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Research - fatherhood - Adrienne Burgess

It should be noted Adrienne is behind the Government sponsored fathers direct organisation.

Such drivel bodes ill for men. Where are the facts on violence or substance abuse when the Family Courts need neither evidence or facts at all.

Where is the understanding of child abuse statistics showing women to be the greater risk, the biological father to be safer?

Where is the reality on DV statistics?

And when mediation and leaflets won’t solve this head in the sand attitude who is going to tell them to stop wasting tax-payers money on loony schemes.

It’s business as usual in the UK ‘family meaning mother child stealing’ courts.

Sydney Morning Herald
29 July 2004

Children in the undertow of divorce
By Adrienne Burgess

One topic, two plans. Perhaps parenting after separation can benefit from both, writes Adrienne Burgess.

So the Howard Government will announce - any minute now - its response to last year's high-octane inquiry into parenting after separation. So far, we know the Government's Big Idea is for a national network of "family relationship centres", staffed by mediators and counsellors, to be embedded in our communities (well, in some of them) alongside Job Network shopfronts or community health centres.

Ultimately, these will provide all kinds of couple and parenting support (terrific, given escalating children's distress, and earlier and more frequent separation and divorce), but at the outset the focus will be on separating families. Instead of rushing off to hungry lawyers, mum and dad will first toddle down to the local family relationship centre.

There they'll be given information (including the sobering facts about what is likely to happen to their children if they fight over them), spend a couple of hours with a "parenting adviser" and - bingo! - come out happy to support each other's parenting, put their children's needs first and give up on the idea of setting thousands of kilometres of the Australian landscape between themselves and their soon-to-be "ex".

The "teeth" in this proposal (in so far as there are any) lie, first, in the fact that a considerable amount of federal money will be allocated to it - though how much will be poured into the bricks and mortar of the new centres, and how much into the services to families, is up for question.

Even so, this has to be a big plus, given that to date the Government has resisted all calls for additional funding to support separating and separated families.

The second "tooth" is an element of compulsion: any parents who refuse "primary dispute resolution" and try to head straight for a lawyer without good reason may be fined, and will probably not be regarded kindly by any judge they eventually see.

Another good thing about the centres is that they provide a structure for early interventions (that is, professionals getting to separating couples before conflict becomes entrenched). And they may draw in some of the parents the courts never see, but who researchers know often develop parenting arrangements that are not in the best interests of their children: fewer than one in two ever stays overnight in their father's house again; and only one in three sees their dad at least weekly.

And this is despite the fact that no more than one in seven non-resident fathers has "issues" such as substance abuse or a propensity for continuing violence that render substantial continuing contact unwise.

Weaknesses with the new scheme (as reported so far) lie in no announcements about legal or process changes to help the courts discipline intransigent mothers.

And while fast-tracking of child abuse allegations is indicated, there seems to be no similar process for domestic violence. Indeed, it looks as if a simple domestic violence allegation could allow a mother to opt out of the process.

Nor have we heard how the majority of parents who never actually get into dispute, or who approach lawyers only when conflict is escalating, will come under the influence of the family relationship centres.

Will it be left to them to drop by if the idea appeals, or will they be sent there quite forcefully by the government officials they are most likely to come into contact with when they are first separating: Child Support and Centrelink workers in particular.

And will Job Centre staff, primary health care workers (particularly GPs), teachers and others who are the most likely to spot a recent separation, a separation-in-the-making or a child in distress, be encouraged to do to nudge parents towards a family relationship centre?

Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, another government - the Blair Government - is coming up with its own proposals to improve post-separation parenting. A green paper published last week sets out the key parameters for change on this issue.

Blair's interest has undoubtedly been stimulated by angry dads in Spiderman suits causing traffic chaos in London and chucking purple flour at him; and by the Conservative Opposition beginning to go party-political on the subject.

The fact that the green paper was in the names of three senior ministers from three large government departments is evidence of the seriousness with which Britain's Labour takes this issue; in Australia, Mark Latham and co still keep their heads well down.

What's new and different about the British Labour Government's plan?

First, it actually mentions fathers: that is, it acknowledges that what is going on in separated parenting, with nine out of 10 "parents with care" being mothers, is seriously gendered.

Next, it repeatedly defines the "best interests of the child" (normally a phrase through which a horse and cart can be driven) as being best served by a "meaningful ongoing relationship with both parents".

Third, unlike the Australian plan, it focuses not on the 90 per cent of
parents who make their own arrangements but on the 10 per cent who go
to court, cost the state a fortune, and put their children under the
greatest stress.

In Britain the approach is tough. Where Howard sees "parenting plans" as suited only to relatively low-conflict couples, Blair wants them for high-conflict couples, too, not least because they set out what a judge is likely to order, and so make continuing shenanigans less rewarding.

Blair also moots immediate pilot projects to test different approaches,
restructures legal aid to provide an incentive for early dispute resolution, accredits expert family lawyers, explores a "collaborative law" system, develops in-court conciliation and new case management guidelines, and will change the law so recalcitrant mothers can be more easily obliged to adhere to contact orders.

Undoubtedly both new systems have their strengths, and each can learn from the other. But one thing is certain: on neither side of the world is this issue likely to go away.

Adrienne Burgess is an international fatherhood consultant, and author of Fatherhood Reclaimed: The Making of the Modern Father.


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