Considering Child Safety During COVID19

Despite a shaky and uncertain start for many parents on how shared parenting would take place during COVID19, there is now a clear and concise message from the Government and the Family Court. Co-parenting in the vast majority of cases continues as it has always done. This applies to both court orders and those families who have not attended court but whose children routinely move between homes. 

Court orders are considered ‘essential’ thus facilitating travel for parents. This is particularly important for parents traveling between States where they may be required to show parenting orders to police on the border. Isolation requirements will need to be met by each parent, just as they were doing anyway. 

Child safety is considered to be the primary consideration under Australian family law. As we have never before had to navigate safety regarding a global pandemic, this is new and unchartered territory. However it also gives an opportunity to discuss the broader context of child safety. 

Issues of immediate safety are: 

  1. ensuring a child is not subject to family violence from either parent; and 
  2. long term safety in which a child’s mental health and overall wellbeing is demonstrated to be improved by continuing, ongoing relationships with both their parents. 

During COVID19 given that immediate safety has already been addressed, it is the long term impacts that parents must consider. 

The primary concern many parents have had regarding a child traveling between homes has been a distrust in the other parent to comply with social isolation requirements, including those who may be quarantined after crossing State borders. 

Given the now high priority police and military are placing on monitoring social isolation, noncompliance by any person is becoming a risk in and of itself. The vast majority of people are doing the right thing and abiding by requirements. Those who are not are being issued warnings or infringement notices. This makes the likelihood of noncompliance almost zero, thus removing any level of real risk. 

The Chief Justice of the Family Court, Will Alstergren, issued a media statement clarifying issues around orders.  In an article published by The Australian, Alstergren further implored parents to act sensibly and reasonably.   “Each parent should always consider the safety and best interests of the child, but also appreciate the concerns of the other parent … This includes understanding that family members are important to children and the risk of infection to vulnerable members of the child’s family and household should also be considered.” he said. 

These most certainly are difficult and conflicting times for all Australians and it’s normal that we have elevated fears and concerns during this time. For all of us, being restrained from normal travel and daily interactions with our family and friends is emotionally debilitating. 

For parents who can take a wider perspective in this time,  they will see that children of separated families have an opportunity to move between homes, thus giving them that vital contact they are craving, and which sustains them at a deeper level. These children will have some variety that the rest of us do not. A change of home, minor change in routine, different meals being cooked for them and, most importantly, the company of their other parents and perhaps step families. 

In normal times we take these small things for granted. During the pandemic we are now living, these are big issues that will go a long way towards helping children cope. Their likelihood of suffering long term mental health issues will be reduced and their recovery time improved by having at least some variety. 

In weighing up safety we must consider the long term impacts on a child’s wellbeing. This is demonstrably improved by a meaningful relationship with both their parents. I implore all parents to see this as an opportunity to help their children during this difficult time. Shared care is best for children, even more during this COVID crisis.

The Changing Legal Landscape of Co-Parenting

The legal landscape to facilitate co-parenting is changing. The following article regarding the co-parenting arrangements in the Ralton case first appeared on Gown and Gavel

 

The recent case of Ralton and Ralton heralds a timely warning that the Family Court judiciary is taking notice of the intricacies of co-parenting in Family Law matters, particularly where the psychological impacts on the children are a result of one parent withholding the children against court orders.

In Ralton and Ralton the original parenting orders were that the children live with the mother and spend time with the father. This was agreeable to all parties and continued for a three-year period. However, by August 2014 all contact with the father had ceased and he filed for contravention of the orders.

In 2016 Judge Riethmuller who, after considering all the evidence over a 5-day hearing, determined that the best interests of the children to have a relationship with both parents could only be facilitated if the parenting was reversed. The children were ordered to live with the father and spent time with the mother.

The mother appealed the decision to the Full Court of the Family Court in 2017, however the original decision was upheld and the children remain in the primary care of the father.

The decision in Ralton was so extreme in its nature, that Judge Reithmuller had the children sequestered in a private room within the court building –  supported by psychologists and social workers – as the decision was handed down.

The details of this case were such that even though the mother was seen as capable in meeting the day to day needs of the children, her actions in making the children fearful and anxious of the father created a damaging psychological impact. The grief and loss associated with removing the children from the mother’s primary care was considered far less than the long-term psychological effects of the alienation from their father.

The orders made were so that in order to help the children bond adequately with the father, the mother have no contact for six months and then be re-introduced to her via supervised visitation.

So, what does this tell us about parenting after separation?

Recognising the importance of a healthy relationship between children and their parents, the Family Law Amendment Act, 2006 was enacted by the Howard government to facilitate shared parenting. The legislation is in itself sound, however if one or both parents refuse to put the best interests of the child first, it is frequently tested.

While as a society we have previously believed that a mother is the more natural choice for primary carer, it is no longer guaranteed that sole parental responsibility will be granted to the mother on that basis alone. Fathers have demonstrated that they are, of course, capable of the job and willing to take it on, so much so that the Courts are willing to make that transition.

Co-parenting after separation is essential in maintaining a healthy family dynamic for the children and going forward, parents need to be able to do this well. It all sounds good in theory, of course. But how can you ensure that you are giving it your best shot? Here are my top 4 tips to make the art of co-parenting a success in your life.

Communicate directly with one-another

The less challenging matters that come across my desk have one thing in common and that is – that the parents talk to each other – and on a regular basis. Pick a mode of communication that works for the both of you, and stick to it. And no – that doesn’t mean using the children to relay messages! Schedule a weekly phone call and make it a routine. Even parents that have the most trouble communicating with each other find that they are able to keep it respectful for ten minutes whilst they discuss their children. If the idea of using the telephone gives you the shivers, then I recommend using email or an instant messenger service. Using the children to relay messages almost guarantees a heightened conflict situation, one in which the children will witness. Have you ever received a message through the children and then muttered some unpleasant response under your breath only to realise that your child is still standing there? Not only that, but children will often relay the message incorrectly.

Keep changeovers as short as possible

Try and keep changeovers short and sweet. Give the children a smile so that they won’t feel guilty about going with the other parent.

Be flexible with parenting arrangements

Try not to argue about parenting arrangements in front of the children. If the other parent wants to take the children to a one-off special event that you know they will enjoy, like a show or a footy game which happens to fall on one of your days, let the children go. Sure – try not to stretch the friendship in this regard and always give plenty of notice. The children will thank you for putting their enjoyment ahead of your own.

Encourage the children to communicate with the other parent

Facilitating communication with the other parent whilst the children are in your care is a must. Make sure you share special moments or accomplishments with the other parent, even if it is just via photos or emails and make a point of telling the children that you are doing so. Remind the children of special occasions, like the other parent’s birthday and help them make or choose a special gift. Being present when the children give the gift to the other parent is also a special touch. Having the children feel that they can express their love to the other parent freely and openly without fear of being admonished is essential to a healthy and positive co-parenting arrangement.