Why do so many women lose custody battles?

Speakoutloud.net Mother child protection custody Clare Murphy PhDWhy are so many women who are psychologically abused and controlled by male partners losing court battles for custody of their children?

There are two cruxes of men’s intimate partner abuse – gender and power.

The way that power operates in our society underpins domestic violence and family court judges’s decisions.

Whether men deliberately aim to gain and maintain power and control or not, this is the effect on women. If you look at the hierarchies of power and control in nearly every social setting, from kindergartens, workplaces, universities and governments, you will see that the misuse of power and control in an intimate relationship is not a symptom of that one relationship – but reflects a wider social problem.

When John Howard was Australia’s Prime Minister, his political party pulled the plug on the airing of challenges against psychological abuse and power and control in a national public multi-media campaign. After a three-year market research project, costing the Australian government at least $3.53 million, the government withdrew the launch of the campaign at the last minute. The campaign slogan was going to be “No Respect, No Relationship”, but a new campaign was quickly developed to replace this with the slogan “Violence Against Women, Australia Says No”. The function of the original campaign was to help people understand that psychologically controlling forms of abuse, as well as physical and sexual abuse, are inappropriate ways for men to relate to women. The new campaign only depicted images of physical violence and rape. The new slogan had no bearing on what men do, rather only stated the government’s position. The Prime Minister stated in the foreword to the booklet that went to all Australian homes, that the government’s role was not “to tell people how to live their lives; our personal relationships are private”.

The way that gender operates in our society underpins domestic violence and family court judges’s decisions.

When you examine gender hierarchies, men are generally considered superior to women. There are hierarchies amongst men that consider some men to be more superior than other men – for example white middle class heterosexual men are considered to have greater social kudos and are often given more respect than black working class homosexual men. People at the top of hierarchies are often talked about in positive terms and people at the bottom are often blamed for being lazy, bludging, sick, irresponsible, bad people. These are gross stereotypical generalisations – but nonetheless hold sway in the public mind – and the minds of court judges.

Domestic violence is usually discussed in terms of who is responsible and who is to blame. Even if the man did use physical or sexual violence, public attitudes tend towards justifying, excusing, minimising or hiding men’s violence against women. Psychological abuse and non-physical tactics of control are already hidden and often so subtle, even the woman victim is not able to articulate what’s going on.

Public attitudes often consider men’s control over female partners as men’s legitimate right to uphold their male position as head of the house – thereby what they say goes. Women are perceived as provoking abuse and are held responsible for preventing or stopping it. These attitudes, along with the myth that it take two-to-tango and that men’s abuse is a symptom of the relationship, play a role in family court judges’s decisions.

Many judges collude with male perpetrators – especially middle to upper class men – they may engage in banter about sport for instance and the judge may rule in favour of the man. I read an example of this and in the end the judge dismissed the woman’s need for protection. The man later murdered his ex-partner. This killing might have been prevented if it was not for the judge being influenced by the dominant idea that domestic violence only occurs amongst working class groups or amongst non-white races.

Public attitudes and the structures of gender and power in our society play a major role in why family court judges make particular rulings. This means many women lose custody of their children despite their male partner having engaged in years of ongoing systematic damaging tactics of power and control.

I have written a blog about possible ways women can represent themselves in court documents and verbally in court – ways that do not play into stereotypes of passive, pathetic, mad, female victims.

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Meet the Author

Clare Murphy PhD is the founder of SpeakOutLoud. Her website is dedicated to providing in-depth research about coercive control and psychological abuse. Clare mentors, supervises and trains professionals to recognise and work safely with domestic violence. She offers one-on-one counselling and consultation to those who are ready to make sense of coercive control and abuse, and to Grow and Flourish Beyond Trauma.