POLICY REPORT: CHILD EXPOSURE TO DOMESTIC VIOLENCE IN NEW ZEALAND, 2012
The problem this report deals with is child exposure to domestic violence in New Zealand. This is an issue of extreme importance as there is very strong evidence that children who are exposed to domestic violence are more likely to develop a range of mental illnesses and behavioural difficulties. In addition, exposed children are likely to continue the trend of domestic violence into a new generation. I chose to analyse the New Zealand government’s approach to tackling this problem and determine where and why government failure is occurring. In particular, I focused on government approaches to protect children from future exposure. I discovered that there has been a failure to properly implement the legislation of the Care of Child Act (2004). This failure has resulted from a continued valuation of contact between the abusive parent and their child, and a lack of input from trained psychologists in the determination of when a child is safe from potential harm. Moreover, through a comparative institutional analysis with Australia I discovered that identifying greater amounts of children exposed to domestic violence does not translate into better results for children, but places further unrealistic burden on already strained family services. In light of this fact, I argue that it would be wiser to focus more on those at greatest risk, and provide thorough counselling services for parents and children who have left a violent domestic situation. Finally, I identified successful child-led psychotherapeutic programmes being used in Melbourne and believe these programmes should be made available throughout New Zealand.
Children living in New Zealand are still being exposed to domestic violence at great numbers. While New Zealand made bold legislative moves in 1995 to confront the issue, this report will demonstrate that the core legislation has not been properly implemented. It will be argued that the legislation has not been instantiated due to a valuation of parental rights above the potential dangers of exposure to domestic violence; moreover, uncertainty regarding the actual risks is heightened due to trained psychologists often not being involved in the risk assessment process. In addition, it will be argued that expanding the amount of children that enter the system through mandatory reporting, or including exposure to emotional violence as a potential reason for statutory action, would only overwhelm a system already struggling to implement current legislation. We should therefore invest out energies into the realistic goals of having child-led psychotherapy available for parents and children who have left particularly abusive relationships, and have psychologists available to assess whether the exposure experienced by the child is enough to vindicate the temporary termination of parental rights.
Child exposure to domestic violence has gained enormous ground as a significant policy issue in recent years. Stephanie Rabenstein and Peter Lehmann define exposure to domestic violence as, ‘either hearing, seeing or attempting to intervene in an act of domestic violence.’
Initially, an act of domestic violence was construed as an act of violence by one adult to another and the children who were present were seen as extensions of the adults involved. Part of the reason for the above view was that the initial dialogue surrounding domestic violence was that of ‘violence against women’ as the societal focus on domestic violence grew out of the feminist movement. In addition, as the mother was the direct target on the violent act, it was thought that a shift in focus to the exposed children would take the focus away from the primary target and also turn the mother into an implicit victimiser of her child.
However, the notion of what it means to be a child has shifted over the last twenty years, and the experiences, emotions and opinions of children are perceived to be valuable in their own right. Children are no longer seen as extensions of their parents but are viewed as individuals with rights and voices that should be heard. This movement was substantially translated into legislation when the United Nations ratified the Rights of Child Act in 1989.
In combination with a new perception of childhood there has also been a growing awareness of the severe damage that hearing or seeing violence between adults within the family home has on children. Numerous social problems are associated with exposure to domestic violence, making it imperative that the government tries to eradicate this issue as much as possible if these others problems are going to be dealt with properly.
One of the strongest correlations is between child exposure to domestic violence and the development of mental illnesses. The mental health field has made a large contribution to an understanding of the psychological impact of exposure by articulating the impact this problem has on the patients they deal with.
In America, it has been shown that children exposed to domestic violence are more likely to develop internalising problems (such as anxiety, depression, social withdrawal and self-blame), externalising problems (such as aggression and violence), and social competency problems (such as making or keeping friends).  
Furthermore, boys who have witnessed domestic violence are more likely to become victimisers and girls more likely to become victims. There is therefore evidence that tackling child exposure to domestic violence not only deals with a criminal act in its own right, but approaches an insidious social problem at its root.
Within the New Zealand context, both the scale and the severity of this issue are outlined in an article by James Chapman and Janis Carroll-Lind in the Social Policy Journal of New Zealand. They note that in a random questionnaire to 2077 children across New Zealand it was discovered that 27% had witnessed physical violence from one adult to another. In addition, an analysis was performed which asked children how badly they were affected by the violence on a scale or 1-5, and discovered that children were more impacted by exposure to domestic violence than when violence was performed against them. The only act that was shown to have a worse impact on the subjective wellbeing of the child participants was sexual abuse.
In response to such considerations the New Zealand government passed various pieces of legislation. Firstly, in 1995 two key acts were passed: the Domestic Violence Act and the Guardianship Amendment Act.
The Domestic Violence Act involved the following changes: 1) a widened definition of domestic violence to include non-physical abuse and the witnessing of abuse by children 2) the introduction of mandatory programmes for perpetrators and the availability of programmes for victims and their children 3) better protection and processes for victims.
On the other hand, the Guardian Amendment Act stipulated that any parents who had committed acts of domestic violence could not have unsupervised contact with their children. This act was then replaced in 2004 by the Care of Child Act, which carried over almost identical provisions to the previous act.
These acts have established the framework within which New Zealand’s attempt to tackle child exposure to domestic violence has taken place. They represent ambitious attempts to put into practice the theories and attitudes surrounding exposure which have developed within numerous fields of inquiry. However, there is controversy surrounding the practical impact they have had in protecting the vulnerable.
A substantial investigation into the results of the 2004 Care of Child Act can be found in Living on the Cutting Edge, a document produced by New Zealand’s Ministry of Women’s Affairs. The authors of this document note that the experiences of the women that they interviewed suggest that since 2004 there has been a continued valuation of ongoing contact with the abusive father above the safety of women and children. They also note that various key informants they interviewed believed that the Family Court was not always calling for specialist reports from psychologists. Moreover, they note that the Family Court’s preference for mediation and conciliation processes has meant that women are bullied into unsafe “consent” orders regarding their children. In general, the authors believe that, ‘Overwhelmingly, the problems identified in our case studies and in our analysis of judicial decisions reflect not inadequate legislation but inadequate implementation.’
The New Zealand government has clearly made great strides to tackle the problem of child exposure to domestic violence. Noble legislation was passed which acknowledges that the witnessing of domestic violence by children is an act of domestic violence in its own right; in addition, the Care of Child Act provides a means of protecting children from the potential of future exposure and thus attempts to cut the trend of domestic violence and its associated psychological trauma at its foundation.
Given the fact that the New Zealand government has passed such legislation one would expect to find substantial action taking place on the ground. However, children are still being exposed to domestic violence at intolerable rates, and many within the current system believe that the core legislation is not being properly instantiated. In addition, a core problem is that within the current legislation there is no stipulation of mandatory assessment by trained psychologists. In light of these facts, it is clear that the most appropriate analytical framework through which to analyse the problem is government failure.
Possible policy alternatives will therefore be assessed in relation to what extent they reduce government failure. Government failure would be reduced either by aligning the practice of the courts within the dictates of legislation, by adjusting legislation, or by changing governmental goals in line with the practical realities.
The second analytical approach this report has chosen to use is comparative institutional analysis. Australia, like New Zealand, is a modern colonial nation, which is struggling to solve the issue of child exposure to domestic violence. New Zealand has many cultural and historical similarities with Australia, and therefore the often used criterion of subjective identification is met with this analysis. In addition, as Australia is a federal country various states have independently adopted different approaches to different degrees of success. Much can therefore be learnt about what to adopt and avoid through comparison with Australia.
Finally, through the construction of a webpage an attempt will be made to gain constructive feedback from stakeholders. The key stakeholders that will be approached are policy analysts working in the Ministry of Social Development and the Ministry of Youth Affairs. In addition, lawyers currently employed within New Zealand’s judicial system will be asked to comment on the problems surrounding the Care of Child Act (2004), with the aim of obtaining further insight into why this legislation is not being properly implemented.
Analysis and findings
The New Zealand government has made bold legislative moves to prevent and deal with the exposure of children to domestic violence; however, the legislation has not been put into practice as intended. In general, there has been a lack of foresight regarding the practical realities of implementing the current legislation, in particular, the moral and financial problems associated with the termination of parental rights.
Living on the Cutting Edge points to a lack of willingness on the court’s behalf to separate children from abusive parents. This document also indicates that the courts are not using properly trained psychologists to assess the situation as this process is not stipulated as mandatory under the Care of Child Act. This is likely to lead to higher levels of recidivism, as the individuals engaging in the risk assessment do not have the proper knowledge or experience to make accurate assessments of the situation.
In response to the current situation, Living on the Cutting Edge advocates that the Care of Child Act should be adjusted to include a mandatory assessment by an appropriately trained psychologist of any child exposed to domestic violence. In addition, they argue for an amendment of section 58 of the Care of Child Act to include emotional violence as a reason for the perpetrator of domestic violence to be stripped of custodial rights until they have successfully proved themselves capable of safe parenting. They note that this amendment would be consistent with the definition of domestic violence of section 19 of the United Nations’ Rights of the Child Act. Finally, they argue that there is strong consensus in the social science literature that mediation and conciliation are not appropriate in cases of domestic violence and eventuate in the development of further child exposure to domestic violence.
A similar clash between noble intentions and practical realities can be found in Australia and can therefore aid understanding of future directions. Western Australia’s approach to child victimisation of domestic violence has demonstrated the problems associated with an expanded intention to protect children without the connected expansion in funding. The state of Western Australia developed a policy of mandatory reporting, whereby any teachers, social workers, or medical professionals who suspect a case of domestic violence have to report it to the police. Cathy Humphreys argues this has been ineffective, leading to an overloading of the statutory system without necessarily improving the safety of children. She notes that, ‘The exponential rise in notifications shown in some states has also seen a substantial lowering of the proportion of investigations and the rate of substantiations has decreased to less than one in five notifications (18.9%) to child protection departments across Australia.’
However, on a more positive note, I discovered that Australia has some innovative therapeutic processes in place. In Melbourne, Australia therapeutic programmes have emerged which have demonstrated success in both qualitative and quantitative studies. The PARKAS programmes (Parents Accepting Responsibility Kids Are Safe), is aimed at children between the ages of 8-10. It involves psychotherapy delivered to both the victimised child and parent by the same staff. Before commencement of the programme a detailed assessment session is held with the mother and child, where the child’s feelings are voiced in the presence of the mother. The session for the child is then held before the session for the mother, and the mother’s activities replicate the child’s session so she can understand things from the child’s point of view. W. Bunston notes that this experience is ‘potent, confronting, and illuminating’ for the mothers.
Furthermore, emerging out of the PARKAS programme in 2005, the Peek a Boo Club offers a chance for mothers and their children to play together in various ways that promote different kinds of communication. This programme works with children up to the age of 36 months – the time period when children are undergoing enormous change: neurological, psychological, and physiological. Like the PARKAS programme, the Peek a Boo Club sets a child-led tone from the assessment period onwards.
Bunston notes that the aim of these programmes is not to make the mother feel guilty or to create an unhealthy power balance between the children and adults. The aim is rather to reconnect the mother and children together through new means of communication and a reciprocal sharing of feelings.
Various reasons can explain the unwillingness of the courts to instantiate the Care of Child Act. Firstly, there is an obvious conflict between the rights of the parents and the children. Individuals within the court system might feel that parents should not lose their rights to parenthood unless they have physically or sexually assaulted their children. This would reflect a lack of awareness regarding how damaging exposure to domestic violence is to children. In examining the case, they might see an abusive partner but a caring parent, and therefore are unwilling to enforce legislation which runs against their sense of justice. Also, parents might be unaware of the direct impact domestic violence has on the children exposed to it; therefore, the courts might be lenient due to what they take to be ignorance of the parent’s behalf.
Attempts to protect children from exposure to domestic violence is further complicated by the fact that violent relationships are not violent all the time, and it is often unclear whether the incident(s) was the result of transient situational stress or a more systematic flaw in the character of the abuser.
Moreover, individuals who are victims of domestic violence sometimes either stay with their partner or re-enter the relationships after some time off. This further complicates issues. If the primary victim of the domestic assault moves back with the perpetrator, it would mean that the children who live in such a volatile situation would have to be taken from both mother and father. Strict adherence to the Care of Child Act would therefore require expensive housing and support networks to be in place for the children, which would be extremely expensive, and could create additional emotional difficulties for the children.
It is clear that the legislation should be easier to enforce if the primary victim of the violence made a firm decision to remain separated from the violent offender. It is here that the government should make the greatest efforts to enforce the Care of Child Act. In order to do this properly, fully accredited psychologists with a background in cases of domestic violence should be used to determine when it is safe for a child to re-enter a relationship with their abusive parent.
It seems however that rather than attempting to bring more and more children into a system which does not have the means to effectively implement current legislation, the focus needs to shift towards dealing effectively with the cases which can be realistically dealt with. The best approach is therefore to only take children away from both parents in extreme cases (if still living together); in addition, trained psychologists should be used to determined when a child should be removed from her parents, and if the child is living solely with the victim of the violence, then a psychologist, not a family court judge, should decide when and if contact with the abusive parent is acceptable.
As noted previously, exposure to domestic violence produces lasting repercussions in the lives of the children involved. While legally intervening to prevent children from being exposed to such violence is important, there are practical constraints which indicate that continuing to expand definitions regarding when supervision should be temporarily terminated, or implementing mandatory reporting, would lead to even greater government failure. In addition, expansion of the number of children determined in need would mean that already strained resources would not be available to help those most desperate.
However, when a psychologist has deemed that a child must be protected from an abusive parent, it is not enough to simply separate the child without therapeutic intervention. To do so would likely leave the child with the sense of guilt and hurt which the intervention attempted to prevent.
Providing better services for those already within the system presents a more realistic and promising path than an overloading of the system through an expansion of the criteria to include emotional violence as a reason for the suspension of parental rights or the initiation of mandatory reporting. However, the programmes outlined above are only likely to be useful when the adults involved in the acts of violence are no longer in a living relationship with each other. These services should therefore be made available for mothers (or fathers) and children who have left a previously violent living arrangement.
It could be argued that these programmes themselves would involve immense cost. However, that is why I suggest saving them for the situations outlined above. In addition, the implementation of a number of such programmes would be drastically cheaper than taking an even greater number of children away from families without the resources to properly provide for them. That is not to say nothing should be done in the other cases; charges can still be made against parents when it is clear exposure to domestic violence is occurring. However, it would involve a more prudent approach to the termination of parental rights, and an attempt at proper implementation in the more extreme cases.
In contrast to my proposal of working carefully with the most vulnerable rather than expanding the amount of children within the statutory system, Living on the Cutting Edge advocates including exposure to emotional violence as an offence which should lead to the termination of parental rights. This would greatly expand the amount of children who would legally have to be separated from either one or both of their parents (if the parents were still living together). In light of the government’s failure to properly enforce the narrower criteria which is currently in place, it seems unwise to bring more cases before a court system which is already failing to meet the legislated standard.
In response to the above consideration this report concludes that the policy recommendations made below are most appropriate. In addition, they are ordered so that the first recommendation is thought to be the most pressing.
1. Make it mandatory that trained psychologists are used within the family courts system to make decisions as to whether a parent has the right to see a child that has been exposed to domestic violence.
Efficiency: qualitative evidence collected by authors of Living on the Cutting Edge notes that many of the victims involved in the family court system feel that their and their children’s safety would be much better determined by someone trained in the field. This makes intuitive sense: surely a professional with a strong background in family violence would be in a better position to decide if a child is safe to be seen by an abusive parent without supervision.
Equity: the cost involved in having trained psychologists within the family court system would not be excessive.
Simplicity: there might be some resulting conflict between judges and psychologists. The legislation of the Care of Child Act would also have to change to include this mandatory provision, which would bring additional complications.
2. Create child-led psychotherapy programmes for children and their victimised parents.
Efficiency: The Melbourne child-led psychotherapeutic interventions have been judged successful according to qualitative and quantitative measures. In addition, American studies show that immediate psychotherapeutic intervention involving the exposed children and the non-offending parent are most useful in negating the potential after effects of the exposure.
Equity: Initiating these programmes would require moderate cost as facilitates would be needed for them to take place, and psychologists would have to be trained in the child-led psychotherapeutic approach. However, restricting such programmes to parent-child combinations that are already living separately from the abusive parent would narrow the amount of candidates for the intervention.
Simplicity: These programmes could be easily initiated as they would not require any legislative changes or potential infringement on the rights of any of the parents or the children.
3. Have media campaigns which raise awareness of the devastating impact being exposed to domestic violence has on children.
Efficiency: many parents are probably not aware of the impact that exposure to domestic violence has on children and assume that as long as they are not physically or sexually assaulting their child then they are not doing them significant harm. Raising awareness in the community would intuitively create a culture where the repercussions of exposing children to domestic violence are clearer in the mind of the perpetrators and therefore a reduction would likely occur.
Equity: A child exposure media campaign would entail substantial costs.
Simplicity: such media campaigns would not require any changes in legislation or any infringements of the rights of parents or children. While production teams would have to be employed to create the campaigns, the government has a history of social media campaigns and therefore has experience with this procedure.
This report has demonstrated that government failure is occurring in the response to child exposure to domestic violence. The implementation to the Care of Child Act legislation has been unsatisfactory (partly due to the legislation itself). There is a lack of awareness surrounding the psychological damage that occurs due to exposure to domestic violence and an unwillingness to override parental rights in favour of child wellbeing. This problem would be partially resolved by having trained psychologists making the decisions as to when a child should not be left unsupervised with a parent. However, as the Western Australian situation shows, identifying greater numbers of children exposed to domestic violence does not translate into greater wellbeing. Therefore, the future policy direction should not involve overloading a financially strained system with even greater numbers of children, but producing greater tools for dealing effectively with the children that have been impacted to a large extent. In addition, the psychological impact of exposure to domestic violence is a moderately new issue, and continued media campaigns that highlight its impact and unacceptability help shape a culture which is intolerant of such abuses.
Albert R. Roberts, Karel Hurst-Swanger “Court Responses to Battered Women and Their Children ” In Handbook of Domestic Violence Intervention Strategies: Policies, Programmes and Legal Remedies edited by Albert R. Roberts, pp.127-47. Oxford Oxford University Press 2002
Bunston , W. “Baby Lead the Way: Mental Health Group Work for Infants, Children and Mothers Affected by Family Violence.” Journal of Family Studies 14, no. 2-3 (2008): 334-41.
Humphreys, Cathy. “Problems in the System of Mandatory Reporting of Children Living with Domestic Violence ” Journal of Family Studies 14, no. 2 (2008): pp.228-39.
Janis Carroll-Lind, James Chapman. “Children’s Perceptions of Violence: The Nature, Extent and Impact of Their Experiences.” Social Policy Journal of New Zealand no. 37 (2011).
Justice, Ministry of. “Family Violence “.
Linda Mills, Carrie Petrucci “A National Study of the Intergration of Domestic Violence Assessment into Child Welfare Practice ” In Handbook of Domestic Violence Intervention Strategies: Policies, Programs, and Legal Remedies edited by Albert R. Roberts, pp.202-16. Oxford: Oxford University Press 2002.
Murray, Anastasia Powell and Suellen. “Children and Domestic Violence: Constructing a Policy Problem in Australia and New Zealand.” Social & Legal Studies 17, no. 453 (2008): pp.452-74.
Neville Robertson, Ruth Busch, Radha D’Souza, Fiona Lam Sheung, Reynu Anand, Roma Balzer, Ariana Simpson, Dulcie Paina. “Living at the Cutting Edge.” Wellington: Ministry of Women’s Affairs, 2007.
Peter Lehmann, Stephanie Rabenstein “Children Exposed to Domestic Violence: The Role of Impact, Assessment, and Treatment ” In Handbook of Domestic Violence Intervention Strategies: Policies, Programs, and Legal Remedies, edited by Albert R. Roberts, pp.343-65. Oxford Oxford University Press 2002.
Richards, Kelly. “Children’s Exposure to Domestic Violence in Australia ” In Trends and issues in crime and criminal justice Australian Institute of Criminology 2011.
Riddell, Rosemary. “Protecting Children from Family Violence ” Family Court of New Zealand http://www.justice.govt.nz/courts/family-court/publications/speeches-and-papers/protecting-children-from-family-violence.
Roberts, Albert R. “Myths, Facts, and Realities Regarding Battered Women and Their Children: An Overview.” In Handbook of Domestic Violence Intervention Strategies: Policies, Programs, and Legal Remedies, edited by Albert R. Roberts. Oxford: Oxford University Press 2002.
Stephen Cunningham, Jo Tomlinson. “Children, Social Policy and the State: The Dichotomy of Care and Control ” In Social Policy: Theories, Concepts and Issues edited by Michael Lavalette and Alan Pratt. London SAGE Publications 2009.
 Stephanie Rabenstein Peter Lehmann, “Children Exposed to Domestic Violence: The Role of Impact, Assessment, and Treatment ” in Handbook of Domestic Violence Intervention Strategies: Policies, Programs, and Legal Remedies, ed. Albert R. Roberts (Oxford Oxford University Press 2002), p.343.
 Anastasia Powell and Suellen Murray, “Children and Domestic Violence: Constructing a Policy Problem in Australia and New Zealand,” Social & Legal Studies 17, no. 453 (2008): p.464.
 Jo Tomlinson Stephen Cunningham, “Children, Social Policy and the State: The Dichotomy of Care and Control ” in Social Policy: Theories, Concepts and Issues ed. Michael Lavalette and Alan Pratt (London SAGE Publications 2009), pp.177-78.
 Murray, “Children and Domestic Violence: Constructing a Policy Problem in Australia and New Zealand.”
 Peter Lehmann, “Children Exposed to Domestic Violence: The Role of Impact, Assessment, and Treatment “, p.343.
 Albert R. Roberts, “Myths, Facts, and Realities Regarding Battered Women and Their Children: An Overview,” in Handbook of Domestic Violence Intervention Strategies: Policies, Programs, and Legal Remedies, ed. Albert R. Roberts (Oxford: Oxford University Press 2002), p.14.
 Peter Lehmann, “Children Exposed to Domestic Violence: The Role of Impact, Assessment, and Treatment “, p.346.
 Kelly Richards, “Children’s Exposure to Domestic Violence in Australia ” in Trends and issues in crime and criminal justice (Australian Institute of Criminology 2011), p.3.
 Roberts, “Myths, Facts, and Realities Regarding Battered Women and Their Children: An Overview,” p.14.
 James Chapman Janis Carroll-Lind, “Children’s Perceptions of Violence: The Nature, Extent and Impact of Their Experiences,” Social Policy Journal of New Zealand no. 37 (2011): p.4.
 Ibid., p.9.
 Rosemary Riddell, “Protecting Children from Family Violence ” Family Court of New Zealand http://www.justice.govt.nz/courts/family-court/publications/speeches-and-papers/protecting-children-from-family-violence.
 Ministry of Justice, “Family Violence “.
 Riddell, “Protecting Children from Family Violence “.
 Ruth Busch Neville Robertson, Radha D’Souza, Fiona Lam Sheung, Reynu Anand, Roma Balzer, Ariana Simpson, Dulcie Paina, “Living at the Cutting Edge,” (Wellington: Ministry of Women’s Affairs, 2007), xiii.
 Ibid., xii.
 Ibid., xiv.
 Ibid., xvi.
 Carrie Petrucci Linda Mills, “A National Study of the Intergration of Domestic Violence Assessment into Child Welfare Practice ” in Handbook of Domestic Violence Intervention Strategies: Policies, Programs, and Legal Remedies ed. Albert R. Roberts (Oxford: Oxford University Press 2002), p.204. They believe it is such inadequate risk assessment which has lead to the 50% rates of recidivism in California.
 Cathy Humphreys, “Problems in the System of Mandatory Reporting of Children Living with Domestic Violence ” Journal of Family Studies 14, no. 2 (2008): p.231.
 W Bunston “Baby Lead the Way: Mental Health Group Work for Infants, Children and Mothers Affected by Family Violence,” Journal of Family Studies 14, no. 2-3 (2008): p.339.
 Ibid., p.337.
 Ibid., p.339.
 Ibid., p.340.
 Neville Robertson, “Living at the Cutting Edge,” xv.
 Ibid., p.xvi.
 Karel Hurst-Swanger Albert R. Roberts, “Court Responses to Battered Women and Their Children ” in Handbook of Domestic Violence Intervention Strategies: Policies, Programmes and Legal Remedies ed. Albert R. Roberts (Oxford Oxford University Press 2002 ), p.140.
 Peter Lehmann, “Children Exposed to Domestic Violence: The Role of Impact, Assessment, and Treatment “, p.353.