). Higher proportions of transfers made via the Child Support Program were reported by parents who had experienced family violence either before/during or since the separation. For example, 50–52% of parents who had experienced physical violence since the separation reported that child support payments were made through the Child Support Program, compared with 18% of parents who had not experienced family violence since the separation.

Among payees of child support, just fewer than half of the parents reported that the focus parent was fully compliant with their child support (i.e., the full amount was paid on time), but 1 in 4 reported that the focus parent did not comply with either the amount or timeliness of payments. Payees who had experienced family violence reported higher proportions of non-compliance than those who had not experienced family violence.

Regarding the amount of child support, the majority of parents considered this to be personally fair. Parents who were more likely to perceive the amount of child support to be personally unfair were those who experienced family violence either before/during or since the separation, father payees with majority care time, mother payers with shared-care arrangements and mother payees where the child had no contact with the focus parent.

Conclusion

In summary, this report has examined the experiences of over 6,000 separated parents. The findings show that experience of family violence is common among separated families. The data also demonstrate that a sizeable minority of parents who experienced family violence did not disclose these behaviours to police or other services. In circumstances where parents’ did disclose such behaviours, the survey data reveal mixed evidence about responses from family law professionals with a substantial minority of parents reporting “nothing happened” in response to these disclosures. The survey data also show mixed views from parents in relation to the effectiveness of the family law system in dealing with family violence issues. The SRSP findings through a detailed focus on family violence and safety concerns provide important benchmark data on the experiences of parents’ affected by these issues in interacting with the family law system in 2011, some twelve months prior to the 2011/12 amendments becoming effective. 

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