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News and views from The Backbone Collective which advocates for women and children who have experienced violence or abuse and who are enduring further harm from New Zealand's Family Court. 

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What Doesn't Kill Me - powerful must see movie

A U.S film documents how the family law and child protection system is failing women and children who are victim/survivors of domestic violence. The issues explored in What Doesn’t Kill Me are as real for the women and children of New Zealand as they are for those in the U.S. The Backbone Collective has been documenting women’s accounts of the Family Court in New Zealand for two and a half years and those accounts have been overwhelmingly negative. Backbone believes we need a system that protects victims/survivors from violence and abuse - not one that traumatises them further and puts them in even more danger.

A U.S film documents how the family law and child protection system is failing women and children who are victim/survivors of domestic violence. The issues explored in What Doesn’t Kill Me are as real for the women and children of New Zealand as they are for those in the U.S. The Backbone Collective has been documenting women’s accounts of the Family Court in New Zealand for two and a half years and those accounts have been overwhelmingly negative. Backbone believes we need a system that protects victims/survivors from violence and abuse - not one that traumatises them further and puts them in even more danger.

What Doesn’t Kill Me - a must see movie now available online

What Doesn’t Kill Me is a U.S movie that documents the trap victims of domestic violence find themselves in when they reach out for protection. Written and directed by Rachel Meyrick a British film maker, it exposes some of the ways the family law and child protection systems in the U.S work to undermine the safety of women and children.

This movie is well worth the watch for people who want to understand much more about the family law system; a system we would expect would protect victim/survivors, but one that is currently failing miserably to do so. In particular, the film shows the impossible position survivors are placed in when trying to escape abuse. On the one hand they are told by society to leave an abusive relationship. But if they do leave they often end up in the Family Court where they are not believed, and custody and care of the children is often awarded to the abuser. On the other hand, if survivors stay with the abuser to try to protect the children they are accused by child protection services of failing to protect their children from abuse.  It’s a lose - lose situation that is also common in New Zealand.

Throughout the movie, women and child survivors (now adults), talk about their experiences with a family law system that they thought would help them, but actually made everything worse. The film focuses on the stories of mothers who are victims/survivors of abuse, losing custody of their children via the Family Court. Academics and advocates explain that women are much more likely to lose custody of their children by alleging violence and abuse from their partner (ex) or the children’s father, and most especially if they make allegations of sexual abuse of children by the father.

Fathers win up to 70 percent of contested cases even when they’ve been found guilty of domestic or sexual violence against the mother or the children.
— What Doesn't Kill Me

The issues raised in What Doesn’t Kill Me are not particular to the U.S. Backbone has heard from hundreds of New Zealand women over the last two and a half years whose experiences mirror those detailed in the movie.

Backbone has released a number of reports since we launched drawing on the survey responses from New Zealand women. Based on those responses we have written about how the New Zealand Family Court undermines women and children’s attempts to live safely and free from violence and abuse. We have argued that the Family Court often works contrary to a wider societal belief that abuse is not OK and also to responses by other statutory and community agencies aiming to protect victim/survivors of domestic violence.

It’s a lose - lose situation that is also common in New Zealand.
— The Backbone Collective

In the film survivors talk about how their experiences of violence and abuse, and those of their children were not believed. For these mothers, not being believed resulted in their children being placed in the care of abusive ex partners. Some of these women have not seen their children for years. Similarly, the majority of women who took part in Backbone surveys told us that their experiences of violence and abuse and those of their children, were not believed by those working in the Family Court.  The women we heard from were accused of lying, exaggerating, making up the allegations to get back at ex partners, and trying to deliberately destroy the child’s relationship with the father when they raised genuine safety concerns to try and protect their children from further abuse.

The movie explores how the system itself causes further harm to women and children victim/survivors. Interviewees talk about how traumatising the court process is. Advocates explain that the system can only be described as crazy-making. Interviewees describe how many people working in the system do not understand the trauma response women often have when they are at court including, crying, being unable to recall detail, appearing terrified etc. Instead these very understandable reactions to facing their abuser and recalling the abuse are often interpretted as women having ‘emotional problems’. This interpretation goes on to impact on the decisions made about these mother’s ability to parent and the subsequent care and contact orders.

Here in New Zealand, Backbone found that over half the women in our Family Court survey (there were 496 women who took part who had been involved in Family Court proceedings) said they were accused of being mentally unwell during the proceedings.   In addition, two thirds told us that they were traumatised by the Family Court proceedings and 93% described negative health impacts as a consequence of being involved in the Family Court. Children also suffered significant negative health impacts from the involvement in court proceedings and associated orders and outcomes. These women and children experienced not only trauma from their experience of violence and abuse but also trauma from the way the court responded to those experiences.

Part of the crazy making nature of Family Court proceedings is how unbelievable the outcomes are.

Part of the crazy making nature of Family Court proceedings is how unbelievable the outcomes are. Women interviewed in the film explain that people around them struggled to understand that their partners were abusive when to outsiders they appeared ‘so loving’. Similarly they described the court’s inability to believe that abuse had taken place at all. As one commentator in the film explains, for those working in the Family Law system it is easier to believe the women were making up the allegations than to accept that there are so many fathers doing this much horrible stuff to women and children.

The film includes interviews with children (now young adults) who lived through unsafe court orders forcing them into care with abusive fathers. These young people describe the impact that experience had on them as children and now as they mature. Support groups however are growing in the U.S for these children and mothers. Survivor groups, advocates and academics are calling for a better system that responds safely to cases where there is violence and abuse.

The world is talking about needing a safer way to respond to violence and abuse cases. New Zealand could be first to showcase a safer approach.
— The Backbone Collelctive

We are pleased that What Doesn’t Kill Me is now available online. We hope it helps the New Zealand public understand better that the issues Backbone has been raising are widespread in New Zealand and worldwide even though they may seem unbelievable or counter intuitive to people who have not experienced the Family Court system themselves. We think we need a new way of responding - we need it urgently.

Put simply, it does not make sense to continue to fund a Family Court system that puts women and children in more danger and causes more trauma and harm. We keep saying to anyone who will listen that we can’t tell you how many times women have told us “I wish I’d never left…at least I could keep the kids safe when I lived with him.’

Women have told us ‘I wish I’d never left - at least I could keep the kids safer when I lived with him.’

These women are responding to an unimaginable situation that they could not have predicted prior to leaving the abuse. Who would think that victims of violence and abuse would be accused of lying about their experience and be denied protection from further abuse? Shockingly, hundreds of New Zealand women are describing similar experiences in Family Courts throughout the country.

New Zealand women are certainly not alone in their unsafe experiences with the Family Court. International research is increasingly showing the gender bias in Family Courts and its serious impact, particularity in cases where there has been violence and abuse. But like the women and young people who share their stories in What Doesn’t Kill Me, Backbone is hopeful that the current system can be improved, so that what women expect when they leave an abuser and reach out for help - protection - becomes a reality for them and their children.

Backbone has been calling for the development of a new court model for domestic violence cases. We need a Family Court response that is delivered by a panel of professionals who understand domestic violence and its dynamics, child abuse and neglect, sexual violence, trauma, child development and Tikanga Maori. It is only by taking a specialist lens to these cases that risk can be mitigated for victim/survivors and children.

To watch What Doesn’t Kill Me you can click on the link below. You will need to set up an account with Vimeo who host the movie. You will be asked to enter your name, an email address and a password. Its costs $12 (U.S) to stream the film which you can access for 24 hours after paying for it.

We hope that domestic violence agencies, professional bodies involved in domestic violence cases and the judiciary watch this film to inform safer future practice.

 
 

about the backbone collective

New Zealand has the highest rate of women experiencing violence and abuse in the developed world, which is due in part to our broken response system.

The Backbone Collective is an independent body taking action to change New Zealand's dire statistics by examining the response system through the eyes of its users - women who have experienced violence and abuse.

Please join us as either a woman who has experienced violence or abuse, or as a supporter who wants to help by volunteering your time, services or expertise.

Many reports have been written about where the system is broken but they have fallen on deaf ears. We think that Government and others in a position of power will start listening when hundreds, and potentially thousands, of women speak up about what needs to change.

 

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