Family violence and children

The Family Law Act 1975 contains a range of provisions designed to protect parties and children from family violence. Section 4(1) of the Family Law Act states that abuse, in relation to a child, means:

  • an assault, including a sexual assault, of the child, or
  • a person (the first person) involving the child in a sexual activity with the first person or another person in which the child is used, directly or indirectly, as a sexual object by the first person or the other person, and where there is an unequal power in the relationship between the child and the first person, or
  • causing the child to suffer serious psychological harm, including (but not limited to) when that harm is caused by the child being subjected to, or exposed to, family violence, or
  • serious neglect of the child.

Family violence between parents is traumatic for children and can have long lasting effects. A child is exposed to family violence if the child sees or hears family violence or otherwise experiences the effects of family violence (section 4AB).

Examples of situations that may constitute a child being exposed to family violence include (but are not limited to):

  • overhearing threats of death or personal injury by a member of the child’s family towards another member of the child’s family, or
  • seeing or hearing an assault of a member of the child’s family by another member of the child’s family, or
  • comforting or providing assistance to a member of the child’s family who has been assaulted by another member of the child’s family, or
  • cleaning up a site after a member of the child’s family has intentionally damaged property of another member of the child’s family, or
  • being present when police or ambulance officers attend an incident involving the assault of a member of the child’s family by another member of the child’s family.

Under section 67Z of the Family Law Act, the Court must be notified if a parenting matter involves allegations of family violence or child abuse. An interested person to the proceedings must notify the Court if one of the parties to the proceedings has already committed family violence, or if there is a risk of family violence being committed by one of the parties by filing the Notice of child abuse, family violence or risk. An interested person in a proceeding is a party to the proceeding, an Independent Children’s Lawyer who represents the interest of the child in the proceeding, or a person who is not a party to the proceeding.

For more information about notifying the Court see How the Court considers safety and risk.

The impact of family violence on children

Extensive research confirms the devastating impact family violence can have on children's lives and their physical and emotional development. Family violence can affect children in many ways.

Babies and toddlers

  • Unsettled, including excessive crying, sleep issues, feeding concerns), and difficulty soothing.
  • Very clingy, easily startled and anxious behaviours.
  • Withdrawn, for example disinterested in familiar people, toys and activities.
  • Signs of aggressive tendencies when playing.
  • Delays in developmental milestones.

School-aged children

  • Behavioural issues including aggression, emotional outbursts and disobedience.
  • Difficulties socially interacting with others, including playing with other children.
  • Emotional withdrawal.
  • Reduced appetite/eating disorders.
  • Sleep disruptions, including difficulty sleeping, bedwetting and nightmares.
  • Mood disorders.
  • Learning difficulties.

Adolescents

  • Reduced school attendance.
  • Issues at school, including bullying, or difficulty making and maintaining friends.
  • Depression or anxiety.
  • Eating disorders, self-harm behaviours, suicidal thoughts.
  • Risk taking behaviours.

For more information see the Court Children’s Service factsheet Exposure to family violence and its effect on children.

Child protection orders

Child protection is prescribed in child welfare law of a state or territory, where authorities may intervene in family settings and make orders in relation to the care and protection of a child or young person due to an allegation of harm or significant risk of harm to a child. Child protection orders are different to family violence orders. They are made by a state or territory children's court when it is believed that a child is in need of protection. However, children can also be included on family violence orders made for a parent (if appropriate).

Further information on children’s courts can be found on the Australian Law Reform Commission website.

Related legislation