Imagine your relationship has broken down, and there are kids. It’s an all too common occurrence, and if you are lucky to have a reasonable ex-partner, an amicable resolution can be reached.
But those who are not so lucky may find themselves taken to the Federal Circuit Court by an ex-partner, which can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Adding to that, court cases can drag on for years and inflict a negative and damaging experience on everyone, especially children.
But the courts are under immense pressure; currently the waiting period for a resolution is around two years.
And in all likelihood this will increase.
According to Fairfax last November, there will be up to a three-year wait on family law cases soon, owing to ‘drastic underfunding’ of the Federal Circuit Court and a mass exodus of retiring judges.
And with around 12 of the circuit court’s 65 judges set to retire over the next 12 months, the man responsible, attorney-general George Brandis, has yet to act.
A spokesman for senator Brandis told Fairfax on November 6, 2014 that he, ‘would not rush appointments of judges.’
He said, ‘In the current economic climate all areas of government, including the courts, must look for ways to work more efficiently and effectively.’
Since 2007, Sam (not his real name), has an ongoing court case against his ex- partner involving their son, Adam (not his real name).
At the time, the boy was four years old.
‘He’s now 11,’ says Sam. ‘She took the child with her when we separated, but the courts gave us 50/50 custody for 12 months. It was the best year – we would go fishing, surfing and motorbike riding.
Sexual abuse allegations
‘Of school age, I had him slightly less time. But then accusations of physical abuse began to surface. Then, much to my horror, it turned to sexual abuse allegations.’
Sam believes it was vindictive behaviour of the ex- partner, born from the relationship breakdown.
‘Apart from losing my son, being labelled a paedophile was the most traumatic experience in my life,’ he said.
‘I had unbelievable nightmares and for two years I stopped associating with children.’
Upon child-abuse accusations being reported, he says a number of responses by government departments are enacted; however, generally a Joint Investigation Response Team (JIRT) is called in to question the accused.
Sam says he was subjected to intense questioning under lights in the back of a police station.
‘It was like a TV cop show; there were detectives either side, a glass screen, camera and audio equipment… I was interrogated for nearly two hours. I believe they were going through their process but convinced I was innocent. They said to me, “If we didn’t believe your story we wouldn’t have let you leave.”’
It took a long time – 16 months – to be completely exonerated from all allegations, including sexual, by the court, he says.
Additionally, Sam says in a family court there are no consequences for perjury, which is lying under oath or on an affidavit.
But from the horrific experience, he says the support of friends and community helped him survive the ordeal, and he’s even grown from it. He says that once he understood the characteristics of someone who perpetuates parental alienation, it gave him the tools to be able to understand and seek appropriate help.
So what is it? Parental Alienation Dynamics is the premise that one parent falsely accuses the other of abuse and indoctrinates the child into believing that abuse took place. It’s a concept that has been made popular by clinical psychologist Dr Craig Childress.
It’s the child’s behaviour that need to be observed, says Dr Childress. Unnecessary levels of anxiety or fear of the alienated parent can be a sign.
While it is expected that a child who has been abused may exhibit some level of fear, Dr Childress argues a child’s natural response is to seek a normal relationship and not always be in total terror.
According to Dr Childress, parents who indoctrinate children into alienation are linked to narcissist borderline pathogenic parenting.
The symptoms include: grandiosity, entitlement, absence of empathy, haughty, arrogant behaviour and delusional belief systems.
This behaviour can also be described as sociopathic.
The feature of the narcissistic personality, says Dr Childress, is a complete disregard for court orders and the parental rights of the other parent following the divorce.
‘The narcissist parents believe themselves exempt from the rules that govern other people, so the court orders simply do not apply to them.’
Sam says that while such information has been of great comfort, Australian courts do not recognise parental alienation, despite it gaining in popularity in the US and the UK.
Sadly for Sam, he was unable to see his boy for nearly three years, until last weekend.
Three years apart
‘I saw him very briefly,’ he said. ‘It was a horrible, heart- breaking experience.’
They met at a government-run contact centre, he says, where parents meet their children in a supervised environment. It takes months to get an appointment, owing to congestion, he says.
‘Adam wouldn’t come near me. I tried to engage in conversation, but he showed no interest.
‘He appeared deeply saddened and there were dark rings under his eyes.’
Sam added that he feels the child’s innocence has been robbed and saw, ‘a massive change in the child’.
He says he doesn’t even know where his son lives.
Like Sam, Sophie’s experience was similar (not her real name). She was accused by her ex-husband of potentially abusing her two children and was then drawn into a legal battle. After a mutual friend connected both Sophie and Sam, they have since struck up a strong connection and have given each other much support.
Sophie said, ‘After two days’ notice, I found myself in court and lost my kids instantly. Being self-represented was a tough learning curve.’
‘I had to prove what was said was wrong,’ she said. ‘I was guilty until proven innocent.’
She says the ex-husband employed a formidable legal team, which would have cost $100,000.
And while the case took 13 months to be decided, she says the outcome was very unusual.
‘Legal Aid, and everyone I spoke to, was surprised that I had to have supervised contact with my children until they were 18!’
Interestingly, Sophie claims she had no history of abuse or criminal record.
‘The worse I had were a few speeding fines’.
But the result was devastating, she says, and after a year and half of the contact centre, she stopped seeing her children as it became too overwhelming.
‘It was too upsetting for the kids and me. We were all unhappy; it’s not a place to have any meaningful relationship. I couldn’t give them Christmas presents unless they were unwrapped by staff the week before and checked.
‘I couldn’t even take photos. Even in the contact centre mandate, it states it is for high-risk offenders.’
To see her children again, Sophie says she had to find grounds to reopen the case, as well as meeting criteria.
‘I went down the appeal process, with help from Legal Aid, but they said I was wasting my time.’
Regardless, she did apply.
‘Some of the paper work was filled in wrongly and it fell outside the due date… I had to prove a change of my circumstances, and did.’
Importantly, she said she presented new evidence that put her ex-husband’s case in doubt. And thankfully, before it went to court again, an amicable decision was reached.
‘Healing the relationship is much better than going through the courts,’ she said.
‘I saw my kids again in 2013 and this is our first Christmas together in years.’
Simon (not his real name) told The Echo he was accused by his ex-partner of abusing their daughter when she was two, something he absolutely denies.
The girl is now five and he is still locked in a legal battle with his ex-partner to gain visitation access.
‘I saw my daughter just over a year ago in a contact centre,’ he said. ‘She turned her back at me and started screaming. She said she wanted her mother and said “I don’t like you”.’
Simon says discovering Parental Alienation Dynamics was a great help in coming to terms with his situation.
‘The first person to claim abuse wins,’ says Simon. ‘They get the child and can ignore court orders as there is no consequence. My ex-partner is a hostile aggressive parent,’ he says.
‘She doesn’t comply with any court orders, and in the months it takes to get a hearing, I don’t get see my daughter and the parental alienation is strengthened. Every offer of mediation or counselling has been refused.’
He says an AVO was also taken against him, something which has taken a long time to remove.
‘She alleged I was violent, but at the AVO hearing I had over 30 referees – including people with Orders of Australia. Remarkably, the magistrate dismissed them all and said, “That’s all very well, but we can all have one persona in private and another in public.”’
On the positive side, Simon says he has decided to go to uni and study law and psychology.
‘I intend to get my daughter into a healthy environment.
Although it’s most likely I will get my degree before I get my daughter back.’
For those affected by parental alienation, Simon suggests joining the Parental Alienation Australia & New Zealand Facebook group.