Child’s exposure to parental conflict leads to change of residence  

Family Law

Child’s exposure to parental conflict

Typically, those parenting cases that require judicial determination involve a history of conflict between the parents. On the other hand, those parents who are able to maintain a respectful, co-parenting relationship with one another tend to stay away from the Court and are able to sort arrangements between themselves.

In Phillips & Francis [2022][1] the Court made final parenting orders concerning the parties’ 10 year old daughter. Each parent sought orders that the child live with them during school term and spend alternate weekends with the other parent. They agreed that the child should spend equal time with each parent during school holidays. At the time of the trial the child had been living with the mother and spending alternate weekends with the father.

The parties’ relationship was unhappy and volatile from the start. The mother said that the father perpetrated family violence towards her and her other children. The father denied doing so and blamed the conflict on the mother’s excessive drinking. There did not appear ever to have been a period of stability or contentment which the child would have experienced when her parents were together.

Part of the evidence submitted to Court included a psychiatric report concerning the child wherein the child described her distress at being exposed to the conflict between her parents and in particular her mother’s aggressive response when she told the family report writer that she wanted to live with her father. She referred repeatedly to how much she disliked being yelled at by her mother and expressed a strong preference to live primarily with her father.

Similarly, the family report that was prepared in the case indicated that the child was acutely tuned in to the adult behaviour around her and expressed that she did not “remember a lot of stuff” and that this could have been a subconscious way to protect herself from engagement in adult conflict. The family report writer excluded from her report some of the information that the child had given her because she considered it necessary to do so to protect the child from future emotional and psychological abuse by the mother.

The Court found that the mother had a history of excessive alcohol consumption, but that her current use of alcohol did not present a risk to the child. Similarly, the Court found that the child was exposed to family violence perpetrated by both parents before they separated, but there were no recent allegations of family violence.

Of most concern was the exposure of the child to the mother’s negative views of the father. The mother regularly spoke to the child about the ‘negatives’ of her living with her father and her having spent a lot on money of the court proceedings.

The child’s wishes to live with her father was one of the factors that the Court took into account when making changing of residence orders in the father’s favour. Also relevant was the likelihood that the father would be better able to support the child in obtaining appropriate therapy because he recognised the benefit which she would derive from therapy, as opposed to the mother who did not recognise the adverse impact her negative views of the father were having on the child.

Regretfully, the findings in this case were not unique and in fact feature in many of the parenting cases that come before the Court:

–          There was a long history of conflict between the parents which has had significant and damaging impact on the child

–          Neither parent was able during the trial to take responsibility for the effect of their behaviour on the child, preferring instead to concentrate on the failings of the other parent

–          Both parents were to blame for failing on occasions to prioritise the child’s needs above their own.

On reflection, the parents might have made better use of their resources if at the outset they had have engaged in counselling or therapy to improve their co-parenting relationship, rather than continue to fight (through the Court).

[1] FedCFamC2F1413

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