On Monday we witnessed a great gathering of women across Australia that delivered an inspiring sense of unity, as we marched 4 justice saying "enough is enough". In Canberra, in cities and towns and online there was a collective calling for change that has not been seen or heard since the 60's.
"Enough is enough" is an overdue rallying cry to recognise the right for women to be heard, for women to be free of fear, for women to have access to justice. The once tolerated has become the intolerable as thousands stood side by side, united by circumstance, to drive solutions to the pain of inequity, sexual subterfuge and failure to believe. Women and some men aren't asking for change anymore they are demanding it.
I have never been so exhilarated yet so tired. It was a day that acknowledged the voices of so many survivors of abuse, what they have endured and, for once, the pain of indifference so often characterises their experience. The vision of Janine Hendry, March4Justice organiser, was that "the silenced" were to be heard. The pain of indifference was to be recognised.
Grace Tame, Australian of the Year, Brittany Higgins and many others who have whispered #metoo challenged the power of silence, a power where we as survivors knew until now that there was no point speaking out. Grace, in her Canberra Press Club address on March 3, said "It is my mission and my duty as a survivor and as a survivor with a voice to continue working towards eradicating child sexual abuse. I won't stop until it does."
Grace has catalysed a great stirring. "Share your truth, it is your power", encouraging survivors to form groups and be heard. So, this is exactly what we have done. As a member of Voices for Change, a survivor advocacy program with Domestic Violence NSW, and using my experience with media and channelling issues into a public forum, I and a group of women are now "sharing the truth": we are the 'Sisters in Law Project'. Our goal is to identify legal issues affecting women with a focus on family law, supporting women and children who have experienced abuse.
`Sisters in Law Project' advocates for change and the need for stakeholders, particularly those responsible for child protection, to do better. This is about women, their children and the impacts of the systemic failures. For too long, the rhetoric that women lie about domestic and family violence and sexual assault as a tactic in Family Court has dominated. And yet what has not been highlighted is the false denials of perpetrators, as stated by Professor Chisholm in the 2009 Australian Law Reform Commission report on family violence in family law.
Many women face significant injustice across the current legal system, and this is especially so when it comes to domestic and family violence and sexual assault, and it can become more difficult and unjust when there are issues of child custody in Family Court. I assist and support women from all over Australia to link in with lawyers and collate their evidence when they are going through this process. This is necessary for the purpose of obtaining specialised legal advice to assist with navigating a system that can be fundamentally unjust.
I see women who are legally required to follow State laws to protect their children, critical when there are child protection reports substantiating the children are at Risk of Significant Harm in regards to the other parent, and then have their children placed in the care of that parent by orders of the Family Court for failing to provide contact. Mothers are put in impossible situations. Imagine this - you can lose your children to the State for not protecting your child again a perpetrator, and you can lose them in the Family Court jurisdiction for not facilitating a relationship with the perpetrator - even if the state has determined that the child is at risk if they are with that very perpetrator.
What is worse is that these mothers I work with cannot speak out about this problem. They are silenced by section 121 of the Family Law Act. I am, and with the support of others, giving these women a voice without breaking the law. A supportive advocate of 'Sisters' Jess Hill, author of the award-winning book See What You Made Me Do, has just finished filming a series of the same title with SBS due out in May. The series addresses these extraordinary situations within our legal system and the silencing experienced by the women and children caught in this horrific situation.
'Sisters in Law Project' has found within our ranks our own motivating sense of unity, like Match4justice, that is now inspiring others to make change.
Anna Watson, Member for Shellharbour and Abigail Boyd, Member of the Legislative Council reviewed 'Sisters in Law Project' evidence last Saturday at the Illawarra Women's Health Centre and heard testimony from five women of their experiences. Ms Watson immediately filed a Notice of Motion on Monday as the rallies for justice were taking place. "The family law situation in NSW has the NSW Child Protection Authority making decisions to protect children in danger, a decision which the Federal Family Court can simply overturn in making a custody decision, thus potentially putting the children back into a dangerous situation," Ms Watson said. "The federal and state governments need to get together and streamline the operation of this process". On Thursday night Ms Boyd stated in NSW Parliament "The current system cannot be considered adequate when so many are not being protected by it. Frankly, many of those children would have been better off if they had had no involvement with the Family Court."
This is not a new statement. We have seen report after report that the Family Law system is fundamentally broken and needs urgent reform. The Australian Law Reform Commission issued 60 recommendations in 2019. Only one has been implemented, which was to dissolve the Family Court. This happened two weeks ago. Family Law matters will now be dealt with in the Federal Circuit Court. The law however remains the same, the issue of the Court placing children in danger remains, In 2015 Rosie Batty reported to the Senate Committee investigating domestic violence in Australia the failing conduct of the Family Law jurisdiction.
How many reports will it take to see the terrible conduct of this court system changed? How many more families will have their lives destroyed as convicted child sex offenders gain custody of their child, such as the Western Australian case of David Farnell who was reported by the ABC news in 2016. I am sure that if the Australian public knew what was happening in our Family Court/Circuit Court they would be shocked. At least, I hope they would. And shocked enough to demand change.
The findings of the Coronial Inquest into the Edward children, murdered by their abusive father, is due on April 7. This is where the Independent Children's Lawyer, who for clarification does not directly represent the children, has been identified in court hearings as not placing the full issues of the children's fear of their father before the court. Will this inquest bring change?
This may be the beginning for the 'Sisters in Law Project', but we have a voice. We all must do better, advocating for immediate change and empowering our community.
Enough is Enough.
- Jane Matts is Illawarra Women's Health Centre Legal Support Caseworker