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ABC 7:30 Report : Experts warn against shared parenting settlements

Experts warn against shared parenting settlements

Reporter: Bronwen Kiely

Psychologists claim that 50/50 custody arrangements are proving disastrous for some families and many children in shared parenting settlements are in distress.

Australian Broadcasting Corporation

ABC1 > 7:30 Report
3 June 2008

WMV - 7 minutes - 23MB

KERRY O'BRIEN: When relationships break down and at the latest official count at least one third of Australian marriages will, often the source of greatest conflict, of course, is who gets the children. Perhaps the biggest revolution in family law since the act was first drafted has been the recent introduction of the concept of equal shared parental responsibility.

It's led to a sharp rise in 50/50 care arrangements where children spend half their time with each parent, usually on a weekly or fortnightly basis. For many involved, particularly fathers, it's been a great success, but there's growing concern amongst experts that the change is proving disastrous for some families with the children paying the price.

Bronwen Kiely reports.

BRONWEN KIELY, REPORTER: Inside this ordinary Canberra home is the happy outcome of an extraordinary social experiment. Fourteen-year-old Steven LEHOZCKY and his 16-year-old brother Paul split their time equally between their divorced parents.

PAUL LEHOZCKY: No complaints really.

STEVEN LEHOZCKY: It's a good arrangement, I like it.

STEVEN LEHOZCKY: The upside would be you get even time with your mum and dad so you get to spend good time with them but the down side is just having to pack and unpack all the time, it's just annoying.

Come on guys, your mum's here.

BRONWEN KIELY: It's Sunday and their boys are off to their other home for the next two weeks.

JOHN LEHOZCKY: Got to get going.

PAUL LEHOZCKY: Hello, mother.

JULIE CLARK: Boot's open, just go and put your stuff up there. Hi, how are you?

BRONWEN KIELY: When Julie Clark left her husband John Lehozcky nearly 10 years ago, it wasn't a happy situation.

PAUL LEHOZCKY: Report, parent teacher interview.

BRONWEN KIELY: But they managed to agree on one thing. They would share their children's care equally.

JULIE CLARK: I'm very interested to know what your science and English teacher are going to say.

BRONWEN KIELY: Both parents say the secret is communication and cooperation.

PAUL LEHOZCKY: They won't say anything good about last time.

JOHN LEHOZCKY: Loving your children, it just boils down to that, loving your children, you've got to love your children more than you hate or dislike your ex or whatever your situation is. You've always got to put them in front, put them first, think of them first.

JULIE CLARK: If only one of us had not been prepared to play the game and just work with it and go with it, I shudder to think of what the consequences could have been.

BRONWEN KIELY: It was after concerted lobbying by fathers groups that the Howard Government changed the law in 2006 to make equal shared care the first preference in most custody cases. It means a judge has to reject the 50/50 option before looking at any other. Since then there's been a dramatic rise in the number of children in these arrangements.

DR JENNIFER MCINTOSH, CHILD PSYCHOLOGIST: I think the spirit of the new legislation is right, but the devil's in the detail and what it's inadvertently done, I think, is fanned the flames of conflict.

BRONWEN KIELY: Child psychologist Jennifer McIntosh was studying 260 families who were fighting over custody when she stumbled across a distinct group of children in real distress. All of them were in equal care arrangements. She argues that rather than being shared, these
children are being torn apart by their parents.

JENNIFER MCINTOSH: They loathe and detest each other and that spills over on to the child. The child knows full well that my parents aren't friends, in fact they hate each other.

CHIEF JUSTICE DIANA BRYANT, FAMILY COURT: It concerns me if decisions are being made that are placing children under too much pressure, of course.

BRONWEN KIELY: Diana Bryant is Chief Justice of Australia's most controversial court. She say a child's best interests should always come

DIANA BRYANT: We do have to be very cautious about forcing children into arrangements which might be seen to be ideologically appropriate but really don't suit those children.

JO SNIBSON: It's been an absolute disaster to be honest with you.

BRONWEN KIELY: It's Friday evening and Jo Snibson is about to see her son and daughter for the first time in a week. They'll be dropped off by their father at 5:30 on the dot. At the same time next Friday they'll go back.

Every hour is accounted for in a rigid arrangement that equally divides her children's time, and she says, their loyalties.

JO SNIBSON: They see their parents in conflict all the time and that's what's happened with the shared care. I'm coonstantly in a situation where I have to be in contact with someone that I really don't want to be in contact with.

JENNIFER MCINTOSH: One of the most powerful pictures is this one. She wasn't quite 6 and she drew this and said this is how my mum and dad see me.

BRONWEN KIELY: At her psychology practice in Melbourne, Dr Jennifer McIntosh uses the self-portrait of a young girl in 50/50 care to educate feuding parents.

JENNIFER MCINTOSH: It was a real eye opener, I think.

BRONWEN KIELY: Did you show this to her parents?


BRONWEN KIELY: And what did they say?

JENNIFER MCINTOSH: Well there was silence. And tears.

BRONWEN KIELY: Dr McIntosh found those who go to court are nearly five times more likely to end up with equal care. Disturbingly 28 per cent of their children are suffering acute emotional distress.

JENNIFER MCINTOSH: So high acrimony, high conflict and low maturity, this is the toxic mix.

BARRY WILLIAMS, LONE FATHERS ASSOCIATION: I just believe it's a lot of rot.

BRONWEN KIELY: Fathers' advocate Barry Williams has been campaigning for shared care since 1980 and he won't hear a word against it.

BARRY WILLIAMS: They've looked at all cases in conflict when you read it. They haven't looked at the cases that are genuinely good cases where it's working.

JO SNIBSON: In theory it sounds great but put it into practice and it's not that easy. Certainly if you're working with someone who can be
quite rigid and inflexible, it is, it's really, really difficult.

BRONWEN KIELY: For Jo Snibson, shared care is a form of house arrest. She'd like to move back to her home town of Ballarat, but she's trapped in Melbourne. The situation's so poisonous her children carry a book with them for their warring parents to write in. She says when
they're away at their dad's there's no contact at all.

JO SNIBSON: My children have learnt to compartmentalise their lives and what happens at the other house happens at that house and stays there.

BRONWEN KIELY: The children's father didn't want to be involved with this story.

JENNIFER MCINTOSH: What is the difference between a child's life being richly shared or deeply divided?

BRONWEN KIELY: It's a question Dr Jennifer McIntosh hopes to answer with a much wider study involving thousands of families, but, she says she's already seen enough. The law is ideologically driven and it should be changed.

JENNIFER MCINTOSH: It's case by case. We can't have recipes, we can't have clear cut guideline, we can't have social control.

DIANA BRYANT: We don't really have an opportunity to see what happens to children after they leave the court. That's why research is incredibly important. Parliament won't get it right unless they make laws that are actually based on sound research.

BRONWEN KIELY: Until the door of communication opens, it's virtually impossible for Jo Snibson to negotiate any change to the unhappy arrangement. For now, she continues to live week to week.

JO SNIBSON: It's just a disaster overall and I really, really worry about the kids and where it's taking them and what the long term effect is going to be on the children.

KERRY O'BRIEN: Bronwen Kiely with that report.
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