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Family law and ‘fake violence’: What do we really know?
Violence against women:
Senator Pauline Hanson sparked outrage when she claimed that some women fabricate accounts of domestic violence in order to get custody of their children – but what if she’s right? How much objective information do we actually have available on this issue?
Here, Dr Samara McPhedran, Director of the Homicide Research Unit, and Deputy Director of the Violence Research and Prevention Program, Griffith University takes us through the available evidence, and argues that dismissing contentious claims such as these without a thorough examination can in fact be counter-productive.
Pauline Hanson’s recent claim that some women fabricate domestic violence reports in order to ‘game’ the family law system provoked disbelief and outrage. But claims about false allegations and abuse of process (by both women and men) are not new. They have emerged during a number of previous inquiries into family violence and family law systems, and can be found in locations ranging from the pages of Hansard, through to criminal law firms’ websites.
The 2017 National Community Attitudes towards Violence Against Women Survey found that around 4 in 10 respondents believed that women going through custody battles often make up or exaggerate claims of domestic violence
A considerable proportion of Australians appear to hold views similar to Senator Hanson’s. The 2017 National Community Attitudes towards Violence Against Women Survey (NCAS) found that around 4 in 10 respondents believed that women going through custody battles often make up or exaggerate claims of domestic violence in order to improve their case. Although this figure is a little lower than it was in 2009 and 2013, when over half the respondents agreed with that statement, the results nevertheless show that beliefs about women making up reports of violence are still relatively common in the community.
While this is a critical issue to get to the bottom of, the reality is that we have very little objective information about whether, or how often, claims about domestic violence are being misused in family law battles. Reliable facts and figures are either not routinely collected, or not made readily available.
Although information is published about, for instance, the number of domestic violence reports made to police each year, there is no openly accessible information that captures ‘false’ reports of domestic violence. Studies on false allegations about sexual violence suggest that false reporting is an uncommon occurrence, but we cannot necessarily make the leap from that to saying that false reports about domestic violence are also rare.
It is also important to avoid making assumptions or drawing unsupported inferences. For example, although it is reasonable to say that reports of domestic violence and domestic violence orders are sometimes withdrawn, it does not follow from this that those reports were false to begin with. Unless we have the fine details, we are not able to say whether that report was withdrawn because it was false, or because the person making the report decided they did not want further involvement with police or the courts, or for some other reason.
Rejecting out of hand that there is any need to examine the issue in more detail may have the perverse outcome of driving the belief that widespread fabrication is indeed occurring
The pervasiveness of the belief that women often make up reports of violence, coupled with the lack of information allowing us to test whether that is really the case, points to a serious need to look at this question calmly and objectively. While it is understandable that Senator Hanson’s claim has inflamed a sector of the community, outright dismissing the possibility that some women may make false allegations could also be counter-productive. Rejecting out of hand that there is any need to examine the issue in more detail may have the perverse outcome of driving the belief that widespread fabrication is indeed occurring – it is the “if you have nothing to hide, then what are you worried about?” principle.
Also, it is concerning that if the belief that women fabricate allegations persists – as existing surveys seem to indicate – then women going through family court processes may be discouraged from reporting abuse due to the fear they will not be believed. This can have catastrophic consequences. Although it may be a confronting task, treating Senator Hanson’s claims about fabrication seriously, and gathering the data that is needed to test those claims, is necessary if we want well-informed public perceptions.
It is, of course, possible that close examination of this topic may reveal that some people (not only women, but men also) do indeed make false allegations. If that is the case, then it is important for us to identify how often false reporting takes place, under what circumstances it is most likely to occur, and what other factors may be associated with false reporting.
Condemning politicians who are – rightly or wrongly – “just saying what a lot of people think” is apt to distract from, rather than resolve, the vexed questions that surround any discussion of family law
In the long run, condemning politicians who are – rightly or wrongly – “just saying what a lot of people think” is apt to distract from, rather than resolve, the vexed questions that surround any discussion of family law. Yet there is near-universal agreement that Australia’s current family court system needs improvement. While bringing this about is unlikely to be a comfortable or easy process, if we genuinely want to achieve this result then we also need to be willing to grapple with some contentious claims – no matter who makes them.