Life Relationships The Family Court gets things wrong, sure. But in my experience it tries hard
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The Family Court gets things wrong, sure. But in my experience it tries hard

John Elder says sometimes the best thing you can do for a child caught up in a custody dispute is walk away and wait. Photo: Matt Johnson
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The Family Court. Those bastards, right? Taking the side of chicks in custody battles and assuming the worst of every bloke who just wants a fair go. Yeah.

I mean, no.

I’ve had idiots suggest that I must feel a similar rage to that fool who threw his six-year-old daughter off a bridge, or the witless sad sack who drove his car into a pond and drowned his three boys. “It’s awful, but you can understand it, right?”

Ah, no I don’t.

There’s an implication here that the court and a manipulative mother has driven men to kill their kids.

It is moronic logic

Let me tell you something: the weakling offenders in those notorious cases had far more unfettered access to their children than I ever enjoyed with my youngest daughter, whose hand I haven’t held for seven years.

I’m 60 years old and have no idea if I’ll ever see her again. I hope so. I think of her every day. But I’m confident that, at the least, she’ll see her older sisters eventually. And that she will benefit from their grace.

Meanwhile, I talk to the school twice a year, and am pleased to hear she’s doing well academically, has a good circle of mates and is trusted by her teachers. I buy the school photograph each year. I write a letter each month, often talking about birds I have seen, and am never sure if she receives them. I’ve never visited the seaside town she lives in.

It’s not enough but it will do

Our story was a complex, exhausting, protracted and sometimes ugly case that sat before the court for six years or so. A mother, for her own reasons – in part, worn out by a difficult marriage – wanted to cut ties with her husband and his older daughters.

Mother and child left Melbourne when said child was a couple of months from turning two. It was a mess from the start – but after a while we managed to cobble together an arrangement where I’d visit once a month, on a weekend, meet at a public place, spend time with said child from 10am to 5pm, return the next day and repeat.

I also had a phone call each week.

I didn’t have a lawyer. The mother did. And that’s who I dealt with, the lawyer, by email.

This went on for about a year. A couple of days after the family home was sold, a legal letter arrived, the visits were cancelled – and if I wanted to see said child it would need to be a supervised arrangement.

‘Child matters’ because they do

When you go before the Family Court to resolve what are called “child matters” one of the first things a judge does is get the parents and child – and sometimes other children – in front of a family consultant, usually a psychologist, sometimes a social worker.

The consultant has a chat with each parent – separately – then the child is brought in. There are toys provided and the consultant watches and makes notes as you play with your child. In our case, my older daughter – who was 19 when things got this far – was there as well.

The child subject of the “child matters” was three.

A report followed. The consultant advised in this case that the father and daughter had a good relationship, that visits should go to overnight stays, and that phone calls should be suspended until the daughter was old enough to cope with them.

Everything looked good. But it was not

Various awful claims and objections were made and the case was bumped to the Magellan list that deals with allegations of abuse.

From the inception of proceedings, the father and daughter could meet only when in the company of my mother or oldest daughter.

Once the case was referred to the Magellan list, the judge – who off his own bat initiated weekly Skype calls between father and daughter – asked the family consultant for more advice.

Her advice was to send father and daughter to a child contact centre for six visits of an hour and forty minutes each. There we were closely observed. Everything we said and did was written down. My daughter was four years old by now. And she was a good sport.

When we returned to court the judge noted that he hadn’t seen “such a good report in along time” – and declared that his plan was to ease the supervision and move toward following the original advice of overnight visits.

But first, he’d give the mother a number of months to read the report, reflect on the recorded interactions – many of which were hilarious, some kind of moving – with the idea “her anxieties” might be eased.

They were not. A new set of claims followed. And so, when we reconvened, the judge announced the only way to go forward was via a trial.

When a trial date was set down some months later, the mother settled – with overnight visits that would be extended with the passing of the years. It all seemed to be over. It was not.

Seven months went by

Then one day the daughter now six years old, turned up and shook her head. For some reason, she needed to quit the situation, rejecting father and sisters to save herself. I had been told this could happen.

Still, I thought it was a temporary glitch – and for a year I kept up the Skype calls, talking to a set of curtains, running a radio show of music and poems to what was probably en empty room.

Meanwhile, the court tried to fix the problem, appointing a social worker to facilitate half a dozen visits and write another report. Based on that report, the court wrote a judgment that it was in the best interests of the child that an independent relationship between father and daughter should be restored.

Another set of facilitated visits were ordered. Only one went ahead. A debacle. The social worker told me that I needed to consider walking away until my daughter was 14 or so. It was too stressful for her otherwise to continue. And so I decided not to pursue visits.

But I wanted to keep writing to her once a week, and for her to keep a framed photo of father and sisters. This was contested.

Eventually the matter was settled that I could write once a month – and that my older daughters could send a card twice a year.

The point I’d like to make

This is just one more sad story that will push the buttons of people who’ve gone through something similar or worse. Some might be sympathetic. Some will mistrust the stated facts. Some will be incensed for a range of reasons.

The point of telling it is this: I’m grown up enough to take it all on the chin.

That good-hearted judge from the Magellan list reminded me of this when his plan to move things happily forward had to be abandoned. “You can take it,” he said, “where she cannot.” She: my daughter.

And this is what I tell my older girls. Abandon all anger and bitterness. Hold no bad feeling. Do not bad mouth “the other side.” Because I do not.

If I am ever to see my youngest daughter again, all I want her to see is a bit of a kooky old guy with an open heart and nothing but good wishes.

That’s how I get by.

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