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When Things Turn Sour

By Harald Breiding-Buss

Think about it for a minute: what would you do if you were regularly beaten up by your spouse? Perhaps you would go to the police one day, tell them about it and try to put an end to it. But perhaps not.

Because the beatings will have destroyed your selfeste~m, have taken away much of your ability to communicate your feelings to other people, and you might simply lack the strength to do something about it.

If you are a woman, the macho culture of the police doesn’t help. In the cities, at least, you will now be passed on to a female officer, but in many areas you will have to deal with a guy, who may even know the person you accuse. You may think that a whole pile of paperwork is waiting for you and that you will have to prove that you are a victim, which you think you can’t.

For men, the idea of disclosing that you have been abused by a woman (or a gay partner) to the tough guys at the police is equally frightening. But unlike women, men have virtually no other places to I o for help in such situations.

And men may believe they are not entitled to help, because Domestic Violence is always portrayed as violence by men against women. Even the official information brochure by the Department of Courts “Standing up to Domestic Violence”, while attempting to be gender-neutral, occasionally slips into gender-specific language.

“What if he starts abusing me again after I stopped/suspended the non-contact conditions?” asks the brochure on page 15, for example. The cover only features pictures of female victims, except for one elderly man. Men might be forgiven for thinking that they are not protected by the Act.

The Act does not only cover physical or sexual violence, but also psychological abuse.

This includes a child witnessing domestic violence, or “controlling someone’s money, time, car or contact with friends as a way of having power over them”. Men are especially prone to fall victim to psychological abuse when they are unemployed and live with a spouse with superior verbal skills.

The only direct defense such a man would have would be to lash out – which, in the eye of the law, would instantly turn him from victim into abuser.

The Act recognises that, in cases of Domestic Violence, there needs to be intervention first, and questions asked later. Victims of violence need to file a sworn statement, usually through a lawyer, and the Court will respond the same day with a Protection Order against the accused, usually banning the accused from making any contact with the complainant.

If there are children in the relationship, custody will practically automatically go to the complainant, and the accused will only be able to see the children under supervision.

The Protection Order stays in place for 37 months. If it is not challenged, it will become final after this period. This is unique in New Zealand law, as it turns around the usual presumption of innocence into a presumption of guilt.

It is also fairly uncommon in other part of the world. In most states of the US, for example, an Order only stays in place for a certain period of time, unless corroborating evidence has been produced.

While the Act fails to protect many victims, because the threshold for disclosing the abuse and going through the system still appears too high to a victim, it has at the same time created a new class of victims: wrongly accused.

The Act carries no penalties for making a false allegation, and it will in most cases secure full custody for the person making this allegation.

Used by the wrong person, the Domestic Violence Act can become a tool of abuse itself, and there are no real penalties for doing so.

Consider this situation: a woman is upset when she finds out that her partner wants to leave here for another woman. She feels hurt, and wants to hurt him in return. She uses the fact that her partner normally looks after the family’s finances as a way to take out a Protection Order against him.

That will effectively remove him from the people he loves most: his children.

She may go even further: After a while she may give him a ring and invite him along to her house to see the children and talk about things. As soon as he arrives she can have him arrested and fined for breaching the order- a criminal offence.

When human emotions become a battlefield, the Domestic Violence Act becomes a weapon. In mutually violent relationships – a significant proportion of Domestic Violence cases acording to a growing body of international research – the act simply shifts the balance of power to the person who uses it first.

There is no doubt that the Act is being abused, especially when custody is being disputed, but also as a way of exerting power and control over another person. There is only debate about the extent of it.

False allegations of violence are particularly vicious, as they have the potential to take away the protection the Act intends to provide to victims. There are signs that judges are becoming more cautious when such allegations are made at a time, when parents are fighting over who sees how much of the children.

But this would put true victims in more danger of not being believed!

A false allegation is also an act of violence in itself.

Where children are coerced into making false statements about the other parents, this is child abuse, which also has the potential to take protection away from genuine victims. And even a Family Court judge has said that obstructing access of a parent to a child without a good reason has also to be considered child abuse.

But if you are falsely accused, you can defend yourself and clear your name, right? Only if you have a few thousand dollars at your disposal to pay lawyers and legal fees.

There are many other reasons, why men do not defend themselves – one of them is that it may be nearly impossible to prove your innocence, especially when you have been accused of sexually abusing a young child.

And as the Act allows a complainant to cancel the Order at any time, you may find yourself out of pocket only to never be given a chance to clear your name.

Next: “You’re On Your Own.”

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