Thursday, August 21, 2008

FATHERS' RIGHTS, MOTHERS' PROTECTION & GENDER BIAS

RADIO NEW ZEALAND: 'AFTERNOONS WITH JIM MORA'
UNBIASED ANALYSES Or A PLATFORM FOR PROPAGANDA?
Mainstream media commentators are prone to smug comparisons between their own supposedly politically neutral and valueless news reporting; and that of 'activist' bloggers whose critical analyses are far less trustworthy due to some personal axe they are grinding. This notion that there is a state of 'point-of-viewlessness' from whence 'real' news comes has of course been thoroughly debunked by social scientists. Its mythical status is nowhere more evident than in Jim Mora's Radio NZ Panel discussions of so-called 'issues of the day' with recycled, politically conservative guests and the occasional progressive commentator - whose function appears the pre-emption of complaints that Mora is cynically utilising this forum to propound his own gendered perceptions of law and society.

Mora's discussion on 31 July 2008 with guests Gary McCormick and Bomber Bradbury of an Australian report indicating that over 20,000 Australian parents 'mainly Dads' have avoided liability for child support by fleeing overseas (around 7,600 New Zealand parents have apparently absconded to Australia to avoid financial responsibility for their kids), eschewed even a feigned objectivity. His choice of Sue Price from 'Australia's Men's Rights Agency' as 'expert' commentator, rather than say: a child poverty researcher; an authority on the growth of female poverty in New Zealand (Anglican Family Centre research found many single parent, mainly women-led families are living below the poverty line); or a representative of the beneficiaries' advisory service, secured dissemination of the usual myths, misconceptions and misogyny which obstruct efforts to hold fathers equally accountable for the well-being of children.

The discussion began with Bradbury noting a disjunction between the generally sympathetic tone of discourses regarding irresponsible fathers; and the constant identification in political and media discourses of solo mothers as responsible for much social malaise requiring deterrence against moral impropriety and financial irresponsibility. Predictably, Mora retorted that Bradbury needed to 'walk a mile in these men's shoes!' McCormick railed against an unjust bureaucratic and legal system which loaded desperate fathers with unreasonable debt, destroyed their prospects of future happiness and deprived them of hope. His anecdotal tales of gender bias against men in the courts and bureaucracy revealed, so he said, that New Zealand men felt 'under attack'. According to McCormick:

a lot of men in New Zealand feel the system is geared up against them. Until we change that, until men feel they can go into some bureaucratic forum or deal with people in some office where they feel they have a fighting chance to be heard and understood, then forget it, they will flee - and I understand why they do it!

Enter Sue Price from the Australian Men's Rights forum who drew the Panel's attention to a 'hidden agenda' (the proposed conspirators were not identified). The problem, as her organisation saw it, was an education and social system which sent the message to men that they were neither wanted nor needed. Mothers told fathers to go away, and they did so, without question. Mora queried of Price whether she was talking about 'the feminisation of child rearing'. 'Yes' said Price, this was exactly the problem. Hey Presto! The social phenomenon of the 'feminisation of poverty' was transformed into a problem of too many mothers!

What's more, said Price, warming to her theme, the 'gentlemen' on the Panel were probably unaware that more mothers kill and abuse children than fathers. "Well said, Sue. Come over to New Zealand!" gushed McCormick. Although the Panel discussion had originally focused on 'delinquent dads', this encouraged Price to follow her revelation about the violent propensities of mothers with the startling announcement that most liable parents who don't pay are not fathers, but mothers. 'Well done!' chortled McCormick. (The epicurean metaphor of 'having one's cake and eating it too' appeared lost on McCormick who simultaneously linked a study indicating women are generally happier than men with his assertion that men are rendered hopeless by their inability to pay child support.) The real problem as constructed by this Panel was not mother/child poverty or financially irresponsible fathers; but abusive, financially dead-beat mothers!

Almost two decades ago, Carol Smart, a leading feminist criminologist warned that the more feminist and minority groups resort to law, the more hostility is generated. 'A backlash is created that may take the form of violence, or a counter-use of law to re-establish traditional rights which will nullify minority rights.' (Feminism and the Power of Law, 138) Although the Domestic Violence Act 1995 was largely a response to Sir Ronald Davison's Report which found 'the laws relating to domestic protection and to protection of children in custody and access situations…are inadequate to deal with the types of domestic violence that we are currently faced with', domestic violence law reform has been denounced by the 'Social Equity Forum' which criticises society as 'increasingly unbalanced with many sexist/gendered laws and practices'. A spokesman for 'New Zealand Men for Equal Rights Association' is also reported as labelling New Zealand law 'a sexist bitch' and complaining that feminists are bullying the 'injustice system'.

A troubling aspect of such claims is their uncritical acceptance despite the absence of empirical support. Recent legal commentary indicates a decline in effective implementation of the Domestic Violence Act coinciding with a period of intense activity by, and publicity for, the Fathers' Rights movement (Davis, 'Gender Bias, Fathers' Rights, Domestic Violence and the Family Court' [2004] BFLJ 299). Alarmingly, claims of judicial bias against men have apparently resulted in courts lifting the bar for without-notice protection orders. Of particular concern is a report by the New Zealand Collective of Women's Refuges indicating that women are losing confidence in the legal and justice system.

It is therefore essential that the claims of Men's Rights groups are subjected to critical scrutiny:

Myth Number One: The Family Court is Biased Against Men
New Zealand Family Violence Prevention Strategy and Ministry of Health Intervention Guidelines acknowledge separation from an abusive male partner as posing an elevated risk of violence toward women and children. Stalking, harassment and violation of protection orders are also associated with an increased risk of dangerousness/lethality (See, eg, London Metropolitan Police, Domestic Violence Risk Assessment). However, research indicates that New Zealand women in red flag situations are finding it increasingly difficult to obtain temporary protection orders.

The following case study grimly reveals Father's Rights claims that women are using temporary orders as a weapon to cut fathers out of their children's lives are maintained even when the woman who obtained the temporary protection order is killed! The woman in this case was stalked and harassed by her jealous, possessive ex-partner, who repeatedly threatened to kill her and communicated those threats to members of his family and friends. The woman obtained a temporary protection order, but was killed by her ex-partner while picnicking with her family in a park. The deceased woman's brother told the media his sister 'had been begging authorities for help' to protect her from the offender before she was killed.

However, in court, the offender was portrayed as a loving family man, driven to kill his estranged partner by her actions in seeking a temporary protection order and restricting his access to his child. Following his conviction, the offender's defence counsel publicly complained about the provisions in the Domestic Violence Act that permit the granting of temporary protections orders:

Defence counsel, Dr Donald Stevens, doesn't practice family law so was shocked when he read the Domestic Violence Act that outlines protection orders. He said the balance has been lost. 'It infuriates fathers so much' he says 'to no longer have access or interim custody…and it was done behind their back'. It could, he adds, send people over the edge. He said it suits the applicant to get the order but also to allow some contact, but doesn't always work when dealing with those emotionally troubled or angry over the way they have been treated (Evening Post, 27/10/2001).

This assertion that interim protection orders erode the rights of fathers and provoke violence against women overlooks clear testimony in this case that the offender had originally been given liberal access to his child and had exercised access 'whenever he wanted'. It was only after an alleged act of violence by the offender toward the deceased woman's new partner that she stopped access in order to get 'things sorted out properly in court'. The offender's family were also well aware of the danger he posed to his ex-partner. Indeed, the offender's own father contacted the woman and warned her of his son's potential for violence. The chilling reality that this woman was killed in the presence of her child surely constitutes evidence that her concerns for her own and her child's safety were justified!

Nevertheless, following the trial another male publicly speculated that 'draconian non-custodial-parent-rules' meant the offender in this case would get better access to his son now his estranged partner was dead and he was in prison. In stark contrast, New Zealand research reveals that 'what motivates almost all women who apply for protection orders is fear and a desire to make themselves and their children safe.' Australian research also demonstrates that 'most women who had experienced violence in their relationships still wanted their children to have some contact with their other parent, but what they sought (and often did not get) was an arrangement that ensured the safety of the children and themselves' (Davis, above).

Myth Number Two: The Judiciary Deprive Men of their Rights
The object of the Domestic Violence Act as set out in s 5(1) is to reduce and prevent violence in domestic relationships by a) recognising that all forms of domestic violence are unacceptable and b) ensuring that, where domestic violence occurs, there is effective legal protection for victims. However, the leading New Zealand family law text notes these twin principles may conflict with the rights of offenders.

For example, the authors cite a case in which two daughters applied for a protection order against their father who was about to be released from prison following his conviction on charges of sexually abusing them. The judge refused to strike out the father's defence as an abuse of process ruling that the defence should stand even if it meant that the father in this case could cross-examine the daughters he abused. The case, said the judge, was a graphic illustration of the conflict between the stated objects of the Domestic Violence Act and the respondent's right to defend the making of a protection order and to be heard (Butterworths Family Law in New Zealand, 1433).

In a similar example, the offender who was serving a term of imprisonment for assaulting his estranged partner, telephoned her from prison in breach of her protection order. A Visiting Judge found him guilty of gross misconduct. The offender sought judicial review of this decision. The High Court held that a violent offender who breaches his victim's protection order by contacting her from prison is entitled to demand that she enter the prison to give evidence and be exposed to cross-examination by himself or his counsel.

The judge acknowledged that neither legislation nor any blanket common law rule excluded the admission of hearsay evidence in disciplinary proceedings; so the case could easily have been decided differently. The fact it was not, demonstrates a worrying lack of judicial awareness of estrangement as a red flag for dangerousness/lethality. Since this decision provides offenders with the opportunity to use the legal system to further control and intimidate their victims it should have been controversial.

Myth Number Three: Children are More Frequently Abused and Killed by their Mothers than their Fathers
It is truly astonishing that this particular myth can be maintained and perpetuated despite all the evidence to the contrary. The Ministry of Justice (2001) study of sentencing outcomes for offences against adult and child victims found 91 per cent of offenders were male. Men are overwhelmingly the perpetrators of child sexual abuse. Ministry of Justice statistics also show that of a total of 3063 convictions for non-sexual child abuse over seven offence categories during the period 1990 to 1999, 2285 of the offences were committed by men and 778 by women.

Contrary to allegations that mothers are the principle perpetrators of lethal violence against children, a 1997 New Zealand study reveals that of children intentionally killed between 1988 and 1995, 38 per cent were killed by a father figure: 24 per cent were killed by their natural father; and 14 per cent by their step-father or de facto parent; mothers were killers in 12 per cent of cases (Dads Are Killing Kiwi Kids, Sunday News, 13/7/97).

As noted by the Victorian Law Reform Commission, mothers are often placed in a 'no win' situation. 'They are often judged bad mothers by the community if they stay in a violent relationship, but bad mothers if they leave and take the children with them.' Although women who remain in abusive relationships risk prosecution for failing to protect children, and may have their children removed; criticism by politicians and Fathers' Rights supporters of 'fatherless families' and the supposed deprivation of fathers' relationship with children under the Domestic Violence Act put pressure on women, especially women with young children to remain in abusive relationships. Although studies indicate that, if consulted, many children would tell their mothers not to stay in the relationship for their sake, cultural messages that the 'good' wife remains with her husband and the 'good' mother keeps the family together send the message that women ought to stay in unhappy or abusive relationships. New Zealand research found this social pressure clearly contributed to the deaths of some women and children in the study.

The Domestic Purposes Benefit (DPB) was an acknowledgement of the value of women's unpaid work. However, women's economic dependence is perpetuated by stigmatising sole parent (mainly women-headed) families. Increasingly punitive responses to sole parent mothers, including, but not limited to cutting benefit levels, not only devalues their unpaid child caring work but also detracts from the safety of New Zealand woman and children. It is therefore incumbent on the state to improve women and children's ability to safely exit intimate relationships and to enforce men's financial accountability for the well-being of their children.

7 comments:

julie said...

We need to talk!

Can you please contact me at

julie@singleparents.org.nz

What you have written is one of the most wonderful things I have ever read as a NZ woman in the know.

I am not wanting to put down on what you have said. Many of us women see the things men see.

We have some things going on also.

Medea said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Medea said...

Hi Julie
Tx for comment. Will be posting more on this issue.

Cheers
Medea

Nina said...

Hi there. Great posts. Incredibly interesting and informative not to mention infuriating... Just a suggestion,depending on who you are aiming this information toward.. maybe you might like to look at some of the language that you use in terms of some of the words that people might not understand. For example, a phrase like 'social maliase'or 'eschewed a feigned objectivity' are not every day terms and so could make it hard for some to understand who are perhaps not used to such terms. Like i said just a suggestion. Awesome job. Looking forward to more :)

Medea said...

Hey Nina

I would much rather use everyday language than abstruse jargon. So will definitely take your advice on board and try to do better.

Thanks
Medea

LK said...

I'm a blogger, I'm not grinding a personal ax. But I am fighting against a feminist mindset. It is truely a failed philosophy.

Medea said...

Why do you fight? If feminism is a 'failed philosophy' why do you bother?

Cheers
Medea