Content warning: domestic abuse, violence and child sexual abuse Domestic abuse isn’t only caused by individuals—it’s embedded in and sustained by our public systems too. Features: Ruth Stearns Mandel, David Mandel, Susan Lackner, Grant Wyeth and a number of victim-survivors whose identities are protected. Visit thetrap.com.au to learn more
Content warning: violence. If this raises any issues for you, contact:
Visit thetrap.com.au to learn more
Host & writer Jess Hill
Creative producer Georgina Savage
Producers Mary Crooks AO, Ally Oliver-Perham, Maria Chetcuti, Lucy Ballantyne
Production manager Ally Oliver-Perham, Maria Chetcuti
Sound design & mix Romy Sher, Pariya Taherzadeh-Desovski
Research Leah McPherson
Transcription Max Favetti, Amanda Barbour
Production assistance Sanduni Hewa Katupothage, Esther Davies-Brown, Alexandra Collins, Georgia Lazarakis, Georgia Shepherd, Aaryn Melzer, Rachael Imam, Lily Mooney
Art direction Aimee Carruthers
Video The Social Parade
Animation Mari Frith
Photography Saskia Wilson
With thanks to the entire team at VWT
The Trap is a harm prevention podcast, created by the Dugdale Trust for Women & Girls (of which the Victorian Women’s Trust is Trustee). This project has been made possible thanks to the support of donors. Special thanks to the Phyllis Connor Memorial Trust of Equity Trustees Limited, Jo Baevski, a private donor, and The Bokhara Foundation.
© The Dugdale Trust for Women & Girls 2021
We are indebted to everyone who courageously shared their stories and wisdom with us. Thank you all.
A PARALLEL UNIVERSE:
POST-SEPARATION AND SYSTEMS ABUSE
NARRATION: When you hear the phrase, ‘false allegations’, what comes to mind?
I wanted to ask random people on the street about this, but during lockdown, that’s kind of a major faux pas. So instead, I thought I’d go to YouTube and looked up ‘false allegations’.
00:18 YOUTUBE: A Blue Ash woman will spend the next six months in prison for lying about being raped.
YOUTUBE: A promising college football player’s life dreams shattered, as he was falsely accused of rape.
YOUTUBE: Almost every false allegation we get, there are red flags left and right. And the person is usually a consummate victim: like, their husband abused them, their past husband abused them, they’ve been raped.
00:41 NARRATION: You get the idea. The top 10 results are dominated by videos about women falsely accusing men of rape, sexual assault and domestic violence. And that’s on my algorithm – with a search history very clearly not indicating an interest in this content.
It’s rare to hear about the false allegations made by perpetrators. The false reports they make about their wives to police. To child protection. To the courts. To their employers.
The way perpetrators will post false allegations online to ruin their victim’s reputation, and their credibility.
How they will subpoena medical information from their victim’s doctors and psychologists to make them look like a crazy, unreliable parent in the family law courts.
01:30 Perpetrators do this vexatiously and strategically. They do it to create misery for their victims, to exert more control over their lives, and to render their allegations unbelievable. This is not happening behind closed doors. It’s all out in the open.
This tactic has an acronym: DARVO. It stands for Deny, Attack, Reverse Victim and Offender.
I explained this at the Women’s March 4 Justice in Sydney, because as a community, we need to know what this tactic looks like.
02:08 JESS (at protest): "It works like this: The alleged perpetrator – and their supporters – deny the allegation, they attack the victim's credibility, and then they reverse the role of victim and offender so that it looks like the alleged perpetrator is the real victim. The attack is intended to chill, terrify and intimidate the victim and their supporters, and it often includes legal threats."
THEME MUSIC PLAYS
02:39 NARRATION: In this episode, we’re going to hear more about false allegations, and how professionals, institutions and systems are being used and manipulated by perpetrators to further entrap their victims.
If this was just about naive people who are too easily duped by perpetrators, it would be much easier to address.
The problem is that these systems and institutions - steeped in a patriarchal culture of victim blaming, misogyny and racism - are too often perpetuating the abuse, with or without the help of the perpetrator.
My name’s Jess Hill, and this is The Trap.
TRANSITION MUSIC PLAYS
03:23 JESS: How much for all three of you was there this attempt at reputational damage?
FIONA: I was alleged to have had an affair with a work colleague to the point where it's been documented in affidavits, person named, it's quite obvious that he had stalked me on Facebook to get this name and details. And had made up stories about what this person did with my kids. The only proof that I had was that this colleague had actually died six years ago.
03:53 JESS So he, you were supposed to have had an affair with someone who was dead?
FIONA: Yeah. So he had made up a whole story and submitted it to the court
JESS: To the family court?
FIONA: Yeah. Family report writer, everyone.
04:05 NARRATION: This is Fiona, who’s sitting beside me in a hot office at the headquarters of Beyond DV, a centre in Brisbane for victim survivors to seek help and to support each other with post separation abuse. I’ve come this morning to speak to survivors of coercive control about what they’ve been subjected to since their relationships ended. Everyone has had false allegations made against them. In fact, it’s rare to meet a victim survivor who hasn’t.
04:32 KATHY: I too, was accused of having an affair with a guy 30 years older than me, um a work colleague.
NARRATION: This is Kathy. We last heard from her in episode 5 – she was shot by her brother-in-law after police refused to help her. For years before that incident, Kathy had been on the receiving end of her husband’s coercive control – and one of his favourite tactics was making false accusations against her.
05:00 KATHY: sometimes it's so hard to clear your name and even when you do, there's always an element of doubt.
JESS: And he so he made an allegation that you had cheated with a work colleague, and presented that to your –
KATHY: Boss.. HR department. And I was severely questioned about it. And I was actually moved locations in case I was having an affair, which I wasn't with a married man that I worked closely worked with. But yeah.
05:27 JESS: This is what you know, I think a lot of people talk about oh this is the stuff that happens behind closed doors, but it actually happens in public. It happens at your workplace. Yeah. And that's right. It has this huge web of people who end up being involved,
KATHY: And the damage that was done from that incident, you know, the damage that was done on that man's relationship with his wife because they were having issues that ruined his marriage. That was the straw that broke them because my ex couldn't control himself at getting back at me.
06:01 NARRATION: Kathy’s husband had a knack for sensing which false allegations would have the most damaging consequences for Kathy and the people around her. After he ruined her career, he tried to isolate her from her kids by accusing her of having sex with her 20-year-old son.
KATHY: He made a statement. The police questioned me, they questioned my son. That was so hurtful for him and so hurtful for me because he, you know, the flow on effect. Well, my son was saying, ‘What's my girlfriend gonna say?’
06:37 NARRATION: False allegations to the family court, to police, to a victim survivor’s employer; these are just a few examples of how perpetrators manipulate systems, and make others participants in their abuse.
06:50 RUTH: You're always going to have manipulation by perpetrators. Because perpetrators are manipulative. That is their very nature. They manipulate their loved ones, they manipulate, you know, professionals, they manipulate systems. That is what they do.
NARRATION: This is Ruth Stearns Mandel, from the Safe and Together Institute. She and her partner David Mandel, are based in the United States. In this locked down world, they stay up late most nights running online education workshops for Australian institutions, particularly child protection.
07:26 DAVID: There's no way to fully perpetrator proof your system, but I do think becoming aware that using systems, targeting systems is part of that pattern, that overall pattern, of coercive control.
That's the first thing we need to be aware of.
NARRATION: David and Ruth have divided the systems, institutions and individuals perpetrators target into two sections, or tiers.
07:50 DAVID: Tier one is the government systems, it's family court, it's child protection and it's the criminal justice system. And they each have their own vulnerabilities to perpetrators manipulating them. And they’re logical targets because if I want to extend my control over my partner, I want to enlist these entities that have the power to order people, to monitor, to control, to incarcerate, to order kids to go here or there.
08:20 NARRATION: The second tier includes the services and individuals that either feed information to these key institutions, or are working directly with victim survivors. And should be helping them.
DAVID: The NGOs, the mental health practitioners, the addiction services, the lawyers, even the faith community.
NARRATION: David says the very reason these systems are so vulnerable to being used is because of their pre-existing biases.
08:50 DAVID: You can have a father calling child protection on the mother of his children, and reporting her for neglect and getting cases opened on her, in her name.
So you have to name that tactic and that pattern. We have to name the vulnerability in the system. Why is that successful? Well, it's successful not because he's so smart. It's successful because the system already is ripe and ready to look at the mom, and not at the dad.
09:18 NARRATION: What David is talking about here is a guiding principle of child protection: failure to protect. Traditionally, child protection looks first at who has ‘failed to protect’, not who has perpetrated the violence. Their focus is trained on the protective parent. There is not, however, the same pressure on the perpetrator to stop their violence. In fact often the perpetrator is not even interviewed. So the perpetrator becomes virtually invisible, while the behaviour of the protective parent is scrutinised and judged.
This means, as David says, that child protection workers are often already primed for mother-blaming, and do not have a good radar for how perpetrators will manipulate them.
10:09 On top of understanding these systemic vulnerabilities, we also need to better understand how coercive control actually works - and that perpetrators will target whomever they need to in order to punish and control their victims.
TRANSITION MUSIC PLAYS
10:27 SUSAN: A lot of therapists that also do men's behaviour change programs, you know, say after a year, I've got to drop out because of the death threats.
NARRATION: This is Susan Lackner, a specialist couples counsellor who works with a range of diverse couple groups. She’s long known that working with couples carries certain risks.
SUSAN: There have been people that have, you know, therapists that have been physically harmed. So you know when you get into that territory, you have to be very, very careful. Because they will blame the therapist for the partner leaving.
11:03 NARRATION: Couples counselling is not recommended for couples where domestic abuse is a factor. But Susan says it can take several sessions for therapists to identify coercive control.
SUSAN: Until you start to get deep into the therapy, you don't really get an idea about what's going on. The woman is often very careful in how she's presenting herself.
11:28 NARRATION: Two years ago, Susan started seeing a couple, who we’ll call Jane* and Mike*. After three sessions, Susan became concerned about Mike’s controlling behaviour. As she did an individual assessment on Mike, Jane fled interstate and reported Mike to the authorities.
That’s when Mike’s fixation turned to Susan.
HIGH PITCHED PIANO PLAYS
11:53 SUSAN: About eight months later, I started, I got a complaint from APRA, which was dismissed. I then got another complaint from my counseling authority. That was dismissed. He then went to the Health Complaints Commissioner. My professional indemnity then got involved, that was dismissed. And then he took me to VCAT.
12:16 NARRATION: By the time Mike took his complaint to the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal, otherwise known as VCAT, he had complained to four different health bodies over several months. Though Susan cannot reveal the details of the claim, she says everyone who heard it said it was utterly ludicrous.
12:37 SUSAN: It was like saying, if you gave the dog a bone and the dog then choked on the bone. And someone came in and tripped over that, that would be your fault because you gave the bone.
The premise of what he was claiming was never proven.
12:53 NARRATION: But that didn’t stop the claim being taken seriously. And what really shocked Susan was how her insurance company treated her.
SUSAN: They were not there to protect me, my wellbeing because I kept saying to my lawyer, when do my rights come in I, this person has a history not only with me, but with his partner. And with other people of doing this, going to different authorities getting dismissed and harassing. And they said nothing.
They just said you have to respond.
13:29 NARRATION: These serial complaints were filed over 18 months – as you can imagine, an extremely distressing time for Susan. She moved premises, but he was given the address in one of the files, and it became clear that he was stalking her.
Despite this, she was forced into mediation with Mike. He wanted compensation of $100,000. And despite everything – his record of abuse, the fact that authorities were involved with his former partner, and that even the lawyer for her insurance company recognised that his claim was vexatious, negotiations continued.
14:09 SUSAN: He got down to $20,000. And the mediator came into our Zoom Room and said to me and my lawyer, 'give him some money.' And my lawyer said, we're not giving him money, and I said you cannot give him money. And the mediator said - who was a woman - said to my lawyer, I am instructing you to go to your client, which is the insurer.
14:35 And I said I'm really not happy with that. And my lawyer said she's directed me, I have to do that. So went back and they said, we'll give him $5,000. And I was like, 'You're kidding'. He came back and said, I'll take eight. My lawyer said, that's all he's getting. And the mediator said, 'once again, I'm instructing you once again to go to your, to your client.
So my lawyer did it again and came back and said, I'll give him six. And he said, I'll take six.
My blood pressure hit about 250 over 150 at that point, and I just said, I'm disgusted and appalled. And I'm now leaving this.
15:18 NARRATION: Susan then contacted a different lawyer – one that would represent her, not her insurance company. After looking over the contracts, this lawyer told Susan that even if she agreed to the payout, he could still come after her.
Susan decided she was willing to pay whatever it took to prevent compensation going to Mike.
SUSAN: I was not going to give a violent man money to reward this behaviour. This is, you know, we have such a systemic problem. Once I got the legal advice, I actually realised that I had some control.
And while I would have to pay a lot of money, personally, to fight this, I was very fortunate to be in a position to do it. And I was like, pardon my French, ‘Fuck you, I'm not going to allow this to happen. I spend every day of my life working with couples to have healthy equal relationships. And I will fight it. And as soon as I did that, he capitulated ‘cause he's a coward like all domestic violent men are when they are stood up to.
16:32 JESS: Yeah. Where's the deterrence? It's like, especially if the perpetrator is particularly dangerous and wealthy, and they don't care how much they spend, you know, it's like, Is there any deterrence when it's been seen that this person is malicious and making vexatious, using the system vexatiously?
16:51 SUSAN: Yeah, and the people that are using the system, know the system very well. And so I know that this particular person has a history of doing this.
NARRATION: Despite having no evidence to support his claim, Mike* was given free rein to use these complaints bodies as a tool to exert power over Susan, to control her life and threaten her reputation and professional standing with vexatious complaints, and would have been rewarded financially if Susan hadn’t taken matters into her own hands, at her own cost.
SUSAN: I felt like I was gaslighted by the system; that the abuse was coming from the system.
17:39 NARRATION: It’s a very difficult balance to strike: regulatory bodies process complaints, and they have to - at least at first - take all complaints at face value.
But it is possible to identify the difference between a citizen exercising their rights and a perpetrator making a vexatious allegation, as Susan has made clear.
As long as these bodies, and our institutions more generally, are ignorant of perpetrator tactics - or choose to turn a blind eye to them - they will continue to be manipulated and used, and will do great harm to innocent people.
TRANSITION MUSIC PLAYS
18:22 NARRATION: What we’re looking at here is the Trap – the whole sprung apparatus - not just the private relationship, or what happens ‘behind closed doors’. From the moment a victim survivor decides to leave, the possibilities, and the risks, multiply exponentially. Not just because the person they are leaving may become more dangerous, but because they are about to interact with various systems that will either protect them, or place them in greater danger.
JESS: So tell me about your story and, and how this happened.
LAURA: So we've been in and out of court since 2016.
19:07 NARRATION: This is Laura*, and we’re sitting together in the cafe across the road from what used to be known as the Family Court. This cafe was once called Love Bites, which is wrong on so many levels. Either it changed hands, or someone figured out how wildly inappropriate it was to have a cafe called Love Bites opposite what is basically a domestic violence court.
Anyway, it’s not called that anymore. I’m sitting here having lunch with Laura, and with Jane Matts, a victim survivor advocate with the group Sisters in Law. Laura is telling me what she’s been through in the five years she’s been fighting for custody of her children in the family law court.
19:50 LAURA: My children are 12 and 8. They have lived with me since my former partner and I split up and at the time, my daughter was only three months old.
NARRATION: Initially, the father was given supervised access, due to allegations of mental and physical abuse of the eldest son, who had disclosed first to his counselor at school.
20:14 LAURA: His main thing is that dad scares him and makes him keep secrets and that dad hits and kicks and pushes him and makes him frightened. And there's a whole raft of things that he's been talking about since he was four. And these things have been reported by people other than myself, so teachers, counselors.
20:36 NARRATION: As Laura was waiting for final orders, her six-year-old daughter told her she had been sexually abused by her father.
LAURA: She didn't really understand that something was wrong was happening. She just wanted to know, why did it hurt? And then that, the conversation came about from there, but what what her father had done. And she's gone on to tell her counselor about it as well. And a couple of other trusted members of the family.
21:04 JESS: Can I just ask I know that it's awful to be explicit, but is that just giving just give us a an idea of what she was disclosing?
LAURA: Digital penetration. But they disliked it because she's used different words when she's she's used words like poke, push, touch, depending on who she's talking about it. But the they read over it exactly the same, This is what dad did. He put his finger here and he's been doing it for a long time like she - and that's the same thing she's told everybody and her counselor says that, due to trauma, that's why maybe the word changes a little bit. And but not everybody recounts their story the same, even an adult rape victim will not tell the story in the same words in the same way. But the key to the story is the same. And that's never changed. She's been emphatic about what's happened.
22:00 JESS: And what did you do once she started making those disclosures?
LAURA: Yeah, so I did report it. And then *beep* was asked to go and speak to people at JIRT and child investigation, she had to have a medical exam, which terrified her. And she found that talking to these, you know, strangers, essentially, that's who they are, was very difficult. And it wasn't until the second interview that she was able to articulate very clearly what happened. And she was able to point on a picture card what had happened to her.
NARRATION: The allegations were serious, so they were being investigated by JIRT - a joint response team comprised of child protection, police and health.
22:43 The day that Laura’s daughter was interviewed for the third time about the allegations against her father, Laura was told by the senior constable that unless she obeyed court orders and sent her daughter back to her father’s house that day, she could be charged for breaching.
Laura says her daughter screamed, cried and clung to her like a koala, begging her mother not to send her back. But she had no choice.
LAURA: Whilst this investigation was going on, we got notification from the court to say that her honor was ready to hand down judgment. I requested for an adjournment based on the fact that there was a JIRT investigation going on. That was denied. And then once the orders were handed down, JIRT closed their investigation.
JESS: And what were the orders?
LAURA: To flip custody from - it was originally in my favor of, you know, 70/30. And it was flipped the other way. So it was flipped around to being 30/70. So, in the father's favor.
23:48 JESS: What were their reasons?
LAURA: That's a really good question, because I still don't understand them myself. I've looked at them, and she just made, her honor basically said that she prefers the father’s story over the mother's. She threw out all the allegations of domestic violence that we had raised in our matter. And so she flipped custody, and also meant that I couldn't see my children for a month, because they have to, when they flip custody, they want to entrench the pattern of the children living with the other party.
24:16 JESS: So hang on. So even if you've got shared custody, you're not allowed to see them for that first month at all.
LAURA: Yes I had one month with no seeing the children, and then it was a gradual return to a normal pattern.
JESS: That must have been hell for you.
LAURA: It was hell for myself, it was hell for my children.
So that first time we saw the kids again, I don't think my 10 year olds ever hugged me so hard in his life before.
REFLECTIVE TRANSITION MUSIC PLAYS
24:42 NARRATION: Laura’s story is not uncommon.
I’m contacted every day by victim-parents - especially mothers - who report very similar experiences: they presented allegations of abuse to the court, including disclosures from their children, their allegations were disbelieved, and their children were ordered into unsupervised time - or even the full custody - of the allegedly abusive parent. This is happening even in cases where the children themselves have told family law professionals how terrified they are of the other parent, and that they do not want to be alone with them.
This has been like an open secret for over 20 years. Everybody in the domestic violence sector knows that the family law system commonly disbelieves, diminishes or dismisses proof of family violence and child abuse. It’s not just anecdotal either: this has been reported on for decades by academics, and even a former family court judge.
New research has shown just how difficult it is to get the family law system to take child sexual abuse allegations seriously. From 2012 to 2019, only 14 percent of child sexual abuse allegations in contested custody cases were believed by judicial officers to be true.
As one of the researchers noted, that is a very low level of findings. What’s even more chilling is that in two-thirds of these cases, the parent who was alleged against had their time with their children increased by the court. In 17 percent of these cases, the family law system removed custody altogether from the mother making the allegation, and ordered the children into the full time care of the alleged perpetrator. It’s in this statistic that you find stories like Laura’s.
That more than 75 per cent of child sexual abuse allegations are being determined unfounded by the family law system is terrifying, particularly because the evidence shows the opposite to be true.
27:03 DAVID: the data is that those custodial mothers are the least likely to intentionally fabricate false allegations.
NARRATION: The data David David Mandel is referring to here is a rare nationwide study conducted in Canada, which looked at thousands of child protection cases. It found that generally, false abuse allegations were rare - around four per cent. In family law cases, that rate did increase - to around 12 per cent.
But of that 12 per cent, the most common false allegations - almost half - were made by non-custodial parents, who are usually fathers. The next most common - at 19 per cent of the false allegations - came from friends and neighbours. Custodial parents - who are usually mothers - made 14 per cent of the false allegations, and lastly, children - were just two per cent of the total. In other words, false allegations from kids are so rare, they barely rated.
28:10 DAVID: And so it's exactly the opposite. And so you get this idea that women can't be trusted, that they're manipulating their kids, if they're coaching them to lie. And and I think unfortunately, that system really often haven't tackled this head on unfortunately
28:25 NARRATION: A big part of the problem, says David, is the so-called experts who are evaluating these families for the courts. They interview each member of the family and make an assessment on how each parent interacts with the children, and provide their opinion on any allegations of abuse. Judges often rely heavily on their assessments, so their opinions are extremely influential - particularly if they’re psychiatrists, who’ve been called ‘the gods of the family court’.
DAVID: you can get a degree in social work, you can get a degree in marriage and family therapy, you can become a registered licensed psychologist, you can become a psychiatrist, without having to take a course in family violence.That we have perfect credentials professionals, giving their expert opinion, without necessarily any or very little formal training around domestic violence and these dynamics that we're talking about.
29:27 NARRATION: After interviews that can be as short as an hour, victim survivors are commonly being ‘diagnosed’ by these report writers. In family reports submitted to the court, it’s common to see victim survivors labelled with serious mental disorders, like borderline personality disorder and even Munchausen’s by-proxy - a supposedly rare condition, in which a parent abuses their own child by fabricating or inducing an illness in them. These diagnoses are extremely hard to contest - even if the victim survivor’s own treating doctors submit reports to the contrary. And they can be devastating to that parent’s case - and even lead to them losing access to their kids.
Domestic abuse is a red flag for child sexual abuse. 40 per cent of child sexual abuse occurs within domestic abuse households, so allegations made in that context should be taken especially seriously.
30:30 LAURA: Very controlling. He wasn't always physical, that was not a big thing with him, but he was certainly very up in your face all the time. And he would make you feel worthless about yourself.
NARRATION: Laura was subjected to clear coercive control throughout the relationship.
LAURA: I wasn't, I wasn't really allowed to have access to the money just so I could put petrol in the car and go and visit family and friends. And he was so, I still, I don't know how I got control the way I did, I don't understand how I allowed that when I look back on it. I'm stronger than that. But I don't know how he had such control over me, I don't.
JESS: No one is stronger than that.
It is a particular system of behaviour that can leave the toughest, most well trained man or woman feeling like they don't know themselves anymore.
31:20 LAURA: That's how I felt like it wasn't it was me looking from the outside in on this relationship, and always hoping it would get better because I had two young kids. I have to do something to change and I have to make this work, because I don't want that stigma of being the mother that ran away with the children and did the wrong thing.
NARRATION: Laura’s relationship ended when her partner told her he didn’t want to be a parent with her anymore.
LAURA: And very shortly after he'd moved in with somebody else. His behavior towards me got worse from that point, it got controlling, more controlling than I had been previously. And
31:56 JESS: Once the relationship was over?
LAURA: Yeah and more physical, because he wanted to control me, he thought he'll just have the kids whenever he likes, which was not very often at all. He got quite physical with me. There was only a few occasions prior to us separating where he was quite physical.
But he got quite physical after that when he wouldn't get his own way. The police did take an AVO out on him for being physical with me. And when I moved in with my current partner, his, his focus seemed to shift from me to the kids. It was like I was now protected, so he couldn't get to me. So when the kids were there on visits, they were the ones that were copping his anger and his control and his need for power.
TRANSITION MUSIC PLAYS
32:43 NARRATION: There is nothing that exemplifies the trap of systems abuse like the family law system.
What victim parents discover when they enter the family law system is that everything they were advised to do when they were with their abusive partner is now turned upside down. So, where child protection may have warned them that if they did not protect their children from the abusive parent they may have them removed, the family law system now tells them that unless they prove they can co-parent with that same abusive parent, they may lose care of their children – and their kids could be court-ordered to live with the parent they’ve just escaped.
The family law courts have, over the past twenty years, become almost rigidly pro-contact. They’ve done this on the basis that a child having a relationship with both parents is regarded as necessary for healthy development. So, in the eyes of the court, protective parents who bring abuse allegations to the court are interfering in this necessary process. They are being ‘uncooperative’ - a cardinal sin in the family law courts. So much so that many family lawyers advise their clients not to bring up the abuse at all.
34:02 When protective parents do bring up the abuse, they may spend hundreds of thousands of dollars fighting for custody of their kids, in cases that go on and on for years. And their kids may still end up being ordered into the unsupervised care – or even full-time custody – of a parent who terrifies them.
Because despite the vast majority of family law cases featuring allegations of abuse, only 3 percent end up with orders of no-contact. The vast majority of cases end up with orders of shared parenting.
34:40 Until now, the lobby groups most powerful in the family lawcourts, and who have had the most influential voice in government, are anti-feminist men’s groups, also known as ‘father’s rights groups’. They have, since the 1980s, run an extremely successful campaign to portray mothers as vindictive liars, who are hellbent on revenge, and willing to lie and cheat to prevent divorced fathers getting access to their kids.
35:08 GRANT WYETH: Men's rights groups have really decided to try and attack and alter the perspective of the family court in order to gain back some control.
35:25 NARRATION: This is Grant Wyeth. He’s not the sort of expert you expect to hear talking about domestic abuse and the family law courts – he’s a political analyst, and researcher at the Asia Institute.
GRANT WYETH: The family court obviously has ideas about the roles men and women should play in society. Unfortunately, the role they think women should play at the moment is one of servitude to men. In that her obligations are to encourage contact with the father, regardless of his behavior, which is a really unfair obligation because a mother’s obligation should always be to the welfare of a child.
NARRATION: Over the past year, Grant has been researching family law systems around the world, analysing trends in each jurisdiction. What he’s seeing is that the anti-feminist men’s groups have changed the culture of family law systems around the world.
36:20 GRANT: To me, it's a worldwide ideological conversion in a way. If you look at the legislation, the dominant legislation I guess throughout the West is this assumption that children have a right of contact to both parents within the caveat of child safety and child welfare. But, that's been twisted into men having the right to contact regardless of their behaviour. This is an area where the backlash to women's rights has materialized very strongly.
It goes to the heart of the different gendered standards that the court has for men and women. So, for men, the standard is basically DNA. If you can pass a DNA test, then that's the only bar you need to clear. But for women, they have this binary paradigm that they exist within, which is the friendly parent and the hostile parent. So, because of the pro-contact ideology, a friendly parent is one who actively encourages contact with the father regardless of his behavior. If the mother doesn't do that, then she's deemed a hostile parent. And she's, you know. Her case is viewed entirely through the lens of being the hostile parent.
37:45 NARRATION: Laura knew that if she pushed too hard - if she withheld the kids from their father - she may lose them altogether. She felt she had no choice but to continue sending her kids to live the majority of the time with their father.
During one of their weekend visits, Laura’s daughter..
LAURA: She actually went to another member of the family and said what was going on and said "I want you to keep me safe from dad, I don't want to go back there, he's still doing it". And as a family, we made the decision that well enough's enough.
38:21 NARRATION: Laura called the police, who came to see them at home.
LAURA: And that resulted in a an interim two year AVO. And that included my son as well.
NARRATION: When she tried to get JIRT to re-open their investigation, they refused.
38:38 LAURA: And I kept getting the same old rhetoric "Oh, but this is at Family Court, we don't want to have anything to do with this".
And then they decided to close the case and deem me a risk. And I still don't know how they came to the conclusion. But I'm a risk. We're still trying to work that out. We're trying to get that information now to find out but and so the matter went back to court and the court found that it was very serious to what I had done to the children. i.e. taking the children to interviews and medical exams, well, that's not good. And talking to the children about it. Well, that's not good either. Therefore, I'm a risk. So the matter went to trial. And six months later, I lost my children.
JESS: So when was that?
LAURA: Around Mother's Day, last year?
JESS: And what's your contact been since?
LAURA: Very intermittent. The children have tried to reach out and communicate with me. But it's been, it's been stopped by the father. That's it. I've tried to, you know, take presents to the school and do all the things that I'm allowed to do according to the orders. But he put a stop to all that he controlled all of that. So I've had contact with my son, but not direct contact with my daughter.
JESS: And that's in what are we now? Almost a year.
LAURA: It'll be a year this Mother's Day.
40:00 NARRATION: Laura is now taking advice on what she can do next.
LAURA: I won't give up. I'll keep fighting. I'll just keep I'll keep at the system. We've tried to appeal, but it was really risky. I've already lost, or spent I should say in excess of $250,000 probably. I've lost count. I don't know. If we were to lose the appeal, I would have been up for maybe another 50, 60 thousand in costs. It was a risky strategy. I'm not wholly convinced I've had the best advice from lawyers that I've had, but I'm working through it and I'm getting advice from wherever I can and I'm just gonna keep at it. What else do you do?
JESS: It does feel like such a trap.
40:450 LAURA: Yeah, and I just feel like I'm it's like I'm living someone else's life at the moment. And I feel like I'm just cruising along in limbo land, waiting for those kids to walk back in my door again and everything go back to normal. Because I had a really good life, they were doing really well.
But I just feel like I have to get up every day and keep going. Because if I don't keep going, what have the kids got to come back to?
REFLECTIVE TRANSITION MUSIC PLAYS
41:19 GRANT: As soon as you start reading about the Family Court, you come across the idea of parental alienation.
It begins with the premise that almost all allegations of child abuse are false.
For parents accused of domestic abuse or child sexual abuse, ‘parental alienation’ has become a go-to counterclaim: deny the abuse, and instead allege that the other parent has alienated the children against them. It’s a supercharged version of DARVO that has captured family court systems worldwide.
It has been through many iterations over the past 40 years, but its origins are in the 1980s.
42:00 It's astonishing that this man, who had no academic credibility, he was a part time volunteer at Columbia University. And none of his work was ever peer reviewed. And yet, he was able to advance this idea into the courts and it seems to have just overwhelmed the courts.
42:24 NARRATION: Grant is talking here about Richard Gardner, the child psychiatrist who conceptualised Parental Alienation Syndrome. His theory had a clear target: spiteful mothers who allege child abuse in custody disputes to punish their ex-husband and ensure they got custody of the children.
Gardner identified several ‘symptoms’ in children suffering from this syndrome, like insisting that they alone came up with the allegations (what he called ‘the independent thinker’) and supporting and protecting the innocent parent. Gardner claimed that this syndrome was especially prominent in custody cases featuring allegations of child sexual abuse.
The vast majority of these cases - 90 per cent - were, he said, fabricated. Gardner became a go-to expert in the 80s and 90s, and testified, as an expert witness, in more than 400 custody cases. Parental Alienation Syndrome became popular with family lawyers across the Western world, including Australia.
43:35 GRANT: He tried to advance this mental condition, Parental Alienation Syndrome, into all the credible psychiatric and psychological bodies who wouldn't have a bar of it. Because they rightly concluded that his concept wasn't designed to diagnose a mental condition in a child, it was designed to help fathers win court cases.
It asks judges to assume that children's behavior towards an alienated parent has no grounding in reality. That it's completely unjustifiable for children to be scared of a parent, regardless of their behavior.
44:13 NARRATION: If you read Gardner’s self-published work, it doesn’t seem outrageous to conclude that he devised parental alienation syndrome in order to hide child sexual abuse from the eyes of the family courts.
In his 1992 book, True and False Allegations of Child Sex Abuse, Gardner advised therapists treating child sexual abuse victims to work with the whole family to help older children ‘appreciate that sexual encounters between an adult and a child are not universally considered to be reprehensible acts.’ Mothers who are raising such allegations in custody cases should also be helped to appreciate that such child-adult sexual encounters are common, and the fathers who are accused should be reassured that ‘there is a certain amount of paedophilia in all of us’, but that draconian responses from society mean he must learn to control himself.
45:16 GRANT: It has managed to just alter the perspective of the courts in such a way that is, you know, it's just really extraordinary. That's what I framed it as, this ideological conversion of the court.
45:30 NARRATION: Parental alienation syndrome has now been discredited for years, disavowed by psychiatric associations here and overseas. But the notion of parental alienation - not as a syndrome, but as a description of the behaviour of the alleging parent - remains. It is particularly disturbing that Gardner’s assertion - that 90 per cent of child sexual abuse claims are false - is actually reflected in that research on court findings we mentioned earlier - which shows the court finding sexual abuse allegations to be true only 14 per cent of the time.
Gardner is no longer considered a credible expert by the court. But his idea of parental alienation lives on, though it’s been adapted and modified.
46:20 GRANT: There was this pivot to a concept called parental alienation which tries to remove the idea that children are suffering a mental condition when they don't want to engage with an abusive parent. Instead, it focuses more on the actions of (in most cases) a mother who is taking actions to alienate a child from the other partner, usually the father. It's an evolution from Gardner's ideas, but it's built on a lot of the same premises. The premises that you know, women are habitual liars. It actually can't be proven that this is the case, but it's the operating assumption.
JESS: Well, this is what's so interesting about it. And at the core of domestic abuse is usually the father's attempt to interrupt the bond between the mother and the kids. So the notion of parental alienation is actually at the core of domestic abuse, perpetrated by the violent parent. And yet, you very rarely hear that in the family courts. You very rarely see women accusing their violent ex-partner of parental alienation.
47:27 GRANT: Well, yeah, it maintains its history. If it starts as a rotten idea, it's not going to be able to fully lose that rot. That rot is going to remain at the center of it. Joan Meier from George Washington University Law School did a recent study, a study last year on this, where accusations of parental alienation against men tend to have a neutral effect on the outcome of custody cases. Whereas accusations of parental alienation against women doubled the rate that women themselves would lose custody. So, it still maintains that gendered lens. It still maintains Gardner's initial conception that women are all liars.
TRANSITION MUSIC PLAYS
GRANT: It's extraordinary and it's extraordinary as I'd say, he's become the most influential figure in family courts throughout the West. His, his, his concepts and the evolution of his concepts are, are the central tenet, you know, the central organising principle of these courts. It's extraordinary that are judges and other legal associates who are highly educated, highly sophisticated people and they haven't caught this. They've allowed themselves to be overwhelmed by this man and his concepts. It's a stark institutional failure.
48:39 NARRATION: I think it's important to note here that there are some cases where a parent does really try to turn a child against the other parent. Especially during custody disputes. The point is though, the actual theory of Parental Alienation and how it's used in the courts cannot be divorced from its origins. We need a new analysis of this dynamic so that it stops being misused by perpetrators.
49:07 This is an issue of public safety and even state security, says Grant, because the findings of the family law system are essentially giving abusive parents a green light.
GRANT: One thing that I've picked up on, in some of the research I've been doing, is that a lot of these abusive men take their legal victories as endorsements of their behavior. This is the court perpetuating violence. It's not a court excusing violence, it's the court actually increasing the rates of violence in society.
TRANSITION MUSIC PLAYS
49:45 DEB: The latest update is the girlfriend, my ex husband's girlfriend or wife, she's been arrested. And they put her. But she's on bail. And there's an AVO in place to protect *beep* but I still go through family court to protect her, to give her more protection.
NARRATION: This is Deb. And I want to take you back to her story, because I think it illustrates what Grant is saying, which is pretty controversial: that the family law courts are not just excusing violence, but actually increasing the rates of violence in society.
I first met Deb and her caseworker Naomi in a safe room at a shopping centre, after she bravely agreed to be filmed for the SBS series, See What You Made Me Do. She was still with her husband - but planning her escape.
50:40 Here’s a recap – we’d just sat down, and Naomi was running Deb through a safety plan.
NAOMI: If you wanted to leave, do you feel like you're safe to leave? Do you feel like you could do that or not?
DEB: leave? I don't have money. And he’s got to control the bank account. And we go to camera in our house as well. It's in our living room, but facing to our bedroom as well, But the children are scared. They're scared. If they are in a certain corner in the bedroom, the camera won't caught it. So they just stay there and they are quiet.
51:13 NAOMI: Has your husband ever done anything physical with you?
DEB: He hasn't physically beat me.
51:18 NAOMI: Have you ever talked to the police about what's going on at home?
DEB: I've tried to seek help from the police, but, I don't have bruises like a typical things on my face and there's nothing I can prove to them as I tell I’m them scared to go home.
I don't know what to do. I'd rather just have a bruise on my eyes. Yeah. Yeah. It's much, much more easier, I think.
NAOMI: I think the main thing is to get you safe, getting you in the children safe first,
What's your thinking around when would be a time you feel confident that you could actually leave?
51:54 DEB: maybe just pretending I'm going for a normal shopping with the kids for the grocery, or just picking them up from school. This is the only chance. Yeah.
52:11 JESS: How are you feeling actually about leaving with so much surveillance?
DEB: I think it is a huge risk to me. I know it could be dangerous, but I have no other option.
52:25 NARRATION: Deb did leave, and she knew she had to be strategic. When I caught up with her on Zoom, Deb told me what had happened since we met.
DEB: So it's like a movie actually. So what happened is I've been advised by, by that time, my caseworker, she said, you need to grab all the important documents, like the kids the birth certificate, and passport, these kind of things. So I've been doing a little bit of time for like more than a week, prepare for everything. So I'm waiting for the chance.
53:00 NARRATION: On a Sunday, when she was ready, Deb put on an oversized hoodie, so she could stuff nappies into her tights. She knew she would need a minor miracle to pull this off. Her husband would need to be out, and she’d have to convince his mother – who was living with them at the time – that the kids were coming out with her to the supermarket.
DEB: Luckily all the kids wants to go with me because sometimes they say oh, I want to I don't want to go. And that's the time I just grabbed the baby pram, push everything to the car, squeeze everything into the car and just drive.
53:36 NARRATION: Deb took the kids to stay in her friend’s office – the one place she thought her husband wouldn’t find them – and called a domestic violence helpline to figure out their next steps. Eventually, they found a refuge to settle them into, and Deb set about re-establishing her children’s lives. Not just because she wanted them to get back to normal as soon as possible, but because she knew that if she didn’t do this straight away, her ex-husband would use it against her in the family court. She didn’t just suspect that - it’s what her lawyer had told her. After everything he had done, there was no certainty the family court would grant her full custody of their kids.
54:19 DEB: I need to relocate the kids to the different daycares, and finding the different sports on a days for the daycares. And it's very hard. Because there has to be like a same amount of the days that equals to they used to be because he's going to use this against me in the family law saying I'm not providing the children enough education. After I fill up like all these forms, we just settle down, he found us.
54:45 NARRATION: Deb’s ex-husband found her because of a very ordinary system failure. One that takes only a few minutes to make, but for the victim survivor, can spiral their life into chaos – and put them and their kids at severe risk.
Deb had reversed into another car by accident back before she’d escaped, when she was in the thick of coercive control and could barely concentrate. Now she thought it was time to fix the car so she contacted her insurance company to lodge a claim, and told them explicitly:
55:21 DEB: Please do not call my old number, because my old phone number is being you know, controlled by my ex-husband. They updated in the new lodge, the new client form, but not the old one. So somehow the Smash Repair Company they actually call my ex husband that which is my old number.
NARRATION: He didn’t know where exactly she was, but the refuge wasn’t taking any chances. Within two hours, they had packed Deb and the kids and transferred them to another refuge.
So again, Deb had to find daycare, sports for her kids, and set up their entire lives from scratch. Since then, she’s moved again. And in their new place – the kids are still on high alert.
56:13 DEB: because I live in a unit so if they hear a doorbells at nighttime, normal kids will pick up the you know the security intercom what they do is they hide underneath of the bed.
JESS: What do they think it is?
DEB: My ex-husband – that he found us again.
56:30 NARRATION: Even though she and the kids are still terrified of him, and living in hiding, Deb felt she had no choice but to agree – on the strong advice of her family law solicitor – to hand the kids over to him every second weekend, as he’d requested.
56:47 DEB: I don't want to do it but I have to do it. If you don't do this, what I've been told by my solicitor it's gonna make you really bad like just you know, taking the kids away from the father. And you don't consider his rights to seeing the children and it is gonna make you look bad in the family court. I did that only because I don't want to lose in the family court for the children's custody.
57:10 JESS: What were you afraid of when you were, you know, going to be handing your kids over unsupervised to this man that you've just escaped. What, in your quiet moments, what were you afraid would happen?
57:22 DEB: They will never return to me. You don't even know when you say bye to kids, will you be able to see them again?
TRANSITION MUSIC PLAYS
NARRATION: Just to get these interim parenting orders – not even final orders – had cost Deb $80,000. These orders were in place until the Friday before we spoke, when Deb and her kids’ life was turned upside down again.
57:52 That Friday, like so many victim survivors who need to do handovers in public, Deb was doing her changeover in the McDonald’s carpark. Her daughter was adamant – she just did not want to go.
DEB: And he's like, okay, can you give me a hug? And she gave him a hug. And he grab her and put her into the car straightaway, and she's been crying, and all the people in the drive thru, can hear can heard her, she's screaming and crying, and I can't do anything. Because I can't just say no, you stop it and up on you know, I take her back. And I know he's gonna make the story again and saying I was, you know, stopping him to see, see the children.
NARRATION: When the kids were returned to Deb on Monday morning, she noticed scratches on her daughter’s cheeks. As she was buckling her into the car seat, she tried to find out what had happened, but her daughter wouldn’t tell her. She didn’t push it - she didn’t want to be paranoid; after all, kids are active, they get scratches.
58:59 DEB: And it's just normal busy day until six o'clock at nighttime.
She's going to shower, I was helping her for a shower. I took off her pants. And I was shocked because I can see so many bruises on her front upper legs on her thighs. It's like size of the five cents. But there are maybe 20.
And you can see the half circle nail pressing mark next to the bruise like 10 of them. So I was crying. I was asking her what happened to your legs… and she goes, because she's performing like this to me like putting her thumb and indication fingers and doing this. And she said she just did this on her legs. Yeah,and she'd call her Fake Mommy. So she's said Fake Mommy did this. And I was like oh she pinched you? She said yes she pinched me.
And then asked *beep* why she did this to you? Then she goes I don't know. And I was - did it hurt? She goes hurt! And I said did you cry? Did you scream? Did you call for help?
No. I have to be quiet. Because if I cry it’s gonna be hurt more.
NARRATION: Deb was furious and devastated, and trying to figure out what to do next. Go to the police? What if they just dismissed her like last time?
01:00:35 But then she realised: if she didn’t go to police, her daughter would have to go back to her father in two weeks. So she went.
DEB: This time, I feel much better than my past experience.
1:00:47 NARRATION: Deb’s ex-husband tried to convince police that she had done this to her own daughter, and was falsely accusing his girlfriend, just to try to stop the kids from seeing him.
But after police interviewed Deb’s daughter at the local children’s hospital, they arrested her father’s girlfriend, and applied for an AVO against her on the children’s behalf.
For now, the court orders are suspended, so the kids are not court-ordered to see their father, and there will be a criminal hearing about the abuse inflicted on her daughter. But he’s still going for majority custody, and their family law case will likely stretch on for years. Despite leaving her husband at great risk to herself and her children, Deb feels like there is no end in sight.
01:01:38 DEB: I feel like I'm drowning. Like, every time I was trying to breathe out of the water, my ex husband just, you know, pull me back to the water again, because it's just endless. I'm just breathing in between the waters and airs… that's it.
01:01:54 NARRATION: What Deb and her kids have had to endure is terrible. But it is not even close to the worst stories I’ve heard – in fact, what’s particularly confronting about Deb’s story is that it is… unremarkable.
Despite fleeing from this man with her children, afraid for all of their lives, Deb knew the system she was about to enter would likely demand that she cooperate with him.
As the mother of a four-year-old, I can’t imagine anything worse than what Deb and Laura are experiencing - let alone their kids.
TRANSITION MUSIC PLAYS
NARRATION: We’ve covered a lot of ground in this episode, but we’ve barely scratched the surface of how systems are used to perpetuate coercive control. The cases I’m told about would take hours to explain. They are complex, and they cover multiple intersecting systems. There’s a lot more to report on this subject - and it would be great to see journalists doing more to hold these systems to account.
01:03:07 But it’s no good just focusing on what’s failing. We also need to look at how systems can change. And how they can become protective.
This is what David and Ruth Mandel spend their days focusing on. So I was thrilled when I heard that they would be delivering mandatory domestic violence training across Australia’s family law courts, with a focus on improving decisions related to child safety. They’ll be training professionals across the family law system - from judges, to the family consultants who frequently evaluate families for the courts.
01:03:45 DAVID: I feel very proud that we're doing it, I also am aware that we're you know, we're up against lots of habits, you know, and and it's, I don't I don't want people to perceive this as the answer.
01:03:59 NARRATION: There is a lot to fix - across our systems. But we need to keep in mind not just what’s wrong with them - but what kind of world we’re working towards.
DAVID: I think the other side of it is imagining a world where a domestic violence perpetrator says, I'm going to go to family court and take the kids from you. And there's nothing you can do to stop me. And where a domestic survivor laughs at that goes, Go ahead, try. That's not what the court does anymore. The courts not gonna believe you, the courts gonna believe me, they're gonna judge you as a poor parent because of the way you treated me and so go ahead, go to court.
TRANSITION MUSIC PLAYS
01:04:44 NARRATION: Imagine that.
Next time, on The Trap, we’re looking at power, patriarchy and governance.
You’ve been listening to The Trap, proudly brought to you by the Victorian Women’s Trust and its harm prevention entity the Dugdale Trust for Women and Girls. We would like to thank all of our supporters and donors. Special thanks to Equity Trustees & the Phyllis Connor Trust, the Bokhara Foundation and a private donor.
Our Creative Producer and editor is Georgina Savage. Co producers are Ally Oliver Perham, Maria Chetcuti , Mary Crooks and Lucy Ballantyne. Special thanks to Leah McPherson and the team at the Victorian Women’s Trust. The Trap was mixed by Romy Sher and Pariya Taherzadeh. I’m your head writer, producer and host, Jess Hill.
01:05:38 This podcast was produced in Sydney and Melbourne and we respectfully acknowledge the traditional owners and custodians of this land, the Gadigal of the Eora nation and the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin nation.
We would like to acknowledge the victim survivors and others who have generously shared their stories and expertise.
If today’s topics have raised any issues for you, help is available. Contact 1800 RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or, if you are seeking specialist LGBTQI support, contact With Respect, on 1800 542 847, or see our show notes for a full list of support services.
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Thank you for listening.