What to do if you suspect your child is suffering from abuse or being neglected by the other parent. Do you still maintain that child’s contact with the other parent?
The courts regard it as being in the child’s best interests if the child benefits from a meaningful relationship with both parents. The key issue is:
- Is the child benefiting from the contact?
- Is the contact meaningful?
It can be a very traumatising experience to have to co-parent with someone you suspect may be abusing your child let alone the trauma to the child itself. This can be made worse if you were the victim of domestic violence in the relationship yourself and anticipate the abuse being transferred to the child as a way to ‘punish’ you.
How do you protect your child and ensure their immediate safety, while not overreacting or compromising any evidence?
The experts suggest that the main thing is to try to remain calm. Of course, it is difficult to remain calm if you are witnessing behavioural changes in your child such as sudden bedwetting, nightmares, regression into babyish behaviour or academic decline.
However, before jumping to conclusions, it’s important to remember that acting out or behavioural changes can occur for many reasons some of which may not mean the child is being abused by a parent. Is the child being bullied at school for example? Is the other parent mixing with unsavoury characters?
It’s therefore important to seek professional counseling for your child: a mental health professional who has experience in child maltreatment and separated families is extremely valuable in these circumstances. Such a therapist can help determine when your child’s behavior is indicative of abuse or trauma, and whether a referral needs to be made to authorities. They may also be able to comfort you by letting you know what behaviour is normal (although upsetting) and when to get further help. Think about having a session alone with the counsellor or therapist first – as it can be a form of ‘systems abuse’ if children are taken to therapist after therapist and re-telling a confusing story. It is not unheard of for children to wish to please a parent, and tell them things which didn’t happen, especially if they are rewarded or given attention for such statements. This does not mean in any way to minimise danger, but in our experience, for many complex reasons, children have been known to say things to experts which are unlikely to have been true.
Apart from helping you identify the causes in your child’s behavioural changes, a therapist can act as a neutral advocate for the child. A therapist can help you determine whether a child’s display of dissatisfaction with the other parent stems from other reasons, such as attempting to ingratiate themselves with you if they are aware of how negatively you feel about the other parent, or as we mentioned above, even simple attention-seeking behaviours.
Another important thing is to avoid questioning your child at length, if they make a concerning statement. Document the statement, but do not engage the child in discussion after the initial statement. This is because you don’t want to compromise evidence if the child has made a disclosure which you think warrants further investigation. Small kids are very suggestible and even if your questions are entirely appropriate, your ex, his lawyers, judges and the authorities will question the authenticity of the disclosure if there is any chance it is a product of leading questions by you. As family lawyers trained in ‘Independent Children’s Lawyer’ representation, we have seen the video of an innocent act (an adult putting ribbon around a 5 year old child’s wrist) result in that child reporting some quite violent behaviour done to the child including cutting the child’s arm with a knife, and so on. Whilst those videos are amusing to watch, they demonstrate that at certain ages, children do not fully understand the difference between reality and make believe.
While you should trust your gut feelings—after all, you know your Ex and your children best—do your best to remain objective and document any behavioural changes or statements in writing, as investigators and therapists rely heavily on this information. Note down the time of day, type of behaviour or statement of concern, and importantly, how closely it occurs to the time of the child’s contact with other parent. Is there any trigger for the behaviour? If so, what is it?
Make sure you choose lawyers who have experience with child abuse and neglect, not just who are generally experienced with child custody matters. A lawyer skilled in handling child abuse and neglect matters is best able to guide you through the resulting investigation and to take action to immediately protect your child. Ideally seek a lawyer also trained in independent children’s lawyer advocacy (such as our Principal Lawyer, Cristina Huesch).
It’s a hard line to walk between being vigilant to the possibility that your child is being abused or neglected, and not overreacting and jumping to conclusions. The upshot is, absolutely trust your instincts but do stay rational, seek professional help and involve the relevant authorities or qualified solicitors when you believe your child may be at risk.
And in the meantime, what can you do to raise emotionally healthy children within this context?
The main thing is to be an emotionally healthy parent. This is difficult to achieve if you are still in survival mode due to having been abused yourself, so it’s imperative that you seek help for yourself as well, such as trauma treatment therapy. Reducing your stress with treatment will allow you to be your best for your child, no matter what the other parent is doing. Limit contact with your ex, too, to the bare minimum as court ordered. Often a highly detailed, written, court-ordered parenting plan can create more of a parallel-parenting style than a co-parenting style, which helps victim of abuse establish necessary distance from their abuser, even when still required to share parenting. You can read more about parallel-parenting here: http://divorcedmoms.com/blogs/thriving-in-crazy-land/coparenting-vs-parallel-parenting-whats-the-difference.
If you are concerned about family violence, psychological or physical harm to your children, or false allegations have been made against you, you should seek legal advice as these cases can have many competing and complex issues that need to be determined. Please contact our experienced team of lawyers here at Alliance Family Law on (02) 6223 2400 to book a free initial conference with Cristina Huesch, Sharla Stevens or Angela Li to discuss your matter further.