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Sydney Morning Herald

Parent wars: listen to us, say children

Sydney Morning Herald, Australia, by Lauren Martin, January 17, 2004

Children involved in divorce proceedings want their extended family and friends - not a judge - to determine which parent they should live with when custody is disputed, new research shows.

Alan Campbell, a psychologist and former family court counsellor, said his research, The Voice of the Child in Family Law, indicated the Family Court should consider so-called family group conferences.

These involve a meeting with as many family members as possible to agree on plans for the child's safety and protection. Crucially, the meeting should be organised and chaired by someone not directly involved with the family, he found.

The juvenile justice system uses conferences to determine what happens to some young offenders but they would be groundbreaking in custody battles.

Mr Campbell's findings, contained in doctorate research at the University of South Australia to be submitted in March, come as the Federal Government considers its response to a bipartisan parliamentary report recommending a mediation-based overhaul of child custody cases emerging from separations and divorce.

The report did not suggest specifically a conference system but said services should "include the perspectives and needs of their children in their decision-making".

Despite a family court system based on what is best for the child, children in Mr Campbell's study felt their voices were not well heard.

Most said they would engage Read More .. the decision-making process if they knew how the court worked, and what the judge, counsellors and social workers did.

"They didn't have much of a clue, and I think this is why they were so against judicial decisions," Mr Campbell said. A nine-year-old girl told him: "They should just all go to someone in their family, like an auntie or a nanna."

One 10-year-old boy in the study said having a judge determine custody matters seemed "kinda big . . . it's kinda like stubbing your toe and then, like, suing the ground or something".

Most of the 16 children in the study, aged seven to 17, said they did not expect a judge could make appropriate decisions about them because judges would not know them as well as their own family members did.

A 13-year-old boy said: "The thing you could do is, instead of having the judge investigate, you could get members and relatives to come in. They will know the people . . . ask them questions about their parents."

None of the children in the study had parents who pursued their custody cases through to a judicial decision, which happens in only about 5 per cent of cases in Australia.

A 13-year-old girl said it would better if friends and family were involved.

"Not that they'll make the complete decision but just, you know, give some advice - because they know, because they're friends and family, they know, you know, whether the mum is probably better because maybe she doesn't work, and the dad works long hours," the girl said.

Mr Campbell found that the children in his study took for granted the belief that children were primarily a mother's responsibility, with fathers in a breadwinning role.

"It's a cultural thing - the children talked about how children should be with mum after separation."