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Shared Parenting

Friday 19th Jan 2001 Dr Muriel Newman Speech -- Social Welfare

I would like to use this opportunity to share with you an issue of huge importance to New Zealand, one that is destroying the social fabric of society, eroding our values and our families. The issue is family law.

Every day, family law ensures that the children of separating parents lose their mother or their father – and it is usually their father – their grandparents and extended family as well. The children walk into a Family Court with two parents and walk out with one. The reason for this is that in its wisdom, New Zealand’s Judiciary has decided that the best interest of the child is preferential sole custody with their mother.

As a result of this winner-takes-all system, a quarter of all children whose parents separate or divorce lose all meaningful contact with their non-custodial parent.

A further 40 percent see that parent for only a few hours every month. More children currently lose a parent through separation or divorce in New Zealand every three months than lost a parent through the entire period of the Second World War.

But there is more at stake. Along with sole custody comes eligibility to a stable income in the form of the DPB. Further, custodial parents have unprecedented power over their former partners if they choose to use the children as a weapon.

Over Christmas I was contacted by several parents desperate to see their children, whose access was being blocked by the other parent. One father in particular had not seen his two year old daughter since the beginning of September.

A letter from his ex-wife’s lawyer states: “We have received instruction from our client advising that a meeting prior to Christmas is not convenient for her. She continues to have transport difficulties. Our client has advised that a meeting will not be convenient for her until after school goes back next year.”

So at Christmas, a time of family, a little girl is denied her right to see her Dad because her mother cannot organise to get her into town, even though I suspect that mother could find her way into town to shop. The father had a terrible Christmas longing to see his daughter.

I ask, where is the justice and fairness in a legal system that creates the sort of pain and anguish that we usually associate with death, war or some other catastrophe.

Last year, two fathers appeared in the District Court because one had sent a Christmas card to his daughter and the other a Christmas present. I recall reading the reports in the paper and experiencing the same sense of public outrage that others felt. It was natural for a parent who could not see their child at Christmas to want to send a card or a present; surely it couldn’t be a crime? It certainly didn’t seem to be fair.

The point is that we heard about these fathers and their plight because they appeared before the District Court, and the proceedings were able to be reported on. Every day however, dreadfully unfair decisions are made in the Family Court, that no-one hears about. Judgements that tear families apart and have terrible consequences are made, but because the Family Court is closed, only the families know what is going on and the public has little idea of what the pain of injustice is happening on a daily basis.

This is why I have a private members bill to open up the Family Court, in front of Parliament right now ready to be debated once Parliament resumes. I don’t believe that in a civilised society that we can condone a system that hides destructive legal consequences from the sight and scrutiny of the public. Further, judges, lawyers and others in the system should be openly accountable for their actions, not protected by secrecy.

The Family Court should be open in the same way that the Youth Court is open – proceedings can be reported on but the identity of individuals protected – while leaving the judge with the power to close the court on a case by case basis.

We cannot underestimate the importance of the fourth estate in protecting citizens from oppression. There is an expression that “bad things happen when good people do nothing.” Well, if people don’t know that bad things are happening because the media are prevented from reporting on outcomes of the Family Court and telling those tragic stories, then building a momentum for change is virtually impossible.

However, I have to say that is what I’m attempting to do today!

On Friday February 4, 1994, a grandmother, Patricia Bristol recalls:

“ Alan arrived back home about 10 past 2. I was in the lounge, Holly aged 3 years was asleep and Claudia 18 months old was with me. Tiffany aged 7 was at school.

“Alan came in and came into the lounge and leaned against the wall. I looked at him and he looked absolutely shocking. He was white from head to toe, his eyes looked so tired and his face was sunken and his hands were just like this white skin stretched over them. He looked absolutely dreadful.

“I said ‘Alan what on earth’s the matter?’ He lent down and said to me ‘Mum, its serious, she’s going for custody of Tiffany again and she’s going to make Tiffany testify against me….. I cannot put Tiffany through any of that again’.

“At the time I left Alan, he was still looking like death warmed up, very quiet and tired. I wanted him to go to bed and have a good night’s sleep. I had no inkling that there was anything wrong other than that he was just worn out and sick of the on-going charges and everything that was happening”. Mrs Bristol was the last person to see Alan and his three daughters alive. Those comments came from the Coroner’s report. That night, unable to face those on-going battles which could end up with him losing his children, he killed himself and his girls.

In 1997, a mother killed herself and her two children, and in late September last year, Rosemary Perkin of Nelson killed herself and her three daughters Alice, Maria and Cherie, aged 8 6, and 2. The fundamental reason is our adversarial family law.

Even the tragic murder of the mother in the park in Lower Hutt last weekend, where the perpetrator took her little boy, has hallmarks that are similar.

Well I say - enough is enough. In a civilised society in the 21st century we should not be condoning laws that brutalise families driving them to murder and suicide.

Thirty years ago in the United States, murder-suicides of parents and their children repeatedly made the headlines. When they understood that the negative consequences of sole custody were responsible for the tragedies, Legislators said enough is enough.

They saw that their custodial system took two parents, who in most cases wanted to do all they could for their child, and pitted them against each other. One became the winner, gaining custody of the child, while the other became the loser, a mere visitor in the child's life.

They devised a change that took the conflict out of family law, and ensured that a child had the right to the love and ongoing support of both their mother and their father, grandparents and extended family as well. Shared Parenting was the fastest spreading family law change ever to sweep through the United States.

Shared parenting is based on the notion that when parents separate or divorce, the children deserve, and in fact have the right, to continue their developmental years with two parents. These parents should be equal in their responsibility for the upbringing of their children, unless there is a compelling reason why a parent is not fit. In such a case where children are genuinely at risk, all of the protections and safeguards of sole-custody must be provided.

Everything we know about children teaches us that it is in their best interest to maximise the involvement of both parents in their lives. Children want, love, and need two parents. Of course, that is not to say that single parents fail to try their best, but just as two of anything is more than one, two actively involve parents can provide more physical, emotional, and psychological support than one.

With the tragic consequences of inadequate parenting all around us, we can no longer afford a legal system that discards one of the two most important people in a child's life, their parent.

New Zealand is already one of the industrialised world's leaders in sole parent families. We also lead in infant mortality, child abuse, teenage pregnancy and youth suicide. We cannot ignore that we currently have the most under-fathered generation in the history of the Western World.

If present trends continue, by the year 2010 half of European and three-quarters of Maori infants under 12 months' old will live in families where there are no fathers.

As a consequence of this lack, such children will be vulnerable and at risk of poor outcomes in life from the day of their birth.

The Rt Hon. Sir Michael Hardie Boys, Governor-General of New Zealand, recently stated: ``Fatherless families are more likely to give rise to the risk of being abused, of being emotionally, even physically scarred, of dropping out of school, of becoming pregnant, of living on the streets, of being hooked on alcohol or drugs, of being caught up in gangs, in crime, of being unemployable, of having no ambition, no vision, no hope, at risk of handing down hopelessness to the next generation, at risk of suicide.''

Laurie O'Reilly, the late Commissioner for Children, shared the Governor-General's passion for children to retain contact with their fathers as a protector, supervisor, a good role model for their sons, and a male relationship model for their daughters.

He believed that our current focus on sole custody alienates fathers after separation or divorce. He wanted to see New Zealand looking towards the type of shared parenting laws that we see increasingly overseas, laws that keep children in full emotional, physical, and spiritual contact with their fathers as well as their mothers.

In countries where stability means frequent and ongoing contact with both parents, children are doing better. Shared parenting plans ensure arrangements are tailor-made to suit individual children.

Shared parenting now forms the basis of law in the USA, in France, Sweden, and Holland. Both Canada and Australia are looking at shared parenting, and in Britain a single-issue political party, the Equal Parenting Party, has been established. All countries that are finally facing up to the tragic consequences of widespread family breakdown are moving towards shared parenting.

Last year I drafted a private member’s bill on Shared Parenting. When it came before Parliament, we had support from the Commissioner for Children, Parentline, Grey Power, rural groups, women's groups, men's groups, and members of the legal profession, the judiciary, the Salvation Army, churches and charities, and psychologists, counsellors, mediators, academics, and literally thousands of New Zealand families.

My office was and still is, inundated with tragic stories from people whose lives have been shattered by our present custodial laws. Many have been ruined spiritually as well as financially.

A mother said: ``I hope that your proposal becomes law and prevents anyone else, mother or father, or their children, from living the nightmare that I am trapped in.''

A father said: ``I am one of those parents who has not seen his daughters for 20 years. One walks into the Family Court and that is it.''

A grandmother said: ``As a mother I've stood by for two years and watched my son try to deal with the loss of his four lovely children. For the first year he was unable to work, so great was his grief.''

A grandfather said: ``As grandparents we've been denied the privilege of being part of our grandchildren's lives. Their uncles, aunts, and cousins have all missed out, as well.''

A child said: ``The worst injustice is to us children. We have a right to have both our parents fully involved in our lives, and we have a right to all our other relatives, as well.''

A university lecturer said: ``My five-year-old son has been alienated from me by the system for three years. To say I am emotionally scarred by the experience is an understatement. I still need suicide prevention counselling. I struggle with bouts of deep depression, and I fear close relationships with women and children.''

A psychologist said: ``Families are placed under intolerable stress by the system. It drives people to murder and suicide. The brutalising of families should not be tolerated in this country.''

Family breakdown cuts across race, class and creed. It affects virtually all New Zealanders, either directly or through family, friends and colleagues. It affects all of society.

Sadly for the hundreds of thousands of parents locked in conflict, grandparents alienated from their grandchildren, and children caught up in a viscous crossfire between the two people they love most in the world, the government did not support shared parenting, voting my Bill down, refusing to let it go to a Select Committee.

But Shared Parenting is an idea whose time has come, and a father from Dunedin, Tim Hawkins, paid the $500 to launch a petition to call for a Citizens Initiated Referendum into Shared Parenting. I have pledged my support for Tim’s petition, and I am privileged to be here today to talk to you about Shared Parenting and to ask for your support for the petition.

More than anyone, grandparents can see the futility of laws that tear families apart. I am now going around the country talking to groups like this hoping to collect the 250,000 signature we need. With your help, we can work towards making sure that New Zealand children who come from broken families have the on-going support, protection and contact with both their mum and their dad, grandparents and others in their wider family as well.


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