‘My quest to end ugly cross-country custody battles’
A GOLD Coast lawyer's devastating experience with domestic violence and a legal system which forced her then two-year-old nephew to be returned to his abusive father overseas, has motivated her and her sister to push for sweeping law reform.
So far, their pleas for change have fallen on deaf ears, despite hundreds of Queenslanders facing this dilemma every year - at least two similar cases being heard every week in the Brisbane Family Court and the highest numbers affect women and children between Australia and New Zealand.
"Women are being returned with their children to their abusive partners and in some cases, they are being killed," Gina Masterton, a lawyer, Master of Law and PhD candidate, warned
"For example, a few years ago Cassandra Hasanovic, a 24-year-old Australian woman, was ordered by the Sydney Family Court to return her two children to England. Shortly afterwards, she was murdered by her estranged husband - in front of her children and her mother."
Gina, of Runaway Bay, is studying a PhD in law, while her younger sister Rebecca Masterton, is about to finish the second year of her psychology degree, both at Griffith University.
Their aim is to bring about law reform for domestic violence victims who flee to Australia to escape their terror and are subject to The Hague Child Abduction Convention of 1980.
"It's like sending women back to horror. At the least, they have no money or jobs and at the worst, they can be killed," Gina said.
"Australian legislators can make changes to the regulations contained in the Family Law Act and we are pushing for an amendment which would provide for domestic violence perpetrated against the mother to constitute a grave risk of harm to the child."
The legal implications of The Hague Convention had a profound impact on the sisters after they moved to California where Rebecca married a Mexican national. In 2011, the couple had a baby boy and shortly after his birth, Rebecca's husband became abusive.
In 2013, Gina, who was at that time working at law firms in LA, decided to return to Brisbane with her mother who had health issues.
"Rebecca told her husband that she was coming back to Brisbane with their son for a holiday," she said.
"During the trip home, Rebecca broke down and told me for the first time about the abuse that she had lived with for two years. She said her husband had even hurt their baby and that was the last straw for her."
Rebecca was too afraid to return to LA but Gina knew there would be legal consequences.
"I didn't 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," Gina said.
She was served with documents to attend an urgent hearing in the Brisbane Family Court.
"The Court didn't place any weight on Rebecca's evidence of domestic abuse and in August 2013, she was ordered to return her two-year-old son to his father within two weeks," Gina said.
"Rebecca had no money, no place to live and no resources back in LA. We've been best friends our whole lives, so naturally I returned with them for support. Thankfully, I got back my old job."
Unfortunately, Rebecca's husband had secured physical and legal custody of their son and Rebecca had no parental rights.
"He used the legal system in Australia, which cost him nothing, and in California to hurt Rebecca and separate her from their infant son," Gina said.
"We decided her only option was to try and 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 her. He eventually told her that he had met someone else whom he wanted to have a family with."
He finally gave Rebecca written permission to return to Australia with their son, because the little boy wouldn't eat and would not stop crying for his mother.
Since their return, the sisters have been raising Cody together and he is now seven-years-old.
Their mission is to help abused women and children who are going through The Hague process and who may have few resources, by working with other qualified legal and health professionals, to provide adequate support and protection.
"The Hague Child Abduction Convention provides that if a woman fleeing domestic violence leaves her husband with their child or children, without his consent, the husband has the right to apply for the child or children to be immediately returned," Gina said.
"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."
The mature-aged, indigenous students are calling on the Federal Government to amend Australia's family law and have contacted the Department of Women's Safety, the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, as well as the Attorney-General.
However, all they have received are generic email replies.
"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," Rebecca said.
"We plan to devote our 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," she said.