While many parents welcomed the findings of the three reviews into the Howard Government 2006 shared parenting amendments there should be concern. Despite the myriad of recommendations to help make children safer, Attorney-General Robert McClelland has flagged that he is reluctant to change the law.
The Attorney-General told the ABC, “Effectively bush lawyers or pub lawyers are providing advice to people ... which is wrong and that can, it seems on the evidence, result in misunderstandings.”
One has to wonder if he even read the reviews. It isn’t “bush lawyers” who are “misunderstanding”, it is judges and lawyers who work within the system. The Australian Institute of Family Studies (AIFS) specifically said the misunderstandings were due to the wording of the Act.
And it isn’t family and friend “bush lawyers” who are telling people not to raise allegations of violence and abuse, it’s the clients’ own lawyers. One mother who had a photograph of a hand-print welt on her daughter's back was told by her lawyer, “the court won’t like it”.
Despite all three reviews saying family violence and children's best interests are not properly addressed in the badly and hastily drafted 2006 amendments, the Attorney-General thinks the problems can be fixed by “education” campaigns to professionals.
While they are certainly in need of dire training and education on the issues of family violence and intra-familial sexual abuse, surely a piece of legislation that is widely misunderstood is in dire need of changing.
Since national protests against the amendments staged on May 3, participating parents now feel vindicated that three separate reviews have upheld our concerns that the current system is failing children.
One of the recommendations made to the Attorney-General's review by Richard Chisholm which has been mentioned as a possible change is that Australia follow Canada's lead and look at parents’ involvement with their children pre-separation in determining access and custody post-separation.
One parent said that pre-separation their partner had never bathed, fed, dressed, read a story to or taken their daughter to childcare and, a year after separation the child was still begging not to go on access visits.
Many other parents have been forced to send their children to abusive and violent parents as part of court ordered custody visits with the parent’s right to see the child being placed over and above the wellbeing of the child.
Both the AIFS review and the former Family Court Judge Richard Chisholm’s review said that the way the Act was worded put parents’ rights above the best interests of the child.
Many parents have been anxiously awaiting changes to the legislation, but now, despite three reviews all pointing to problems with families that separate after family violence and abuse, Attorney-General McClelland appears to be whitewashing the findings by repeating Family Court of Australia Chief Justice Diana Bryant's comments last year that the problems were simply due to “misunderstandings”.
If family law can be so widely and comprehensively misunderstood by so many in the legal profession, how could that law be considered adequate when it deals with the childhoods and futures of the most vulnerable in our society?
Try telling Darcey Freeman's family; or Dionne Fehring who lost her two children in a murder suicide by their father who was awarded interim custody, that the current laws were simply misunderstood by judges and others in the legal profession.
What was the point of the AIFS review which interviewed 28,000 people and took three years, as well as an Attorney-General’s and Family Law Council reviews, all at great cost to the community, if, because we are in an election year, the best the Attorney-General can come up with is to say “it's all a misunderstanding”!
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