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Byron Shire
June 18, 2024

Legal system fails to keep kids safe

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Fifteen years ago, Karen Bell’s three children – Bon 18 months, Maddie 5, and Jack 7, were found with their dead father Gary Bell in a vehicle at Perico – a collapsed hippy colony on the NSW far south coast.

Australia was utterly horrified by the murder suicide. 

There was a blaze of media coverage, including reports that Karen had unsuccessfully tried – on two occasions prior to their deaths – to get police assistance in checking on the children. 

Karen was a victim of domestic violence and had fled the family home – leaving her children. She was unable to return and urgently needed help ensuring their welfare. 

It is very clear the police would not intervene on the basis the welfare of children is a DOCS matter, and the issue of child custody is a matter for federal courts.

At the time Karen Bell – speaking through her siblings – called for urgent reform to domestic violence laws to protect children of victims who are forced to flee their homes.

I have no insight into this case – only vivid memories of my shock and incomprehension that three beautiful young lives could be ended by their own father.

Why wouldn’t the police help? 

Well that was clear – family law and custody is most definitely federal jurisdiction, and NSW Police have no power to act in such matters. 

I get that – but here is the problem. 

There is no Family Court or federal police in isolated rural communities like Perico – only state police who are powerless. 

So at the time, I thought it is screamingly obvious that when a mother in abject terror for the lives of her children goes to NSW Police asking for help – they need to be empowered to act on the report. Surely three dead infants is proof enough this needs to happen?

But nothing was done. 

Nothing – it was as if those children never existed, their forfeited lives had zero impact on our pompous legal system. 

In 2014, 11-year-old Luke Batty was murdered by his own father Greg Anderson at cricket practice. 

Rosie Batty. Photo Wikicommons

His mother Rosie Batty was present and saw the whole thing. She went on to become Australian of the Year with a powerful message about domestic violence flaws in our family law system and unacceptable risks to children.

I have heard Rosie Batty speak many times, and she emphasises how unexpected her husband’s shocking crime was, both to her and the police. Importantly, it differs in this regard to the earlier murders of the Bell children. 

However, Rosie’s profile on child safety in relationship breakdowns led her to champion a Women’s Legal Services Australia (WLSA) campaign ‘Safety First in Family Law’. 

It is a five point plan that recognises Family Law Courts who determine child custody matters were never designed to deal with domestic violence. 

There are processes where child abuse is alleged. But as the cases of the Bell family and Luke Batty show – a man violently abusing his partner, but not his children, can still be a significant risk to his own kids when the partner flees. 

This is a massive gap in family law and child safety legislation which is regarded as state jurisdiction and not the concern of those federal courts. 

Plan in summary 

The plan in summary includes: strengthen family violence response in the family law system; provide effective legal help for the most disadvantaged; ensure family law professionals have real understanding of family violence; increase access to safe dispute resolution models; and overcome the gaps between the family law, family violence and child protection systems.

Rosie Batty called for action on this when the plan was launched in May 2016.  This common sense plan has recently been relaunched by WLSA, and can be found on their website: www.wlsa.org.au.

Here in the Northern Rivers, our children are sadly as vulnerable as any others to violence, mental illness and relationship breakdowns.

Last year in Yamba, in another murder/suicide, a father, Wayne Smith killed his 11-year-old son Noah after being identified as having mental health issues, but was nevertheless cleared to have his guns returned.

This week, we learn a Lismore man has killed his 2-year-old son and himself in yet another murder/suicide. 

I suspect there is no coherent answer as to why or how this keeps happening.

The better question is: what are we doing about it?

It is a genuine question because these tragedies are happening on a loop and frontline services seem hamstrung to make any changes at all. 

My best suggestion is to prioritise the lives of our children ahead of legal perversity, and jurisdictional niceties to ensure children’s lives are more important than glacial legal paperwork. 

And as for the WLSA’s ‘Safety First in Family Law’ – this has been designed by people inside the system who get the problems and have solutions. It deserves to be implemented – like yesterday.

♦ Catherine Cusack is a former NSW Liberal MLC.

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  1. So sad that children aren’t given the safety and protection they need. When will this finally be remedied? Children shot, burned to death, drowned by fathers who are known to be violent and vindictive.

    It may not be all men, but it’s too many men and too many dead and damaged children.


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