Sydney Morning Herald
Thursday, February 22, 2001

Fathers happy to share children after break-ups

By Adele Horin
Sydney Morning Herald

Separated fathers are getting more access to their children than in the past, and are much more likely than separated mothers to believe in shared parenting arrangements, says new research on the Family Law Act released yesterday.

More than 60 per cent of the separated men surveyed thought the idea of sharing day-to-day parental responsibilities would work for them. But only 25 per cent of the women thought such arrangements were practical.

Fact file
The Family Law Act was reformed in 1995 to encourage both parents to remain involved in their children's lives.
It replaced the terms "access" and "custody" with "contact" and "residence" to remove the proprietary notion of children.
It aimed to direct focus on children's rights rather than the needs of parents.
The three-year research project shows the reforms have failed to change parental attitudes, or their use of the old terms.
Instead of encouraging more private agreements, the reforms have led to an increase in disputes about "contact" and a greater number of non-resident parents alleging breaches of orders.
In cases of alleged domestic violence, more orders for unsupervised contact are being made at interim court hearings than in the past.

The report, The Family Law Reform Act 1995: The First Three Years, shows that reforms to the Family Law Act, designed to encourage shared parenting arrangements and to reduce disputes over children, have failed.

Instead, there has been an increase in the number of disputes, contact/access arrangements are as unstable as ever, and where violence is an issue, "the reforms may have contributed to the creation of unsafe ... contact arrangements". Also, the workload of the Family Court has increased.

Many women suggested that shared parenting was impractical because of ex-partners who preferred to use the court system, domestic violence, poor communication, lack of trust and conflicting values. They believed the reforms had given ex-partners more scope to harass them.

The report, funded by the Australian Research Council, was conducted jointly by the Faculty of Law at the University of Sydney and the Family Court.

The Herald has reported the findings that many parents do reach amicable shared parenting agreements - but usually without recourse to the court or knowledge that the law had changed to encourage such arrangements.

"Encouraging shared parenting after separation is not a realistic option for Family Court clients who are in dispute over children," the report said. However, the report also showed that since 1995, applications for access have doubled, and more men have succeeded in getting court orders that increase the contact they have with their children.

Although the most common arrangement is still for fathers to have contact two nights each fortnight - usually on a weekend - an increasing number of orders are for four or more nights a fortnight.

It says some men seek more liberal contact arrangements out of a desire to reduce their child support payments. "They ring up the Child Support Agency and come in asking for an extra night in the off-week," a solicitor told the researchers.

But other solicitors attributed the trend to non-resident parents being "more prepared to pursue their rights" since the reforms, and to assert the importance of their role in their children's lives.

The report said that most of the mothers interviewed were willing at first to facilitate contact, even where there had been a history of violence.

But many had agreed to arrangements that failed to provide the level of protection they sought because they felt coerced into agreements or felt there was no option.

A mother who agreed to unsupervised access, despite the father's violence, said: "The kids are scared of what daddy will do to mummy. He says things to the kids like, 'I should have shot her when I had the chance'." She said she was pressured by her solicitor into allowing unsupervised overnight access.

The Family Court's judicial officers were exasperated with the high rate of "trivial and inappropriate" complaints brought by the non-resident parents over access issues, the report said.

It found that 62 per cent of cases brought by non-resident parents over contact disputes were considered to be without merit.

Copyright © 2001. The Sydney Morning Herald