Sisters aim for law reform to fight domestic violence

Rebecca (L) with Gina (R) and Rebecca's son Cody.

A passion for protecting Australian women from the perils of domestic violence is the aim for Gold Coast sisters and Griffith University students, Gina Masterton and Rebecca Masterton.

The two women are aiming to raise awareness and bring about law reform of the issue in Australia, especially those cases which are subject to the Hague Child Abduction Convention 1980.

With Gina studying for a PhD in law and Rebecca, a second year Bachelor of Psychology undergraduate, the pair — both indigenous mature age students returning to study – make a formidable force in understanding the subtleties of testosterone-fuelled aggression.

However, it is more their personal experience of the problem that has triggered their plan to devote their careers to reform in this area, and to help support abused women and children who flee domestic violence to Australia.

Living in California from 2000 until late 2013 with their mother, Gina was pursuing a legal career, while younger sister Rebecca, who was working as a real estate agent, married a Mexican national. Shortly after the birth of Rebecca’s baby boy in February 2011, her husband started becoming very abusive towards her.

“In 2013 I decided to return to Brisbane with my mother due to her health issues,” says sister Gina.

“Rebecca told her husband she was coming back to Brisbane with us, with their son, for a vacation.

Living with abuse

“However, on the trip back to Australia, Rebecca broke down sobbing, and for the first time, told me about the abuse she had been living with for two years, and that her husband had even hurt their baby. That was the last straw for her.

“Rebecca told me she was too afraid to return to Los Angeles, but I knew instantly there were going to be legal consequences for her.”

“I didn’t come to learn about Australia’s adoption of the Hague Child Abduction Convention 1980, or what it meant for us, until Rebecca was tracked down in Brisbane in mid-2013, by federal agencies, and served with documents to attend an immediate court hearing in the Brisbane Family Court.”

Gina says the Brisbane Family Court didn’t place any weight on Rebecca’s evidence of domestic abuse, and in August 2013 ordered her to return her two year old son to his abusive father within a two week period.

“With Rebecca having no money, no place to live and no resources back in L.A., I returned with them for support. Thankfully, I got my old job back at a law firm, which helped us financially. However, Rebecca’s husband had obtained court orders from the L.A. Family Court in her absence, and he now had complete physical and legal custody of their son, with Rebecca having zero parental rights, all because she had fled domestic violence with her child.

“He used the legal system in Australia (which cost him nothing) and in California to hurt Rebecca and separate her from their infant son. We decided her only option was to try to mediate with him, as the law was against Rebecca, and she was desperate to get some visitation time with her son.”

“Rebecca mediated with her husband every single day for three months, and he used that time to berate, and further abuse my sister, until finally he told her that he had met someone else who he wanted to have a family with.

“He finally gave Rebecca written permission to return to Australia with their son, because “he wouldn’t eat and wouldn’t stop crying for his mother”.

Upon their return to Brisbane in November 2013, the sisters resumed their lives and have tried to put the traumatic episode behind them, together raising Cody who is a happy and healthy 6 year old.

Helping abused women and children

Now the two women want to help abused women and children who are going through the Hague process (and who may have few resources in Brisbane) by working together with other qualified legal and health professionals, to provide adequate support and protection.

Gina’s PhD thesis is entitled Child Abduction or Flight to Safety: How the Hague Child Abduction Convention (1980) adversely affects abused women and children who flee domestic violence to Australia.

“It is estimated that between two and four women are affected each week in the Brisbane courts alone,” she says.

“The Hague Child Abduction Convention provides that if a woman fleeing domestic violence leaves her husband with their child/children, without his consent, the husband has the right to apply for the child/children to be immediately returned, and he has the full force of the Australian legal system behind him, at zero cost to him.

“The Convention, which is strictly enforced by the Australian Family Court, can even be used by men who have an extensive history of documented abuse against their partners.

“Unfortunately, the child’s best interests are not taken into account in Hague cases, and this is proving to be a massive issue for abused women and children who flee to Australia. Furthermore, domestic violence to the mother is not considered by the courts to be abuse to the child. Consequently, urgent law reform is required to protect these vulnerable people from attack in this way by abusive partners.

Call to Federal Government

“We will be calling on the federal government to amend Australia’s Family Law (Child Abduction Convention) Regulations 1986 (Cth), which give effect to Australia’s legal obligations under the Abduction Convention, to allow abused mothers involved in Hague proceedings to remain in Australia with their children, to access the legal, medical and other community resources they desperately need.

“We are advocating for online mediation, between the mother located in Australia, and the father in the other jurisdiction, with the children remaining with the primary carer mother, until the issues of parental responsibility are settled.”

“If we hadn’t experienced the harshness of this law ourselves, we would never have known about this issue, and how it affects so many Australian mothers every week,” says Rebecca.

“We both plan on devoting our own careers in law and psychology to help bring about law reform in this area, and to help support abused women and children who flee domestic violence, who are then made to suffer through traumatic legal proceedings.

“At present, most of these cases result in the court separating children from their primary carer mother, and the mother potentially facing further abuse if she returns, and/or jail in the other jurisdiction, just for trying to protect herself and/or her children.

“We feel that this is a most unjust situation that requires urgent rectification by our federal government.”