Event Report: The Voice of the Child in Family Law featuring "Tommy"
On the 14th of November 2019 the Greater Melbourne Family Law Pathways Network ran an event discussing the ‘The Voice of the Child in Family Law featuring ‘Tommy’’. The event featured presentations from Dr Rachel Carson from the Australian Institute of Family Studies and Darren Mort from the ‘To Be Loved’ foundation.
Ensuring the voice of the child is heard is an important and often challenging part of any practitioners work. Dr Rachel Carson presented on the finding from the Children and Young People in Separated Families Project final report (2018), alongside practical recommendations for professionals seeking to include the voice of the child in their practice. Darren provided a brief history of his charity, the ‘To Be Loved’ foundation, followed by the airing of the short film “Tommy”. This powerful film is an excellent resource for lawyers, court services, and practitioners working with high conflict families. It brilliantly captures the poignant experience of a child caught between the conflicts of his parents.
Audience members were given an opportunity to win a free copy of Darren Mort’s illustrated children’s book entitled ‘Tommy & Terry Tiger’. This is a compelling book for children and parents, and a useful resource for any separated family to assist children to make sense of it all. ‘Tommy & Terry Tiger’ is designed to help kids understand that they are not alone. 6 books were given away during this component of the event. The event then concluded with audience questions.
Dr Rachel Carson – Findings from the Children and Young People in Separated Parents Project
A copy of the ‘Findings from the Children and Young People in Separated Families Project’ can be accessed via the Australian Institute of Family Studies’ website, available here: https://aifs.gov.au/publications/children-and-young-people-separated-families-family-law-system-experiences
The Child and Young People in Separated Families Project aimed to investigate the experiences of children and young people who had accessed family law system services during separation and divorce, and to focus on children and young people’s experiences of these services to articulate how the family law system may better meet their needs.
As a brief outline, the research project included a purposive sample of families who had engaged with the family law system, had resolved their family law matters, and were recruited via legal and non-legal service providers. There were 61 in-depth interviews undertaken with children and young people aged 10-17 years of age which included both structured and semi-structured questions. 47 telephone interviews with one parent of each young participant were also conducted.
The key findings of this research was that most children and young people wanted their parents to listen to them more effectively. They wanted their parents to communicate with them regarding the separation and parenting arrangements. They wanted family law professionals to listen more effectively to their views and experiences. Additionally, they described the importance of feeling safe and secure in their living environment. Ultimately, children wanted to be kept in the loop and given the opportunity to participate – however this was not a total consensus. For example, children did not want to be involved in arguments, fighting, or other frustrations. Further, they did not want information to be sugar-coated to them, they wanted clear and plain communication from their parents as well as from professionals and practitioners.
The importance of including children in the decision-making process was stressed throughout Dr Rachel Carson’s presentation. The research shows that children want to be involved – however it varies in what capacity. It is important to take into account the views of each individual child and make an informed decision on how best to proceed, and involve them in the decision-making process where appropriate.
Darren Mort – To Be Loved and ‘Tommy’
Prior to the presentation of the short film ‘Tommy’, Darren gave the audience some background as to the founding of his charity ‘To Be Loved’, and the origin of the short film.
‘To Be Loved’ is a charity founded by Darren Mort. He created ‘To Be Loved’ to provide pro-bono services to give children a voice when navigating parental separation and divorce as a result of family breakdown whilst going through the Family Court or Federal Circuit Court. Its mission is to promote the prevention of mental illness amongst children and young adults exposed to extreme physical, psychological or emotional distress as a result of family violence or family breakdown, separation, or divorce.
‘To Be Loved’ achieves this aim by using the powerful platform of media to develop educational media content and resources about the issues children face while their families navigate relational breakdown or fighting via the family law system. The development of media content and educational resources is designed for use in educating Family and Federal Circuit Court Judges, the National Judicial College of Australia, Independent Children’s Lawyers, Family Consultants, Regulated Children’s Contact Centres, Social Scientists, Police Personnel, Victorian Legal Aid and family law litigants.
‘To Be Loved’ has a deep concern to help parents, lawyers who act for families in divorce or separation proceedings, family counsellors, and the family law judicial system, to better understand children’s feelings, emotional needs, psychological distress in the midst of the break-up of their parents’ relationship and to effect change that prevents children from becoming damaged adults.
The development of up to date educational media content and resources aim to better educate parents to take into account the pressure on their children, enable their children to be heard, give a voice to their distress and positively influence parent’s behaviour to reduce the emotional harm to children.
The short film ‘Tommy’ explores the damaging impact of family separation on children. It is about an 8 year old boy suffering from the conflict resulting from his parent’s separation. Tommy finds solace with his imaginary friend, Tiger Terry, who helps him escape the abuse and see the world through different eyes: a world of hope and possibilities.
Conclusion & Feedback
At the conclusion of the viewing of the film, the audience participated in a trivia quiz where 6 copies of ‘Tommy & Tiger Terry’ were given away as prizes. The event then concluded with a question and answer portion. The speakers bounced off each other throughout, and built upon each other’s answers and perspectives – a selection of questions that resulted in substantial discussion are mentioned below.
One question of note was how parents can work toward the goal of including children in decision-making processes when parents are not allowed to discuss proceedings with their children (often-times ordered by a Judge). The presenters spoke to the need of the family law system needing to become more creative – perhaps by implementing a process whereby an independent third party is utilised to discuss the decision-making process with the child/ren that are not their parents. It was also noted that it is possible to adequately listen to the voice of the child regarding decision-making processes without necessarily discussing all the details of the proceedings. In either case, both speakers agreed that no matter the method, the most important thing is for the child to know what is going on, and to feel as though their voice has been heard.
During Darren Mort’s presentation, he mentioned a case where a Tasmanian Judge who, in a particularly complex matter, had personally met with the child to hear their view. An audience member wanted to know whether that was common practice, or if there were other jurisdictions where that was common practice. Both speakers concurred that not every child gets the opportunity to speak directly with the Judge deciding their family matter, even in jurisdictions where it is more common – however it is a mandatory practice in the United States of America and Canada. It was noted that most Judges do not want to speak with the child, due to the generally held view that where possible, children should be kept out of family law proceedings.
This topic led the discussion into the difficulty of involving children in the decision-making process in terms of responsibility and capacity. The speakers reiterated the point that children did not want to make the decisions, but merely wanted to be considered throughout the process. However, each child in the above study varied in how they wanted to be considered (e.g. through talking to Judges, talking to lawyers, talking to parents). The speakers acknowledge the difficulty of this in practice as there is no ‘one size fits all’ mould. However, the point was raised that although children in the study were accepting that their thoughts may not be adopted by the court, they nonetheless wanted that opportunity to communicate.
To conclude, an audience member posed the question as to the effectiveness of child-inclusive mediation – whether there should be a mandated process either before, during or after the proceedings? While the speakers would not comment on policy considerations, the research shows that children want this support service, and want to engage in it. However, mandating a support service may not be appropriate, as, again, there is no ‘one size fits all’ solution – so it may not be appropriate or necessarily effective for every child. The speakers agreed that there is certainly a benefit to hearing the voice of the child before proceedings begin – if appropriate. It was also acknowledged that implementing a service of this nature is really a funding and resource issue. Audience members were urged to make a submission to the upcoming Family Law Inquiry to allow for funding to provide services such as child-inclusive conferences if they thought it would be beneficial for their clients.
The VFLPN received incredibly positive feedback from audience members through an event feedback survey distributed after the event, with an overwhelming majority of survey participants stating they were very satisfied with the content of the event. Over 90% of respondents strongly agreed that the seminar was relevant to their work, and many responses complemented the blend of data and research with the ‘drama’, or entertainment value of the film.