Advocating for Children with a Disability: Emma’s story
Emma Gierschick understands how damaging domestic violence can be – both professionally, with more than a decade of experience working with survivors, and personally, from her own challenging experiences. Though Emma was more aware than most of the signs of domestic violence, she was hesitant to act when it happened to her. That is, until she had her daughter.
The warning signs were not immediately obvious to Emma that her partner would act the way he did. His violent tendencies first appeared when he attacked his mother, prompting Emma to seek immediate help from Family Life. He enrolled into the Men’s Behavioural Change Program, and Emma chose to get help through the Family Life counselling services at the same time.
Things returned to normal for a time, but after moving to Gisborne – away from her support network – Emma’s partner’s behaviour became volatile again. Though this time, Emma didn’t have the same professional support and tried to deal with the situation as best she could by herself.
Emma’s baby Amelia was born during this time with Down syndrome and cognitive and developmental delays. This prompted Emma to reach out to authorities when the abuse began again and she moved back to Melbourne where she knew she had access to more support.
Rising Above the Challenges
Despite a number of setbacks – including an IVO from her partner and a breast cancer diagnosis – Emma persevered. While receiving chemotherapy, she appeared before the Family Court at a hearing for Amelia’s custody. Family Life continued to support her in this journey and accompanied her to court so she wasn’t on her own.
Emma came to realise the Family Court took a ‘one size fits all’ approach to dealing with child custody cases. The court didn’t take into account Amelia’s disability and the possible risks of being in her father’s care. For Emma, this raised serious questions: what impact would such a generalised approach have on her daughter? If this was happening to her, who else was vulnerable and at risk?
Building a Better Future
Today, Emma is devoted to raising awareness of children with a disability who experience difficulties in the family court system. She is involved with the state government in helping to develop assessment templates for children with special needs. Emma works with magistrates to ensure awareness on issues for those with disabilities, especially when it comes to decisions made on their behalf.
Her intent is to get formal recognition for children with a disability facing family violence and system and laws changed to protect them.
Emma was recently announced in the Australian Financial Review 100 Women of Influence 2018.
Emma continues to work with Family Life as a Family Violence Survivor advisor.
Emma is a vital voice in advocating for the safety and care of others who have experienced domestic violence and her work continues to inspire others.