When a couple decides to start a family, they do so with the expectation that both parents will be an important part of their children's lives. They want to love and care for their children and do whatever it takes to ensure their children are safe and happy.
When parents separate, it puts a whole different perspective on what each parent wants or expects of the other. In the worst cases, mothers want to eradicate the father from the face of the planet and act as if they never existed. It often stems from the mother's inability to separate her own emotions from the emotional needs of her children.
As an Independent Children's Lawyer in the Family Court system, I would see mothers scrambling to come up with reasons why the father should not be able to spend meaningful time with their children.
When a mother does this, it really leaves the father with nowhere to go but court. For one recent father, where the mother insisted (without good reason) he should not spend time with the kids unsupervised this meant seeking an urgent hearing so he could see his kids. However, given the lack of federal government funding, the Family Courts cannot give him a hearing date earlier than three months. In the meantime, his time is restricted and there is little he can do about it in the absence of a court order, as the mother contends that he presents a threat to their children.
Unfortunately, many children miss having their fathers in their lives for any meaningful time after separation. Despite the changes to the Family Law Act whereby the courts must consider, in the absence of family violence, whether equal time is appropriate, the Australian Institute of Family Studies (AIFS) statistics indicates that many fathers do not spend anything like equal time with their kids.
In fact, the AIFS found that 51 per cent of children did not spend a single night with their non-resident parent, the greatest proportion being fathers. While the AIFS data is from 2012-13, it is hoped that reforms to the Family Law Act will have improved the outcome for children.
That is not to say that in many cases, there would be genuine concerns expressed by mothers about the fathers who had had very little to do with actual child rearing. In other cases, family violence allegations were serious and impeded the father from spending meaningful time with their children.
Enshrined in the Family Law Act is the right of the child to grow up knowing and being cared for by both parents.
But in some cases, there is absolutely no reason why the father should not be a part of his children's lives. He poses no threat and has been actively involved in parenting their children pre-separation. This dad is at a complete loss as to why his former partner has launched such a vitriolic attack on him insinuating him as an inept and inadequate parent who will put the children's lives at risk. Why has this woman, whom he once loved, turned on him so savagely?
Enshrined in the Family Law Act is the right of the child to grow up knowing and being cared for by both parents. According to the Act, it is all about children's rights and parents' responsibilities. For the kids whose parents have parted, they have very distinct needs - separate from the needs being expressed by their parents. Children do not want to feel as if they are the proverbial meat in the sandwich or to choose one parent over the other.
They should not have to watch everything they say or collect evidence to pass back to the other parent on their return. They should not be the victims of parental cross examination at the end of time with their other parent. Research has shown that children whose parents constantly disparage each another are more likely to experience depression and anxiety compared to children of high conflict parents who don't involve their children in arguments.
When a mother actively works to remove a father from his children, they do so at their own peril. Children are known to imbue that absent parent with exaggerated qualities and characteristics.
The effects of parental alienation on children has been studied by psychologists, and has been shown to result in depression, poor self-esteem, lack of trust and substance abuse.
Finally, as we head toward Father's Day, we need to recognise the effect on fathers who are either denied contact with their children or lose contact with them following separation. Mental health disorders are higher among adult men who are separated or divorced. Separated men are more likely to commit suicide compared with married men and many suffer depression, anxiety and seek to escape with alcohol and/or drugs.
So, spare a thought this Father's Day for those good dads, those men who love their children but cannot see them.
- Caroline Counsel is an accredited family law specialist at Caroline Counsel Family Lawyers.