04 Mar Trauma-informed family law?
The Australian Law Reform Commission has proposed that a core competency for the family law system workforce is that they be trauma-informed and understand the impacts of trauma on adults and children.
Professional responses to trauma, although unknown 15 years ago, have created a paradigm shift in mental health and human service delivery. But less so in law. Should they?
There is compelling evidence that exposure to adverse childhood experience can disrupt a child’s neuro development and lead to physical, psychological and emotional lifetime health impairments.
Experiencing domestic violence as a child is one such adverse experience. So is physical and sexual assault and emotional abuse, serious neglect, and living with other household dysfunction such as parental substance abuse and mental illness, separation and divorce and incarceration of a parent.
More than 20 years ago Professor Thea Brown found evidence of multiple forms of serious violence and dysfunction in a disproportionate number of disputed family law cases. More recent empirical data from the Australian Institute of Family Studies confirms these risks and violence are over-represented in separated families, especially for families who require professional assistance or who end up in court.
So yes, family law professionals absolutely need to recognise this violence, the context of dysfunction in which it often occurs, the traumatic and debilitating impact it has on the victim, the children living with it, as well as on the perpetrator, and understand how we can best respond.
Does applying a trauma-informed lens help us to do this? Yes, it helps us understand its multifacted, subtle and often life-long harm caoused by trauma and to respond with compassion and practical support. But it is not sufficient. We need to combine the trauma lens with a diligent re-application of a violence-informed lens so we can:
- Prioritise safety
- Be trustworthy
- Provide choice
- Empower clients AND
- Ensure accountability AND
- Acknowledge agency.
These last two elements are critical. Without them, a trauma-informed approach focuses (understandably) on the traumatised and the impact of the trauma.
All family law professionals need to call perpetrators of violence to account for their behaviour and to foster a shared responsibility for the safety of victims and children – and ultimately, for perpetrators as well.
We also need to acknoweldge the agency of those who are the victims of such violence and their strategic resistance to it, in managing its risk and facilitating their safety.
I will be discussing this issue with family lawyers at a College of Law professional development program on Child Abuse and Domestic Violence: Working with Clients in Sydney on 6 March. If you would like further information about this, please contact Anthony El Helou at [email protected]. I will also be addressing the City of Sydney Law Society on the same issue that evening, contact [email protected].