Let's Get Honest! Absolutely Uncommon Analysis of Family & Conciliation Courts' Operations, Practices, & History

Identify the Entities, Find the Funding, Talk Sense!

In the Best Interests of Suffering the Little Children – to survive Childhood (alive)…

leave a comment »

(From “WAtoday.com.au”)

Suffer the little children

  • Jen Jewel Brown
  • May 2, 2009

IT WAS 3am on Anzac Day when Dionne Fehring woke in fear. She was in her mother and stepfather’s Tallebudgera house on the Gold Coast, the house she’d fled to after her marriage turned irrevocably violent. “I felt that there was something wrong. Just had that natural mother’s instinct,” she says now.

There’s a quiet dignity holding the tremor in Fehring’s voice these days.

“I just had a feeling from the moment that I woke up that something wasn’t right. Everyone around me was very excited about the kids coming,” she says.

“There was something inside me that would not let me get my hopes up. I had a feeling that he wouldn’t make it that easy. But I never thought that he’d actually kill them … I thought he might kill me, but never them.”

Fehring, whose surname was Dalton back in 2004, was right to be afraid. At 3am precisely, her two children, 17-month-old daughter Jessie and baby Patrick, 12 weeks, were being murdered by their father, Jayson Dalton.

“They know when it happened,” says Fehring, “because when the police broke in, they broke in to find the kids lying dead on the bed, and he’s actually put down the time that he had killed them and written it above their heads.

He had suffocated them with plastic bags. Then he killed himself the same way.

Moving to Seymour in country Victoria, Fehring has mercifully had two more young children she rejoices in. She now works as a patron with the Gold Coast Domestic Violence Prevention Centre.

She sees herself as a survivor rather than a victim. Yet a growing sense of frustration and bafflement has led her to speak out publicly for the first time since 2004.

“In five years, I have seen no changes in the way we deal with the deaths of women and children who come through the Family Court,” she says. “We continue to lose these beautiful little children. It rocks me to the core. I have waves of sadness, then anger, that the deaths of my children were in vain.”

The story of the Dalton family is just one of many domestic tragedies that have played out in Australia over recent years.

According to Australian Institute of Criminology research, an average of 25 children were killed by their parents each year between July 1989 and June 2002. Beyond this worst-case scenario is a hidden epidemic of child harm that the welfare system struggles to control.

The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare reports that there were 317,526 reports of suspected child abuse and neglect made to state and territory authorities in 2007-08, continuing a trend of increased notifications — up more than 250 per cent on a decade ago.

Children at risk of such harm are likely to end up being processed by a family law system that critics, including Fehring, believe is not well-designed to protect them.

In 2006, the Family Law Act was substantially amended to reflect a greater emphasis on shared parental responsibility. One of the changes required the court to look at two primary considerations when deciding what is in the child’s best interests. The first is the desire for children to have a meaningful relationship with both parents; the second the need to protect them.

But some experts believe that in cases of family violence, the principles conflict with one another.

Sarah Vessali, principal lawyer at the Women’s Legal Service Victoria for almost eight years and now in private practice, deals daily with family law matters. “There is a contradiction between the two fundamental principles — they cannot work together where there is family violence,” she says.

THE Dalton marriage had bloomed gently at first from an internet romance. “He had moments when he was loving and tender,” recalls Fehring. But a punch that cracked their car windscreen also produced the first cracks in the marriage.

Dalton became verbally abusive. He insisted his wife go back to work three days after giving birth to Jessie, their firstborn. Then the beatings began.

In the 2½ years of their marriage, Dalton threw a microwave at his heavily pregnant wife and toddler, shattered French doors and bashed Fehring repeatedly. Multiple assaults were on police record. In fact, police were so concerned for her safety, they applied for (and were granted) a domestic violence order on her behalf, as she was too frightened to take one out herself.

By March 10, 2004, the marriage was in a state of collapse. Dalton, so much bigger than his wife, told her: “Tonight’s the night. It’s on. It’s going to happen tonight.”

Fehring was left in a state of intense fear. As she drove to her mother’s with the kids, Dalton gave chase. He rang her mobile 76 times in that 90-minute drive.

When he hit her mother on arrival, he broke his latest domestic violence order for the second time. Arrested and jailed overnight, and released at midday the next day, Dalton was in a savage mental state.

Fehring began to panic. She had given birth to Patrick (who, although much loved, was conceived, she says, when Dalton raped her), only about six weeks earlier. She didn’t last the five-hour drive with her mother and the kids to a relative’s home. Exhausted and at breaking point, she was hospitalised in the acute mental health unit at Toowoomba Hospital for 10 days. That was Dalton’s chance.

On March 17, 2004, in a 14-minute hearing, the Brisbane Family Court gave interim custody of the infant Patrick and his sister Jessie to Jayson Dalton, former One Nation candidate and long-term batterer.

Fehring’s solicitor, Ros Byrne, had less than 24 hours warning of Dalton’s bid for custody. She told the judge: “There are domestic violence issues.” That was it.

Fehring, ill, could not be there. “I have no idea why they gave him custody,” she says. “And I don’t think I’ll ever understand it. They were in no danger, they’d been with mum, she was taking care of them with my sister.

“My solicitor knew I was petrified. She told the court there were domestic violence issues and yet the children were handed over to a violent man.”

In the weeks that followed, Dalton’s dad helped his son care for the children. By April 23, Fehring was well enough to go back to court and be awarded custody, with Jayson to have the children every second weekend. On Anzac Day, Dalton was supposed to hand the children back.

Asked to turn her mind back to that Anzac Day afternoon, and the mad dash she made from the Gold Coast when Dalton did not arrive at the Southport police station with the children as arranged, Fehring clears her throat. Although she didn’t know it then, her mother had already found Dalton’s emailed suicide note.

“My mobile had gone dead and so no one could call and tell us what had happened, and by the time we got up there, just to the rise of where the actual house was at the bottom of the hill, um, we could see all the flashing lights, fire brigade and the ambulance and newsmen and everything else, and I just raced across the road,” she says.

“The police stopped me from going up the stairs into the house and I just said to them, ‘Cover me, I don’t want anyone to see me’, and I just collapsed in a heap. My stepfather nearly had a breakdown. He tried to climb the stairs and they pulled him back.”

She continues after a deep sigh. “We didn’t get to say goodbye to my babies until early the next morning. I had to go to the morgue and identify them. Their little bodies covered with a sheet.

“I just want something changed so that we can protect women and children so that these cases don’t continue to happen. No mother should ever be put through that experience.”

Child abuse expert emeritus professor Freda Briggs, of the education, arts and social sciences division of the University of South Australia, has firm views about changes needed to family law.

“The level of ignorance by judges and (Family Court) staff about child development, domestic violence and sexual abuse is inexcusable,” she says.

“Judges ignore DV (domestic violence) because (a) some psychologists tell them that men who bash their wives don’t necessarily bash their children and (b) they don’t seem to know that witnessing violence is as damaging to children as being a victim of it. Education is so badly needed.”

Sarah Vessali agrees that change is necessary. She suggests that Australia look to the New Zealand model, where the prima facie stance is that where allegations of abuse are raised, contact is disallowed until they are disproved.

In Australia, the legal system demands that the accusing parents prove such allegations, which can be difficult.

“If (the allegations) cannot satisfactorily be proven to the court … then (the accuser) runs the risk of having the court order costs against them,” Vessali says.

A petition calling for change has gathered close to 3000 signatures from affected families and professionals, women and men. One anonymous signatory summed up the concerns of many who work in the system: “As a community worker providing support to women and children escaping domestic violence, we have significant contact with the Family Court and access orders.

“It has been our organisational experience that the family orders often place the children at risk of emotional, if not physical, abuse.

“It is of upmost priority, for the children involved, to have a closer look at issues of domestic violence when deciding on residency issues.”

In Fehring’s view, the system is going backwards not forwards. “Why do women and children continue to lose their lives?” she asks. “What I want is a more in-depth look into the Family Court. We need to get to the root of a problem and not just make a snap decision based on two minutes worth of information.

“I want us as a society to be able to see this openly.” The media, she says, should not be prevented from reporting important cases. “If we are not made aware of these problems, then we blindly go about our day totally unaware of what is going on behind closed doors.

“The women who might be sitting at home contemplating leaving a domestic violence situation may get the strength to leave her relationship. We need to become proactive before any more of these problems occur and we lose more of our precious children.”

As part of a campaign by concerned Australians to improve the way the Family Court system deals with cases such as Fehring’s, national rallies, run by the Safer Family Law Campaign, are planned for this morning.

At the Mayday! rallies, affected parents wearing red scarves and masks to hide their identities (family law curtails free speech) will speak alongside child rights representatives, academics, lawyers and members of various groups.

Clotheslines strung with children’s red clothes will be raised at rallies in Melbourne, Sydney, Adelaide, Brisbane and Perth.

Jen Jewel Brown is a Melbourne writer and Victorian co-ordinator of the Mayday! Safer Family Law Campaign rally, which will be held in Carlton Gardens, Rathdowne Street, 11am-12.15pm

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: