Australia’s most comprehensive review of its 42-year-old family law act begins this week. But, a mere review of legislation by lawyers is not what our kids need most.
“It’s great that there’s finally going to be a major family law review and that its focus is meant to be on children,” says Dr David Curl, CEO of For Kids Sake, a children’s advocacy group dedicated to protecting children and their families beyond family separation. “But a review is only as good as its terms of reference and the team running it. And a mere review of legislation by lawyers – one that won’t see the light of day until after the next election – is, frankly, not what our kids need. They need, and deserve, a different approach. Today!”
“The science and medical evidence is already clear: the childhood trauma of family separation, especially when family courts become involved, leads to lifelong mental and physical health problems, as well as inter-generational trauma. All too frequently it results in self-harming behaviour and even suicide. While this review is underway, tens of thousands of children will be harmed for life by unnecessary exposure to our existing family law system. ”
This month, For Kids Sake launches its own policy paper on family separation at Parliament House, Canberra. They argue that a fresh approach and more open debate about family separation is needed, and that we need to de-stigmatise the issue. They also suggest that it should not be the remit of an Attorney General but, instead, of a federal Minister for Children & Young People – with policies based not ideology or on legal argument about vague concepts like “best interests”, but on the latest scientific evidence about what’s really best and healthiest for children in the long term.
“Family separation is a health and child welfare issue first and foremost, not a legal issue,” says Dr Curl. “It’s one of the most vulnerable moments in the lives of huge numbers of Australian children – and yet it’s often a moment when there’s no-one there to fully support them just when they need it most. As with other social issues and human frailties, like gambling or addiction, it’s a time when many parents need compassion, help and support too – not lawyers and intimidating, adversarial courts.”
Retiring Chief Justice Diana Bryant last year acknowledged that the current system is “bad for the children” and “bad for the parents”, while asking for more money for the existing court system. But more money for family courts is not the best way forward, says For Kids Sake.
“The best solutions to this widespread social issue will not be found in family law. For childhood trauma, as with most things in life, prevention is much better (and much cheaper) than cure. And few people would describe family courts as any form of cure.”
“We need earlier, health-focused interventions and educational programs. Better coaching and conciliation for parents and better, more specialised training for all professionals involved with children. Where there’s no pre-existing violence or abuse, we need to keep children as far away from courts as possible.”
 ABC Radio, August 2016