Reflecting on family violence.

AuthorDargatz, Sarah

I practise family law and often my clients have experienced, or are experiencing, family violence. It can be difficult to discuss "family violence" generally because there is no one experience of violence. A "yes" to a general question about whether or not a client has experienced family violence can mean a hundred different things; just as a "no" can be very misleading. One of my first tasks is to sort out what this means to a particular client.

There are stereotypes of those who allege family violence and often those stereotypes lie at the extremes. Some people automatically imagine horrible stories of daily torture. Others are automatically suspicious and imagine a parent who fabricates abuse in order to get the upper hand in custody. These extremes do exist, but most of the time the situation lies somewhere in between.

I must acknowledge my clients' experiences; that violence is a very important part of their stories about where they've come from, what they've come through, and where they think they can go in future. My clients need to be able to trust that I have heard and understood their stories. They don't want me to brush it off, push it aside, or minimize it. Sometimes, clients are just starting to realize what they have experienced is abuse and are trying to come to terms with their own histories. They are learning about what is acceptable and unacceptable in a relationship and how to stand up for themselves and their children. This can be a fragile time.

My clients need to be able to trust that I have heard and understood their stories.

But this does not mean I must blindly accept everything my client offers as truth. I also challenge the holes in a client's story. There are always two sides (at least) to every tale, and when relationships fall apart we all colour our histories in light of our present feelings. I suspect some of my clients downplay the violence while others certainly exaggerate. Rarely do I think this is intentional; it's simply a matter of perspective. But it makes determining "the facts" all that much harder: my own client may not even have a good grasp of what really happened.

Family court is not the place to find validation for one's experiences, it is not designed to find guilt, and it does not provide healing.

Family violence happens behind closed doors. Most people do not have hard proof that violence occurred so it's usually a s/he-said-s/he-said situation. I must sort out what a judge is likely to...

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