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Inside stories: Bringing relief in dangerous times

Inside stories: Bringing relief in dangerous times

By Carolyn Ford

Child Welfare Interviews Legal Services 

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A health justice partnership is making a difference for new mothers affected by family violence.

Families in crisis
  • One in 12 women hospitalised for partner violence are pregnant.
  • More than one in four mothers experience family violence in the first four years after having their 
  • first child.
  • Fifty per cent of women experiencing family violence report their children had seen or heard the violence.
  • Women experiencing family violence are twice as likely to deliver a low birth weight baby.
  • Children of mothers experiencing family violence in the first year postpartum are more likely to have emotional and behavioural difficulties by age four.
  • Family violence is associated with increased rates of miscarriage, low birth rate, premature birth, foetal injury and foetal death.

It’s certain there are women and children unharmed today thanks to Mabels, the health justice partnership (HJP) helping new mothers resolve family violence issues before they reach crisis point and go to court.

"Maria" is one of them. She was referred to Mabels by her nurse during a maternal child health (MCH) appointment.

As mandated by law, the nurse asked how things were going at home since the baby’s birth six months earlier.

Maria’s husband’s difficult behaviour had worsened and she was frightened for her baby and herself. He wanted to know where she was going and who she would see when she went out. He had outbursts of anger if the house wasn’t tidy, if dinner wasn’t prepared or if she struggled to settle the baby. 

To justify time away from the house to her watchful husband, the nurse arranged to be present before the first Mabels meeting to take the baby’s measurements, so it appeared Maria was attending a typical MCH appointment.

Maria told the Mabels team – a lawyer and an advocate (social worker) – that before speaking to her nurse, she had never thought of her husband’s behaviour as family violence. They explained its complex nature to her.

Over time, Maria disclosed the full extent of the violence at home. The advocate helped Maria develop a safety plan, and the lawyer told Maria her legal options, including reporting to police and applying for a family violence intervention order, which, with Mabels’ help, she eventually did.

Maria and her baby are among 554 women and 810 children helped by the HJP, run by Eastern Community Legal Centre (ECLC) with MCH at two local councils and the Boorndawan Willam Aboriginal Healing Service (BWAHS).

Launched in July 2015, Mabels is the only early intervention legal response to family violence for mothers of children 0-5 in the state. Pregnancy and the early stages of parenting, when a child is the priority, are some of the most dangerous times for a woman experiencing family violence.

Mabels gives women attending universal maternal services the chance to get integrated family violence and related legal and rights advice, safety planning, information and referrals from a family violence lawyer and family violence advocate. Aboriginal women have the option of service from an Aboriginal community controlled organisation. 

Marika Manioudakis“The more we can do before women get into the family law system, the better. If it’s in court, the police are involved, it’s crisis point. It’s better to have early intervention. We are not just a referral pathway, it’s more coordinated. We prepare women and we go at their pace, the woman is in control,” says Marika Manioudakis, ECLC manager, family violence initiatives. 

Of women who gave feedback to Mabels, 72 per cent said in a survey they would/might not have contacted a lawyer had their MCH nurse not referred them to Mabels; 85 per cent said they now had options they didn’t know they had before Mabels; 88 per cent said they understood what family violence was after Mabels; 82 per cent said the lawyer listened and was open to any question; all said they felt safer after their first appointment with Mabels.

The multidisciplinary partnership is kept under the radar. The identities of two eastern region local partner councils are kept confidential to protect the women accessing the program via MCH clinics. In offering women a legal response that isn’t just causes of action, Mabels has identified, developed and refined some elements of practice to more effectively and safely respond to the legal needs of women at an earlier stage of their experience of family violence.

Belinda LoHowever, integrated practice can pose challenges for lawyers, says ECLC principal lawyer Belinda Lo. Most significant is the potential conflict between the overriding professional obligations held separately by the integrated services and professionals.

A lawyer is bound to protect the confidentiality of information obtained through communications with their client; nurses are subject to mandatory reporting requirements; and family violence advocates have an ethical responsibility to preserve the safety of children. The potential for conflict is there but Ms Lo says there is a shared commitment to finding solutions that prioritise the wellbeing of mother and child while protecting the integrity of the legal framework. “We talk it through as a team, on a case by case basis. It’s quite a balance, we are all helping the mother stay safe within our obligations. At the end of the day, the fully informed client decides,” says Ms Lo, who has been with the ECLC for 10 years. 

The ECLC has recommended the state government give legislative guidance on potential conflicts in professional obligations that arise from interdisciplinary legal programs such as Mabels, particularly in relation to clients’ rights to legal professional privilege, information sharing and mandatory reporting. Despite the need for its specialised, wraparound services, as evidenced by the high numbers of women and children helped, and despite the recommendations of the Royal Commission into Family Violence and the Access to Justice review to address the issue, there is a gap in support for legal services responding to family violence. Mabels has no funding commitment beyond December 2020. The cost of the program is $250,000 per city municipality annually. That includes program coordination, PD for nurses, advocates, community lawyers and ATSI cultural liaison.

“We have seen a huge increase in demand for our services but there has been no increase in funding for legal services in family violence. We cannot meet demand and courts are overwhelmed,” says Ms Manioudakis, adding the value of legal assistance as part of an integrated approach and the systemic response to family violence needed to be recognised. Cross-departmental funding to facilitate integrated models of practice such as Mabels as well as other ECLC programs assisting people in the region with different vulnerabilities and requirements is needed.

The ECLC is concerned about the impact of COVID-19 on family violence for at risk communities, particularly in light of imposed isolation and limitations to accessing services. It is prioritising women who are experiencing or at risk of experiencing family violence across its service provision at this time. ■

CASE STUDY: SUE

Sue separated from her husband days before she went to her baby’s eight-week appointment with her MCH nurse.

Her nurse referred her straight into the Mabels program where Sue disclosed that the separation came after an incident involving police. Before the police arrived, Sue’s husband had pushed her against the wall and put his hands around her throat. There were no visible injuries and Sue was too scared to tell police, who took the situation to be nothing more than an argument.

The Mabels lawyer and advocate told Sue about her options including an intervention order if the situation continued or got worse. Eventually, Mabels assisted Sue with a further report to police, successful application of an intervention order and help preparing for mediation at which a parenting agreement was reached.

CASE STUDY: KRIS

Kris was referred to Mabels by her MCH nurse after reporting ongoing concerns with her partner’s behaviour. Kris and her partner were in an eight-year de facto relationship and had two children, aged five and two. Kris felt guilty about seeking advice and wasn’t ready to act, she just wanted to talk to the advocate and lawyer. 

It emerged Kris’s partner blamed her for his lost friendships and the state of the house, but Kris also felt he had been too harsh in his discipline of the children. The Mabels advocate explained the dynamics of control that were sitting behind those behaviours and provided safety planning options. The lawyer provided Kris with advice on her rights in separation and child contact principles.

Two months later, Kris returned to Mabels saying she felt “empowered” after her last appointment and had been trying to protect her children and stand up to her partner. She hadn’t decided whether to separate or take other legal action but got referrals for family violence counselling and other types of counselling she could share with her partner. He denied needing help and blamed Kris for the problems.

Six months later, Kris contacted Mabels wanting to separate. Mabels provided Kris with a referral to a lawyer who helped with property and children’s matters.


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