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Grandparents cut off from kids seek changes to law

Grandparents cut off from kids seek changes to law

Gavin King From: The Sunday Mail (Qld) June 06, 2010 12:00AM

DISTRAUGHT grandmother Mary feels like someone has reached inside her chest and torn out her heart.

Mary, from Brisbane, has not been in contact with her two grandchildren since 2007, despite living just two streets away from them.

After a drawn-out divorce from a 33-year marriage and a dispute over the ownership of two family homes, Mary's daughter sided with her ex-husband and blocked all access to the grandchildren.

Mary is one of a growing number of Queensland grandparents enduring life without any contact with their grandchildren because of bitter family disputes.

Retired Brisbane lawyer Maged Rofail is working with grandparents across Australia to lobby for more legal rights for grandparents estranged from their grandkids.

Dr Rofail told The Sunday Mail there are no statistics to quantify how many grandparents are in the same situation as Mary, but his work fighting for their rights in the past three years has uncovered hundreds of heart-wrenching stories.

Dr Rofail contacted The Sunday Mail after reading about the plight of Bob Irwin, father of the Crocodile Hunter Steve Irwin, who has not seen his grandchildren Bindi and Robert for months because of a rift with their mother Terri.

Mary says she has tried everything to be reunited with her grandchildren, including mediation through the Federal Government's Family Relationship Centres, to no avail.

"Despite looking after my grandson for the first five years of his life I feel like he's being used as blackmail to hurt me," she said.

"I also have a granddaughter who is four who I hardly know.

"You don't know what your grandkids enjoy doing, what books they like to read, you don't know when they lose a tooth.

"It wrecks you from the inside, like someone reaching in and tearing your heart out."

Since 1999, Brisbane grandfather Robert, 66, has had minimal contact with his grandkids since he and his wife divorced.

He doesn't know where his adult children live, or even the birthdays of those grandkids he has never met.

"I've been prevented from having any contact with my grandchildren but I don't really know what the reasons are," he said. "When this type of thing happens people assume the worst, that you've bashed the kids or done something horrible.

"But nothing like that has ever happened and I think I could cope with it better if I knew the reasons behind it.

"I think I have six grandchildren but I can't be sure, and I feel I can offer them so much.

"I approached them for mediation, but there's no compulsion or requirement to respond to that mediation request. I saw a solicitor but he said the prospect of having any luck through the courts is minimal.

"My father fought in the First World War and there are so many things I want to share with my grandchildren, like his war diary and other family heirlooms, but I can't because this wall has been put up."

Dr Rofail is working with child psychologists and university researchers to prepare a submission to the Family Law Council, which advises the Federal Government on issues related to the Family Law Act. "I was featured in an article about this issue in a seniors magazine and within days I was contacted by more than 50 grandparents seeking help," he said.

"In my view, the grandchildren are being used for blackmail for a variety of reasons, usually to hurt the grandparent or to get something from them.

"The Family Law Act states that children have the right to a meaningful relationship with people important to their development, but grandparents rarely win this right.

"A parent can go to court and say it would cause stress to them if there was any contact between grandparents and grandchildren and so the court rules that it isn't in the best interest of the child because the parents would be stressed.

"I've spoken to so many grandparents who are being treated for depression and some who are suicidal.

"I believe this is a form of elder abuse, and it is impacting the two most vulnerable parts of our society children and the elderly. This situation is occurring more and more, particularly with the ageing population, and we need to address this legal imbalance."

Relationships Australia's national vice-president Anne Hollonds urged grandparents to contact the organisation for help.

The rate of reuniting grandparents estranged from their grandchildren had drastically improved since the introduction of Family Relationships Centres in 2006, she said.

"We know from research that kids do better in all indicators of development if their grandparents are involved in their life," she said.

"There are some wonderful success stories through mediation but in many cases the reality of how that's achieved if there's been a big falling out or entrenched hostility can be extremely difficult.

"I know of cases where the court has ordered time with grandparents against the wishes of the parents but you always have to weigh up how this all affects the child.

"I think things are getting better for grandparents because there are many services like ours but my heart does go out to grandparents who can't resolve these situations."

First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.  M K Gandhi
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