Trouble in the Family Court

When Erin saw the police lights flashing, she knew it was over. She steered the car to the side of the road, and turned to her two children. “OK guys, this is it,” she said. “We’ve done our best.”

Her teenaged daughter started to panic. “Fuck! Oh my god!” she cried. “I can’t do this. You can’t leave us!” She grabbed for the bottle of Panadol in the centre console, insisting she wanted to die. “No!” Erin said firmly. “Settle, just settle.”

As the police officer approached with a warrant, Erin got out of her car. She asked for time to talk to her two children, and promised she’d follow him to the station. Back in the car, Erin tried to remain calm. “I am so sorry I have put you through all of this. This is not the life I wanted for you. Always remember how much I love you.”

“What’s going to happen to us?” her 10-year-old son cried. “I don’t know,” Erin replied. “You just need to tell the truth.”

By the time the police caught up with them, Erin had been on the run with her children for nine months. She was now confronting a reality she’d been avoiding for years.

Since their children were born, and ever since he’d first held a knife to her throat, Erin had tried to manage her husband’s abuse. In 2012, however, a warning from her GP had broken through her denial. In front of their screaming kids, John had throttled Erin until her eyes rolled back in her head. “If you don’t leave,” her GP warned, “you’re as bad as he is.”

Erin did leave, and took the children to live with her parents interstate. Soon after, the Family Court granted John regular access to his kids. For the next year, Erin weighed her responsibility to her children, who were terrified of their father, against the risks of disobeying Family Court orders. There was a further complication: Erin had consented to the orders granting John fortnightly access – under pressure from her lawyer, she says, who advised that if she didn’t compromise, John could end up with sole custody.

When the children refused to see or even speak to their father, however, Erin felt she had no choice but to breach the orders. When John applied for full custody, both children refused to be assessed in the same room with him, and their counsellor wrote to the Family Court, advising that such a meeting would be traumatising for them. But when they presented their fears to a court-appointed social worker, whose job it was to assess the family, it was Erin’s motivations that were questioned, and her parenting criticised.

In 2014, two months before the full custody hearing was due to be heard, the Family Court suddenly made interim orders for John to have sole custody. Police were directed to enforce the orders, and both children were prohibited from having contact with their mother.

“So we fled,” says Erin. After they were stopped at the airport trying to leave the country, Erin slipped the authorities, drove the children down south, and disappeared. John went to the media, appealing for information about his missing children. He said he loved them very much, and couldn’t understand why, after their amicable separation, his ex-wife had disappeared with them.

Now under arrest, Erin sat with her children in the police station, and tried to explain to the officers why they had run. By chance, her daughter had just finished writing a protest letter. Erin handed the letter to police, and asked them to read it.

“My name is […], and I am scared of my dad,” it began. “I have seen him in a rage throw my brother across the room. He has held a knife to my mother’s throat telling her how easy it would be to cut it … and the court has given me to him. I have tried to tell all the legal people involved how scared he makes me but I am too young for anyone to listen …”

In a recording of the letter, her unsteady voice becomes indignant. “At what point do I become old enough? I want to … think that somewhere in the cosmos is a place where I am valued and safe. I don’t want to be the next Luke Batty … Please, please help.”

That afternoon, the police drove Erin and her kids to a nearby town, so Erin could front a magistrate on criminal charges of abduction. There was one last chance to say goodbye, and then the children, distraught, were taken away.

That was earlier this year. Neither Erin nor anyone she knows has been allowed to contact her children. The next Family Court hearing isn’t far away. Erin’s legal advice is that, because she ran, she doesn’t stand a chance.