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Custody Battle

Here's a not so trivial question. I want the name of the industry that began in 1988, with 100 clients, now has 300,000 clients, is growing at the rate of 1% (or 3,000 cases), each week yet makes no profit? The answer I found out in Canberra during my trip there last week was the Child Support Agency, (housed within the Taxation Office), charged with the responsibility of collecting child maintenance from the non custodial parent. As one staff member said to me "I don't even have time to think of the human cost of all this, we can't even keep up with the administrative costs".

So, in order to bring those human issues to the fore, I'm including comments from the various parties affected by the dispute.

First let's hear from a recipient of custody battles. A 9 year old boy writes. "I'd be happier if I didn't even know about the custody case. I wouldn't even worry so much and I wouldn't be scared about where I was going to live". Meanwhile his parents fight over who dudded who, who studded who and each thinking they have the kid's welfare at heart. They're not fighting for the kids, they're fighting over the kids! Of course the kids might say "I wish I lived with you daddy", or "I wish I didn't have to go to daddy's, it's so boring". But those same kids will flip face-about to the other parent. It's not that they're deliberately lying, it's just that they want to say the things each parent wants to hear. In my experience when the kids really mean it they summon up the will and the way to make that known either in words or deeds.

Then there's the perspective of the parent. Sandy is one such creature and in a letter to me, offered these words of wisdom to others in the same position.

"Don't feel that if they come back from access weekends with complaints or with fears and with tears and with upsets that you've got to get the liquid paper out and make that weekend better. I guess what I'm saying then is to listen to their complaints, be their wailing wall but not their military adviser. Be gentle with yourself. Draw an imaginary bubble around you and a bubble around them and deal with their feelings totally separate to your feelings. And be realistic about what they're complaining about. How often do they complain about not wanting to go to school, not wanting to go to bed or not being able to watch a video or DVD or play on the computer. And I think the thing that I've learnt over time is to give them permission and encourage them to love their dad regardless of how he has treated you. Let them know it's good to love their dad and let their dad know that it's good for him to love them".

If you're the step parent then the frustrations can be magnified many times if the kids reject, dislike, disobey, disrespect and even disavow your best efforts at blending. Ask at your local library for books that might be of use in your situation but for all situations the recent (2005) free publications from the Child Support Agency could be of enormous help. Among those on offer are "Me and my kids: parenting from a distance", Me and my changing family: moving forward", "Me my kids and my ex: forming a workable relationship for the benefit of your children", and "Me and my money: practical money ideas". Stepparents must remember that their own children and their stepchildren will have their own agendas and may go to incredible lengths to push their preference. Only self confidence, good communications with your partner and understanding of the dynamics of the changes can salvage your sanity and your relationship in this situation.

If you're the parent without weekend only time then get hold of one of the booklets referred to above or the Specialist publication "MY KIDS DON'T LIVE WITH ME ANYMORE". It talks about the overpowering anger, depression, the lethargy and the guilt, the one night stands, the elopement with alcohol, anything to escape the pain and the feeling that you've failed, let the kids down, that you'll never be happy again. For the kids sake start rebuilding. Write down the long term way you'd like it to be, see it in your mind, feel it in your bones then start doing something to set you on that path. And instead of saying "I lose" say "I love", drop your anger and your defences and let the kids see your love as a refuge.

Custody battles are a splitting headache for everyone but whatever the role, whatever the reason, no matter who was right or wrong, no sin is worse than destruction of a child's spirit

Dr John Irvine


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