November 12, 2017 by Robert Franklin, Esq, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization

The Australian government has begun its assessment of the family law system there, particularly as it relates to divorce and child custody. Given Australia’s news media that rarely miss an opportunity to denigrate fathers and call into question even the most modest moves toward parental equality, that’s cause for alarm. Much needs to change there, but few advocates for equal parenting are optimistic about the outcome in the current political climate.

So, all in all, this article looks like cause for hope (The Australian, 11/11/17). That’s true despite its astonishingly false first clause and what looks at the outset like more of the usual “men are dangerous and courts treat them too leniently” nonsense we see all too often. Here’s that first clause.

This was not one of those cases where the children had been ­abused and neglected…

And yet, that is precisely what was happening. No, the mother didn’t beat the children, but as sure as the sunrise, she abused them. She’s an alienator and parental alienation of children is child abuse. Alienators often lie to the children about the other parent and sometimes the children see the truth. Confronted with, on one hand, the desire to believe the alienator and, on the other, known facts that contradict her, children are placed in a mental/emotional bind. In young children who don’t understand the difference between reality and unreality, sometimes the only way to solve the problem is by entering into a fantasy world that can look like schizophrenia or some condition akin thereto.

But even in less dire situations, the alienation of a parent can be deeply traumatizing to a child. The loss of a parent and the need, engendered by the alienator, to believe that he doesn’t love the child, is abusive, etc. can have long-term consequences. The literature on parental alienation has recognized this for decades.

Now, the writer of the linked-to piece never uses the words “parental alienation,” but it’s there for all to see.

But he couldn’t make a contact regimen work: he would call the house and the children — in particular the boy, who was described as a “sensitive child” — wouldn’t come to the phone, or else Mr Ralton would go to pick the children up for his weekend visits and their mum would have taken them to a birthday party instead.

A counsellor was assigned to the family to try to help the parents work it out, but overnight time kept breaking down and, ­despite court orders, there was no contact between the dad and his children on Father’s Day 2015 or Christmas Day 2015. Then in February last year the boy — who is now 10 — ran away from school after telling teachers his father had ­assaulted him. He called triple 0, and while he was “very polite and very calm” on the phone with police, he simply said he would not go with his dad because he was frightened.

Police investigated but found no evidence that the dad had ­assaulted the children. He’d roughly rubbed his head, maybe out of frustration.

The court called the family ­together for yet more mediation but the boy refused to take part, kicking and screaming when he was told he had to have a supervised visit with his dad. Two psychologists stepped in and both concluded that the boy was “not free” of the mother’s views about her ex. By the time the final court date came around, the boy was so upset that police had to accompany him into “a safe and contained environment” within the courthouse because he didn’t want to go inside.

And so, in keeping with the requirements of current law, the trial judge did the right thing – the only thing – and switched primary custody to the father. Recently an appellate court approved the lower court’s decision. Moreover, it completely stopped contact between the children and the mother for six months with contact to be resumed only gradually afterward. The only thing missing is some sort of intervention on the order of Family Bridges that teaches the children to relate properly to the alienated parent and vice versa.

But even so, the judge not only did the right thing, but the thing encouraged by Australian family law.

The law has been in effect for a little more than a decade and it ­remains the most radical change to Australia’s family law since the original act was devised by the Whitlam government in 1975. Under its provisions, when making a parenting order, the court must apply a presumption that it is in the child’s best interests to have a ­relationship with both parents, ­except in exceptional circumstances such as where there has been sexual abuse or violence.

The idea was to encourage parents to co-operate on child-rearing in the hope that this would lead to less acrimonious disputes, which are spiritually and financially costly for all parties and affect a child’s right to know and love both mum and dad.

The law requires a parent to encourage the children to maintain healthy, meaningful relationships with the other parent. It does so because maintaining those relationships is by far the healthiest arrangement to promote children’s well-being post-divorce. And when Mom in the case described did the opposite, she paid the price, as she should have done. Her alienation of the children, particularly the boy, was child abuse and needed to stop. Now it has, thanks to a judge who understood both the law and the reasons for its existence.

“This case shows exactly how far we’ve come in 10 years,” says family law expert Stephen Page. “We’ve moved from dad getting one weekend a fortnight and half the school holidays, if he was lucky, to a situation where you ­really have to tell the mum — and I’m not saying this is a problem only for mums — look, if you don’t support them seeing their dad, no matter how much you hate him or how bitter you feel, they will be taken off you because this is not about you. This is about the kids.”

Australian courts still routinely sideline fathers in the lives of their children, but cases like the one reported on make the intent of the law clear. In a somewhat backhanded way, The Australian article makes clear why children need relationships with both parents and what can happen to an alienator in family court. Against the backdrop of the re-evaluation of family law, it’s good to have the piece before the public.

 

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National Parents Organization is a non-profit that educates the public, families, educators, and legislators about the importance of shared parenting and how it can reduce conflict in children, parents, and extended families. Along with Shared Parenting we advocate for fair Child Support and Alimony Legislation. Want to get involved?  Here’s how:

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