A Reflection

This campaign has been a challenge at best.

It’s only through all my research that I’ve realised how complex this issue is and how many holes there are in the judicial system. Honestly, I don’t know how to fix it. There are so many areas and facets that need to be examined; I only hope there are people more dedicated and informed than me that can make those judgements and who can actually enact change.

The people in places in power need to stop pussy-footing around and the people involved need to stop squabbling.That’s the ideal situation. Of course, the latter choice is largely impossible to solve – unresolvable conflict is why they end up in the courts in the first place. The former suggestion is not that much more possible, unfortunately. With a thousand other issues to be fixed and the Family Court only on Pauline Hanson’s agenda, I have a feeling the Australian Government won’t be doing anything about it soon.

What I’ve learnt is that this goes beyond a matter of gender. This is more than male versus female. This is the sad outcome of a court system that doesn’t reflect the times we live in. Women have progressed so far over the last few decades alone; we can finally be a mother and a businesswoman and so much else, but we can’t leave our male counterparts behind. Assuming men are less able to care for children is not much different than assuming women are less able to have a career. It’s just not right and we are better than this.


This concludes Common Ground’s seven-week campaign. Thank you for all those who have viewed, commented, and contributed to this discussion. May change be just around the corner. 

 

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Why is there Gender Bias in the Family Courts?

I’ve searched high and low, and a lot of the articles I’ve come across seem to evade fully answering the question. Some believe the bias doesn’t exist. For those in the midst of a court battle, you’re more than likely aware of the discrimination. Perceptions aren’t concrete, but numbers are. I’ve already talked about how mothers are the sole custodial parent in more than 70% of cases settled in court. Only about 7% of cases conclude with the father having sole custody, leaving roughly only 20% of cases ending in shared custody. If both parents are capable, why is the lattermost number so low?

The most common reason I’ve come across is that the courts perpetuate the social construct of gender roles. Ie, men are breadwinners, women are caregivers. Most of us know this is an outdated and limited concept, however, there are those among us who haven’t come to terms with this – either consciously or subconsciously.

This seems to be the most likely explanation for the bias, but I still don’t think that’s the whole picture. Throughout my research, I’ve come across unsubstantiated claims as to why the court is in the woman’s favour: the law favours women, men have fewer rights, etc etc. Seeing as I’m not an expert in law and none of those articles cites reputable sources, I’m not going to indulge in those theories (yes – I realise the perpetuation of gender roles in family court is just a theory as well, but it seems to be the best fit thus far).

Another theory I have is that any allegations of drug use or domestic violence are extremely damaging towards innocent fathers. Whilst I concede that family violence is a major problem and that all claims should be taken seriously, false accusations can diminish the chances of shared custody being granted.

 

Still, I feel something is missing – something that gives a better explanation on why there is such a skew towards mothers receiving sole custody. What do you think?

A word on my cover photo

The beautiful cover photo I have chosen is cropped from an image I found on flickr, by photographer theilr. The original is above. He has taken some fascinating macro shots; I encourage you to have a look at some of his other work.

When I created this blog, I wanted an image that summed up its purpose without being explicit – there would be no crying child, no forlorn father. I wasn’t sure what I was searching for until I found this image, so aptly named “Linked“. That essentially encompasses one of the core ideas I wished to convey.

The photo is a close-up of a chainlink fence. Two separate components come in, meet, and part ways again, but the aftermath of their connection is still very much a joint creation. The outcome of their connection is something that cannot exist by itself. If one of the components is absent, the other may hold its place, but the strength of the fence is compromised.

I hope it’s apparent by now that the two components are the mother and father; the joint creation their child. Two is better than one, and whilst the fence can hold its form without the support of a chain, the greatest strength comes with the most support.

Perhaps this analogy is too poetic, or too far-fetched. Perhaps it oversimplifies a complex, multi-faceted issue. To me, it’s the best I have encountered.

Profile #3 – False Accusations

This story is a little different from the others I have written about. It is a situation my friend Sarah* went through in her young teenage years with her mother and stepfather. It didn’t result in a divorce, but it does include a severe manipulation of the truth that had last effects on their family. 


 

Sarah’s* stepfather had always been more of a parent to her than her biological dad. Dave* had married in to the family when Sarah was a preteen and raised her and her sisters as if they were his own. Sarah’s mother, Mel*, was always a temperamental woman, quick to anger and give harsh judgement to her children. Dave, on the other hand, was the mediator between the girls, lowering the sky-high oestrogen levels in the house.

Mel’s temper manifested itself in verbal and physical outbursts towards her children and partner. In one particularly heated argument, Mel smashed a glass, cutting her hands and arms in the process and ran throughout the house, spreading blood on the walls. She then called the police on Dave. He was escorted away, charged and convicted, and spent a number of months in prison.

Sarah says her stepfather was tempted to file for a divorce after he returned from jail, but he knew he had no chance of fathering his stepdaughters with a violent conviction against his name. He is with Mel to this day, working on their relationship and her anger issues.

~~~

Due to the sensitive nature of the story, I have been unable to talk to Sarah about the current state of her family. The purpose of telling this story is to give an example of the kind of situations families are in and the false accusations that have lasting effects on the lives of those involved.

 

*names have been changed to protect those involved. 

Profile #2 – The Extended Family

Phil* and his family welcomed his daughter Josephine* in to the world two years ago. Premature, the small human was the apple of everyone’s eye, especially her great-grandfather. The family doted on the little girl every Sunday, when everyone would come together to have lunch.

Father’s Day 2016 marked four months since Josephine had seen her father or his family. Her mother accused Phil of “family violence”, but no evidence had been brought forward. He went from being Josephine’s full-time carer for 18 months, to not seeing her at all. His family was as involved as you would expect. Phil’s mother babysat Josephine when needed, and always ensured she was clean, fed, and happy. Phil’s family went from being an integral part of the child’s life to an absent space without rhyme or reason.

Phil and his family have become collateral damage to a system that favours winning over the humans involved. Josephine has been removed from her father’s care until further notice, without any evidence against him. This doesn’t just affect Phil; it affects his mother, grandfather, and the rest of the family that showed nothing but love and care for their newest member. Josephine is two now; I wonder if Phil will be able to see her before she starts primary school.

*Names have been changed to protect the identity of those involved.

Staying Together for the Kids?

What would you do if you were a father of two minor children in a highly dysfunctional marriage? Would you separate, knowing there would be a long, emotionally and financially draining journey ahead; or would you stay together for the kids?

The latter decision is ironic, seeing as the ongoing conflict in the family home has extremely detrimental effects on children, especially when they’re little. So what’s best, then, for the children? Being raised by two parents is certainly better than one, but this isn’t applicable for everyone. There comes a time where the tension and conflict prove to be too harmful to everyone involved.

On the flipside; imagine if this family, already dysfunctional, decides to divorce. Already unable to effectively handle conflict, the parents are put into overdrive by a sudden upheaval of their lives whilst still having to care for their young children. Statistics via the Australian Institute of Family Studies and the Attorney General’s Office (below) say that children will more often than not have their mother as the custodial parent by the time the divorce is settled.

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Source: Post-separation parenting, property and relationship dynamics after five years

Neither parent is neglectful; both parents are able to support the child, yet only one is granted custody. The other parent is reduced to function only as a bank account and, if lucky, the “good cop”. This refers to the situation where intermittent visitation from the non-custodial parent typically brings gifts and treats, leaving only one parent (usually the mother) disciplining the child

So, what’s the best choice? Riding out a dysfunctional family life for the foreseeable future, or divorcing and potentially living without your children?

One group worth getting behind

In my previous post, I lamented about the lack of organisations – even the lack of websites – that broadcast fact without bias. Unfortunately, it seems the majority of hubs on the internet revolve around man versus woman, mother versus father. As I’ve said, this kind of dialogue will get us nowhere.

The Family Law Reform Coalition (FLRC) is – as far as I have gathered – one of the most balanced, forthright voices for this cause. They are a collection of impassioned people looking for a change in the Family Court, peacefully protesting against the lengthy, costly court battles that leave many family members by the wayside. They are hot on the heels of the government and the judicial system, vying for more Family Court judges, gender equality, and a greater support network for the families going through divorce.

I can imagine it would be difficult to remain neutral in such an emotionally straining situation. But it pays to be levelheaded. This is seemingly ironic, seeing as divorces tend to end up in court when partners can’t remain calm. At least, invest your time in support groups that will be beneficial, not detrimental. I won’t pretend to have the answers or a solution to this problem, but I will suggest giving FLRC a good hard look if you haven’t already.

The Problem with Men’s Rights Groups

Throughout my research, I’ve come to realise there’s not much in the way of information regarding bias in Family Courts. News articles are few and far between, and support/advocacy groups are even rarer. We all know the problem is out there, though: we’ve heard the stories, we might know people who have fought for – and lost – their children and some of us may have experienced it first hand.

I have absolutely no doubt that it is an extremely emotional and exhausting ordeal for those involved – especially for the fathers who are downgraded to visitors. Those involved know that gaining shared custody is an uphill battle, despite the law reforms from 2006 and 2012. Various forms of sites and bodies exist to respond to this issue. Information hubs/advocacy groups are all support networks that are essential during divorce and custody battles. They provide extremely beneficial services to those in need – resources on how to get the best possible outcome and information on what to expect. The give the much-needed evidence that those suffering are not alone.

What isn’t helpful, however, are those support groups and information hubs that resort to biased and/or inflammatory comments. The people who host these communities have a moral obligation to moderate the conversation and condemn those who are out of line. Many sites I have visited have not upheld this responsibility. While I do not wish to name and shame, a simple Google search will give examples of what I am talking about. These groups talk about men’s rights and father’s rights; the conversation should instead focus on the child’s rights.

Support sites are not the place to highlight the faults of women, or to give sweeping comments such as “she’s a bitch/crazy/psycho”. Whilst many cases do include women (and men) who vindictively use the Family Court to further their personal agenda, these sweeping statements do little to fix the situation. In fact, it can be more of a hindrance to justice than anything else.

Shared parenting works best under particular circumstances, especially when both parents are cooperative and are able to properly handle the emotions commonplace in divorce (see AIFS’s Prof Moloney’s report here and here). Defamatory comments on the Internet can very well be used in court to prove that one parent will cause conflict and disruption should parenting be shared.

Outside of court, misogynistic comments alienate the women – such as myself – who wish to support those felt by the injustice. The problem extends beyond the gender lines and into the judgments made by the court; it should not be about man versus woman, father versus mother. Pointing the finger will get us nowhere.

Profile #1 – Anonymous

Over the next few weeks, we will be hearing the stories of those affected by unfair parental arrangements from the Family Court. These stories are from partners, children, and parents. Emotions are always high, and it is important to remember these represent just a few sides of a many-faceted issue. The purpose of these profiles is to showcase the reality of the problem and to give a platform for those whose stories would have otherwise gone unheard.


 

Liz* and Mark* have spent the last five years fighting for custody over Mark’s two young sons. His ex-wife, Fiona*, was found having an affair and they separated in 2011. What followed was a two-year-long court battle to finalise the divorce; whilst assets were split 60/40 in Fiona’s advantage, Mark now only sees his sons around 80 days in a year – approximately 22% of the time. The current court order was settled after the 2012 change in the law, which presumed equal parenting.

Liz and Mark have been married for two years, have stable jobs, and pay child support on time. They have an infant son together, but Liz fears her son will never have a relationship with his half-brothers. Having spent tens of thousands of dollars on lawyers and mediation, they are ready to give up.

Every aspect of gaining responsibility for Mark’s children has been met with rebuttal. Even picking up and dropping off the boys required mediation and resulted in the couple having to travel to Fiona’s place half an hour away, should they wish to spend time with the children. “Over the years I have realised that she doesn’t want my husband,” Liz says, “but she doesn’t want him to be happy either.”

Allegations of abuse and drug use against Liz and Mark lead to the pair not being able to see the boys for six months. After these claims went unsubstantiated, Mark was entitled to just one day per week of visitation in a public space. Over time, Liz and Mark have fought to increase their contact with the boys to the current court-ordered agreement – every second weekend and half of school holidays. They said they have always pushed for 50/50 custody, but this has become more unlikely as time has passed.

Apart from having minimal contact hours, Mark’s relationship with his sons has continually suffered. Liz says, “The relationship has deteriorated substantially since [Fiona’s] current partner came about just over 12 months ago.” The two boys have been especially hostile to Liz, telling her they hated her then-unborn child. Liz and Mark believe the children have been brainwashed by their mother, which has led to parental alienation against their father and stepmother.

Their greatest worry is that their sons are in an unsafe environment. Liz believes the boys have been exposed to drugs and violence, with Fiona herself a victim at times One particularly bad bout of domestic violence led to Fiona miscarrying the child of the partner she is still with today. Liz and Mark have tried to contact child services but were unable to make progress. “His kids are exposed to horrible things and there’s not a damn thing that can be done about it,” Liz says.

The ongoing stress and struggle have taken its toll on the couple. “My husband suffers [severe] depression. At times he’s been suicidal.” Liz says, adding that Mark feels as if he’s lost his sons. “And he’s right. Visitation is merely a formality at this stage.” The couple receives counselling individually and together, but the hopelessness is still very much present. They have exhausted all avenues to be active parents for the two young boys.

“I have always supported my husband in his fight but there is no point anymore. I have no more comforting words; I have no more hope to give him.”

 

*names and details have been omitted to protect the identity of the people involved.

 

Shared parenting: What are the facts?

Experiences of child custody and the family court vary case by case. The Australian Institute of Family Studies states that most disputes as a result of divorce are settled out of court – either privately or from using some form of mediation. For a minority, however, unresolved conflict leads to a lengthy and costly court battle.

For those who use the latter-most option, they will be greeted with presumed shared custody – which means both parents automatically share the responsibility of their offspring. This is thanks to a change in legislation by the Howard government in 2006. Factors such as income stability, housing, and the ability to raise a child are considered to then sway responsibility either way.

The problem, however, is that “shared responsibility” does not equal shared time. Whilst the quality of time is certainly more important than quantity of time, you can argue that you have to have quantity in order to ensure quality.

A 2014 report of all custody cases in Australia found that more than 73% of children spend most or all of their time with their mother. Shared custody – which is defined as 35% to 65% of time with either parent – stands at 20%. That leaves under 7% of all children spending most or all of their time with their father. You can read the (very lengthy) report here.

The argument against shared parenting has its logical points – constantly moving between parents can have an adverse effect on very young children. However, studies have shown that the gender of the custodial parent does not affect the child and some overnight stays are not harmful (more information here). Further, the study does not take into account older minors. Surely teenagers should have some say on where and whom they live with. Unfortunately, it is hard to quantify that kind of information.

Child custody battles can range from petty to abusive. There are instances where a parent will go so far as to vilify the other parent in front of their child, not allowing the child to spend time with or even lying about the non-custodial parent. There are cases where parents try to undermine each other – arguing that the father or mother is incapable of raising children.

Then there are biases within the courtroom itself, where traditional gender roles come into play, and fathers are seen to be less equipped than mothers (even though there is no data to fully support this). Issues can lie outside the courtroom too – some advocacy groups can be sexist or state unsupported facts, or skew existing data.

Over the next few weeks, this campaign will address some of the key issues surrounding shared parenting and what ‘shared parenting’ actually means. I will look at the issues causing and affecting this very real bias in Australia. The aim, as always, is to encourage and facilitate engagement. Above all, the goal is to educate.