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  • Fathers - raw custody deal
  • By Janet Albrechtsen
  • The Australian
  • 24/12/2003 Make a Comment
  • Contributed by: admin ( 74 articles in 2003 )
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Janet Albrechtsen Tomorrow, thousands of children will celebrate Christmas away from their fathers. Next week the Standing Committee on Family and Community Affairs will deliver its report on child custody.

The juxtaposition of these two facts is a stark reminder that restoring fatherhood could be John Howard's finest legacy to us.

But it will require a very clear, very loud message to the proverbial men in white coats - the judges of the Family Court - to end the experiment, to start over, to welcome fathers back into the lives of children.

Do not underestimate that task. If the Prime Minister thinks the Senate is an obstruction to legitimate government, he should take a closer look at the Family Court. Over the years it has become a graveyard of reform, preferring its own interpretation of legislative directives about children being loved and nurtured by two parents.

The social experiment began with the best of intentions. The Family Court, established in 1976, promised a revolutionary system for dealing with family breakdown - one that sought outcomes in "the best interests of the child".

But the 1970s were feminism's heyday. And so that message - the best interests of the child - was filtered through a feminist prism where the denigration of men refracted into the belittling of fathers. Mothers gained custody and fathers became fortnightly visitors in their child's life.

In 1995 federal parliament sent a more direct message: following divorce, children were to have the right to know and be cared for by both parents. When tabling these shared parenting amendments, Labor MP Peter Duncan said: "The original intention of the late Senator (Lionel) Murphy was that the Family Law Act would create a rebuttable presumption of shared parenting, but over the years the Family Court has chosen to largely ignore that. It is hoped that these reforms will now call for much closer attention to this presumption and that the Family Court will give full and proper effect to the intention of the parliament."

If Murphy's original intentions proved too subtle, the 1995 reforms were also not forthright enough. In fact, a report partly funded by the Family Court two years ago revealed that shared parenting was not yet a reality. The findings of The First Three Years: Shared Parenting, by Helen Rhoades, Reg Graycar and Margaret Harrison, suggest a recalcitrant Family Court doggedly pursuing its own agenda.

The authors found that "most (judges) said their approach to making residence orders had not changed as a result of the reforms".

How else do you explain a court that made a paltry 329 shared parenting orders out of a total 13,000 orders in the financial year 2000-01? Those numbers translate into thousands of fatherless children and childless fathers. One million children live with only one parent, usually their mother. Less than half of these children see their other parent, usually their father, at least fortnightly. More than a third see them rarely - once a year or less. Less than half of the fathers have their children stay overnight. And yet 72 per cent of non-resident fathers want more contact and most children want to spend more time with their fathers.

Liberal senator Jeannie Ferris has called it "one of the great sleeper issues".

And finally Canberra is awakening to it. Unfortunately, shared parenting has been unfairly maligned by its critics. They resort to powerful imagery of two parents ripping a child apart - a 50-50 split down the middle, one size fits all model. But shared parenting is less about a child dividing their time equally between two parents and much more about both parents being involved in every aspect of their child's life - be it school, sport, religion or anything else important in a child's life.

Yet even this version of shared parenting gets short shrift from the Family Court. And in a case of "judge knows best", the court's Chief Justice Alastair Nicholson has waded into the public debate claiming that shared parenting is not child-focused: "How do you divide the time of a child if one parent is in Alice Springs and the other one's in Melbourne?" A hollow objection given that it is the Family Court that so often renders shared parenting a pipe dream by allowing one parent to relocate.

Shared parenting is unworkable, says Nicholson, where there is parental conflict. Yet again, as Nicholson knows, the legal process based on the victor and the vanquished promotes the very conflict to which shared parenting opponents point. American research shows that where the process changes and shared parenting is the starting point, parents are more likely to co-operate.

The Family Court's stubborn approach is odd. No one is claiming that shared parenting will work in every case or even most cases. It is not an option where there is genuine domestic violence. However, given that most men are not violent, shared parenting is a good starting point. Divorce signals an end to an adult love affair, not to the love between parent and child. There is now too much evidence to ignore the positive outcomes for children who maintain genuine loving relationships with their fathers.

There is another reason for restoring fatherhood. Every young boy needs to know he is important and that society treats fathers with respect. If fatherhood matters, every young boy matters. A simple message that we ignore at our peril.



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