Extreme outcomes in parenting matters

A recent case which came before the Federal Circuit Court of Australia (and later the Family Court on appeal) demonstrates the Court’s continued willingness to take extreme action when it comes to matters where one parent does not support the children spending time with the other parent, for reasons that are not justified, and where the attitude or conduct of the “aligned” parent causes the child to “reject” the other parent. Sometimes this is referred to as “parental alienation”.

In the matter of  Ralton & Ralton  [2016] FCCA 1832 the children were aged 7 and 9. The parties had been separated for most of the children’s lives. The children lived primarily with the mother and the evidence was that the children were well cared for – physically – in her care. Orders had been made in 2010 for the children to spend time with the father. The older child in particular, a boy referred to as “X”, had over time become more and more resistant to spending time with the father to the extent of running away from school when the father was meant to pick him up and so forth.

At the time of Trial the parties had been involved in the family law system for some years and several professionals had been involved with the family in attempts to support the children spending time with the father.

The 2016 Judgment described the mother as “absolutely fixed in her views” and clearly presented her position that “all difficulties seem to have been caused by the fault, directly or indirectly, of the father in this case”. She cited several historical examples of complaints the child X made about alleged abuse by the father which were not supported by evidence, and were not ultimately accepted by the Judge. Allegations made by the mother were either false or exaggerated.

One of the Family Consultants involved gave evidence about how “X is not free from the spoken and unspoken views of the mother, … and how she perceives the father in terms of being unreasonable, dangerous, frightening, threatening and intimidating … I’m very concerned about how the mother exposes both children, but especially X, to the conflict between the adults”.

The Family Consultant noted that notwithstanding the positive and happy interactions between the father and child X that had been observed at some stages of the matter, the child would revert to relying on past examples of alleged bad behaviour of the father as the reason for refusal to see him, giving rise to the comment by the Family Consultant that “we became very concerned about how [the child is] exposed to a narrative that doesn’t really allow him to see meaning in a relationship with the father” and the mother also unwaveringly expressed the clear view that she could see no value in a relationship between father and child. The Family Consultant said “My concern really is about how X can present with heightened levels of fear and anxiety that really seems to be more a transference from his mother than any reality of any experience with the father …… this child then feels it’s his duty and role to support his mother, rather than having the expectation to have his needs met by his parents.”.

Other comments about the mother were that she rejected any feedback from professionals that did not align with her own views, and she completely lacked insight into how her own behaviour might influence the attitude of the children. She was also in the habit of arranging multiple activities for the children which would impact their time with the father and then tell the children they must choose whether to spend time with the father. She openly read a diary kept by the child X which his counsellor had suggested he keep, such that it became less a therapeutic way to manage his feelings, and more a document prepared by him for the mother to read. She actively sought to continually reduce any time the father spent with the children in person or on the telephone, and provided him with little information about their medical needs or extra-curricular activities.

The relationship between the mother and children was deemed to be an unhealthy one which could cause long-term psychological harm to the children and in particular negatively impact their relationships with others into the future.

On the other hand the father presented as a parent who was genuinely open to engaging with professionals to ensure the best interests of the children could be met and who was responsive to the children’s emotional needs. Most importantly, the Judge was satisfied that if the children lived with the father, he would facilitate a relationship between the children and their mother, whereas the Judge determined that if the children remained living with the mother they would effectively have no relationship with the father.

The Judge ultimately made orders that the children be removed from the care of the mother and placed immediately in the care of the father. The Judge acknowledged this would cause the children distress in the short term but that in the long term it was the only way that they could have a relationship with both parents and therefore the move would be in their best interests. The children would have no contact with the mother for a period of time, to enable the father to spend quality time with them and build a relationship “that is sufficiently strong to withstand the mother’s anxiety. It places them in a position where they will be able to have a positive and loving relationship with both parents, not just one parent, which would be a significant improvement to their circumstances”. It would also allow them to reconnect with other family members on the father’s side such as grandparents and a half-brother and step-brother.

The mother appealed the decision in 2017 but the Full Court of the Family Court dismissed her appeal with costs.

This case once again highlights the real risk for parents who seek to undermine the relationship between their children and the other parent, and that this behaviour can often “back fire” on them in the most devastating way.

Ultimately, separated parents must be mindful that the Family Law Act specifically states that the primary considerations, when determining what is in a child’s best interests, are firstly the benefit to the child of having a meaningful relationship with both of the child's parents; and secondly the need to protect the child from physical or psychological harm from being subjected to, or exposed to, abuse, neglect or family violence.  

Shelley O’Connell

18 December 2017