Fact Sheet #3: How the fathers’ rights movement undermines the protections available to victims of violence and protects the perpetrators of violence
Fathers’ rights groups have attempted to: Wind back the legal protections available to victims of violence; Wind back the legal sanctions imposed on perpetrators of violence.
While fathers’ rights groups often claim to speak on behalf of male victims of domestic violence, these efforts undermine the policies and services that would protect and gain justice for these same men.
Fathers’ rights advocates also: Make excuses for perpetrators; Act as direct advocates for perpetrators or alleged perpetrators of violence against women; Use abusive strategies themselves; Work to undermine and harass the services and institutions that work with the victims and survivors of violence.
Fathers’ rights groups in Australia have had a damaging impact on interpersonal violence in Australia, in five ways:
(1) By influencing changes in family law which privilege parental contact over safety, particularly through moves towards a presumption of children’s joint residence;
(2) By attempting to discredit female victims of violence. (See Fact Sheets #1 and #2 for outlines and critiques of the fathers’ rights myths that women routinely make false accusations of child abuse or domestic violence in family law proceedings.)
(3) By attempting to wind back the legal protections available to victims;
(4) By attempting to wind back the legal sanctions imposed on perpetrators;
(5) By attempting to undermine the services and institutions that work with the victims and survivors of violence.
This Fact Sheet focuses on the third, fourth, and fifth aspects of the impact of fathers’ rights groups.
Undermining the protections available to victims of violence
In its efforts to change laws and policies regarding family law and related matters, the fathers’ rights movement often has argued that these are excessively and unjustly biased towards the allegedly female victims of violence and against the alleged male perpetrators. As a corollary of its complaint that women routinely fabricate and misuse allegations of child abuse and domestic violence, the movement has sought to wind back the protections afforded to such fictitious ‘victims’ and to institute legal penalties for their malicious behavior.
The oldest and most respectable fathers’ rights organisation, the Lone Fathers’ Association, in a recent submission urges that claims of violence or abuse should be made on oath, and “[i]f such claims are found to be false, malicious, and/or vexatious in nature, then such disproved allegations should be treated as perjury and subject to criminal prosecution” (LFA, 2004, p. 8). Other fathers’ rights groups make similar proposals, e.g. that people alleging violence should only be able to rely on police and hospital records (DOTA, 2005). The LFA argues that criminal sanctions should be applied also to those who knowingly aid and abet a person making such allegations, and a person who has made false allegations should have to repay the legal costs of the entire proceedings for both parties. (In fact, penalties for making allegations of child abuse that then are not substantiated are already being applied to mothers in some Australian cases (Young, 1998, p. 118).) In applications for a protection order, a supporting medical affidavit should be required, there should be a time limit of six years on allegations of previous violence and of 48 hours on allegations of recent incidents, staff of the domestic violence service must put their name on an application where they have assisted in its preparation, and penalties for the contravention of orders should be lessened (LFA, pp. 38-41, 63).
Undermining the legal sanctions imposed on perpetrators
Fathers’ rights groups also attempt to undermine the ways in which domestic violence is treated as criminal behavior and its perpetrators are subject to criminal sanction.
The Lone Fathers’ Association’s submission proposes that the Duluth-informed practice of the state Family Violence Intervention Program be replaced by a ‘Family Systems Model’ that has the goal of keeping the family intact (LFA, 2004, p. 27). The Duluth model is described as “draconian and damaging to families” and inspired by feminists who “seek to dismantle the family as we know it”. The LFA rejects pro-arrest policies as they mean that men are arrested on false grounds and for frivolous or vindictive reasons. Fathers’ rights organisations criticise the “sexist ideology” of existing perpetrator programs and call for the greater use of mediation and counseling (DOTA, 2005; LFA, pp. 27-45). This last recommendation is symptomatic of the view among some fathers’ rights groups that domestic violence is best understood as “marital discord” and the responsibility of both parties (Kaye & Tolmie, 1998, pp. 55-56), rather than a systematic exercise in power and control.
If such reforms were enacted, they would represent a profound erosion of the protections and legal redress available to the victims of violence and the ease with which they and their advocates can seek justice.
Support for male victims of violence? Rhetoric, not reality
Such an agenda betrays the fact that the concern for male victims of domestic violence often professed by fathers’ rights groups is rhetorical rather than real. While such groups purport to advocate on behalf of male victims of domestic violence, they seek to undermine the policies and services that would protect and gain justice for these same men.
These efforts suggest that fathers’ rights groups respond to issues of domestic and sexual violence from the point of view of the perpetrator. What is more, they respond in the same way as actual male perpetrators: they minimise and deny the extent of this violence, blame the victim, and explain the violence as a mutual or reciprocal process (Hearn, 1996, p. 105). In other words, the discourses and activities of fathers’ rights groups mimic the micro-practices of offenders.
Sympathy and excuses for perpetrators
This tendency is evident also in expressions of sympathy or justification for men who use violence against women and children in the context of family law proceedings. Over the past several decades, individual men have exacted violent revenge against the Family Court, their ex-partners and their children. They have committed murder-suicides, stabbed or shot ex-partners outside the Family Court, hired hit-men to kill their ex-wives, murdered a Family Court judge and the wife of another judge, bombed the home of another judge, and bombed a Family Court (Milburn, 1998). Men’s murders of their ex-wives and children and subsequent suicides have been justified by some spokesmen for men’s rights groups as understandable responses to the “raw deal” men get before the Family Court (Maddison, 1999, p. 39). For example, when a man in Perth gassed to death his three young children and then himself in 1998, following a Family Court ruling restricting his access to two weeks out of three, a spokesman for the Men’s Confraternity commented that he was “probably a decent, hard-working man who was pushed too far by the Family Court.”
When fathers’ rights groups acknowledge men’s violence against women and children, typically they ignore its impact on its targets and blame the violence on factors outside the men who perpetrate it: the Family Court, the Family Law Act, or the residential parent. Thus, “[i]n an ironic twist, male violence is used by these groups to demonstrate how victimised men are by the family law system” (Kaye & Tolmie, 1998, pp. 57-58). Indeed, fathers’ rights groups at times have used the threat of men’s violence against women and children to hold the community to ransom. They stress that unless family law is changed in line with their agendas, more women and children will die (and more men will kill themselves).
Direct advocacy for perpetrators
Members of fathers’ rights groups also act as direct advocates for perpetrators or alleged perpetrators of violence against women. For example, a pamphlet for ‘victims of a false AVO’ (Apprehended Violence Order), coaching respondents in how to respond to these, was produced in 2005 by members of the “Dads On The Air” group and radio program and distributed via their online bulletin board. While such materials are directed at ‘false’ protection orders, no attention is given to how to respond to ‘true’ perpetrators of violence nor to the safety of family members involved. Groups such as the Men’s Rights Agency run training sessions for men who wish to represent themselves in family law proceedings, and given the perspectives of such groups these sessions are unlikely to prioritise women’s and children’s safety or take allegations of violence seriously.
Use of violence
Members of some groups have used abusive strategies themselves. In Melbourne in 2002, a militant fathers’ rights group called the Blackshirts, acting on behalf of men “harshly dealt with” by the Family Court, terrorised recently separated women (and children) in their homes. Wearing black paramilitary uniforms and black masks, the men shouted accusations of sexual misconduct and moral corruption through megaphones and letter-dropped neighbours. The leader of a Melbourne fathers’ rights group, the Blackshirts, was convicted in 2004 of stalking a divorced mother when he staged demonstrations with other men outside her house.
Some groups go even further. In 1996, a Brisbane newspaper alleged that a men’s rights organisation had hired private investigators to track down members’ spouses and children hiding in domestic violence refuges, found restricted information about domestic violence workers and revealed confidential financial information about a domestic violence centre. (However, a three-month police investigation recommended no action against the organisation. )
Attacks on domestic violence services
Fathers’ rights groups attack what they describe as the ‘domestic violence industry’, “a massive industry funded to the tune of billions of dollars with a vested interest in exaggerating the extent of domestic violence and using it as an anti-father propaganda tool” (DOTA, 2005). They call for the de-funding and abolition of this “hysterical, extremist and anti-male anti-father domestic violence industry”.
Media and community campaigns focused on men’s violence against women are another target of the fathers’ rights movement’s wrath. Activists routinely pen letters to newspapers, local politicians and bureaucrats to complain of the ‘misandry’ (man-hating) and ‘lies’ in these campaigns, and lodge formal complaints of sex discrimination with human rights and advertising standards bodies. Recent targets of this activity include the Australian Government’s 2004 “No Respect No Relationship” campaign and the White Ribbon Campaign taken up by the women’s organisation UNIFEM.
Finally, fathers’ rights groups have engaged in the harassment of community sector and women’s organisations which respond to the victims of violence. The Lone Fathers’ Association supported a Brisbane man who in 1995 took a case to the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (HREOC) alleging sex discrimination by the Domestic Violence Resource Centre. HREOC dismissed the allegations and the LFA’s enthusiasm was dampened when a local newspaper revealed that the complainant had criminal convictions for assault and weapons offences (Matheson, 1996; Young, 1996). In the longest-running case of this kind, a Canberra man has been trying for 15 years to win a sex discrimination case against the Domestic Violence Crisis Service, again with the support of the LFA. HREOC first dismissed his complaint in 1997, the case was heard and dismissed again in the Federal Magistrates Court over 2002-03, and the applicant lost his appeal to the Federal Court in 2005. Such campaigns are one aspect of the fathers’ rights movement’s wider attack on women’s services and women-oriented policy bodies (Flood, 2003, p. 42).
DOTA (Dads On The Air). (2005). Response to the discussion paper, A new approach to the family law system: Implementation of reforms. Sydney, Australia: Dads On The Air.
This Fact Sheet may be circulated. It may be reproduced with acknowledgement to Michael Flood. Direct correspondence to michael.flood[at]anu.edu.au, or by mail to PO Box 4026, Ainslie ACT, 2602.