Ground-breaking Court Program Protects Children from Further Trauma

March 2015

They say you need to walk in someone's shoes to understand their life. Winter (surname withheld) comes close; each week she ‘shadows’ women supporting their children as they go through the court system as a result of family violence. Winter follows women through each process, caring for and protecting children from the often painful experience of the court appearance and preventing further trauma. Winter is Victoria’s first Court Play Worker, a ground-breaking initiative of McAuley Community Services for Women, funded by the Barr Family Trust and supported by the Sunshine Court .

In just six months she has worked with 227 children at the court.

The pilot program, which began 6 months ago means that three days a week Winter goes to the Court where at least 55 women will attend on the day with issues relating to family violence. They come in the morning and many wait all day, many with children ranging in age from newborn to late teens. Most are forced to bring their children because they are isolated through family violence, or are reluctant to leave their children with anyone.

“I walk around the court, with great support from the Sunshine Court staff, and talk to women who have children. I have to spend some time gaining the trust of the mother and most importantly, the children. I assess the needs of the children and then shadow the mother through the process trying to quarantine the children from what can be very sensitive and painful information,” Winter said.

The ‘process’ at the court usually begins with counter registration followed by a police interview to discuss their case. The woman may then be referred to a women’s health service or court worker for assistance. Finally, the woman will go into the courtroom to give evidence in order to get an interim intervention order. They must return two weeks later to get the order finalised. The necessary steps can be exhausting for all those involved and very stressful for those at the end of the court list.

“The women are told to come at 9am and many don’t fully understand the process,” Winter said. “The women and children can be anxious as the perpetrators are also at court, they often feel afraid and intimidated. I work at ground level, always trying to engage the kids through play. The majority of women are happy for me to engage with their children and support them through the process. Most days I work with three or four families.”
“I use play to distract the children so that they don’t participate in, or even hear a lot of what is being said,” Winter said.
As well as working with the children, Winter advocates for the women, depending on their needs. If a woman, or her children, is very distressed she will advocate on their behalf to court staff to expedite their case.

Winter has enormous admiration for the women and children she works with each day. They are from diverse backgrounds, often unfamiliar with the language and legal system in Australia, but they show great courage, especially the children. In the past six months the cultural backgrounds of the children are Anglo 42%, Vietnamese 21%, Maori 9%, India 7%, Asia 6%, Africa 6%, Aboriginal 4%, Lebanon 3% and Turkey 2%. 
“Their experiences are terrible, but through all that you can see in their young faces a real courage and strength. Often their Mum is traumatised by the violence she has experienced and can be emotionally unavailable. I find connecting through play is not only a means of distraction, it also allows the children a chance to explore their feelings, to laugh and truly engage with someone. One day recently a Mum was watching as I played with her children. She told me it was the first time she had seen her little girl laugh in a long time,” Winter said.
Winter is certain that on average one family each week could not go through the process if it wasn’t for this service. The program has highlighted a critical gap in the system designed to protect women. Women with accompanying children are not able to obtain a family violence intervention order as they are not permitted to bring their children into the court room. In many instances, their case will be adjorned, leaving them more at risk than ever.