Involving your children in your family court proceedings is a surefire way to earn a judge’s ire. As far as the family court is concerned, the courts are an adults-only forum. This means children must not be present in family court rooms. And further, they must be shielded by parents from information about what is taking place during proceedings. It’s important that children are protected from the ugliness that can occur between parties during parenting proceedings. They mustn’t be exposed to adult conflicts often involving adult concepts and stressors. But perhaps the worst kind of involvement a child can have in family court proceedings is when a parent deliberately coaches the child to tell lies about the other parent, in an effort to alienate the other parent and influence the court outcome. Let’s take a look at a recent case where, due to the mother’s efforts to skew the truth by coaching her children and involving them in the court battle, the children were actually removed from the mother’s care and placed with their father.
[Coaching leads to custody reversal in alienation case…continued]
Children’s views are taken into account by the courts through Family Report interviews conducted by the court’s experts. It’s during these Family Report interviews that a parent who has been coaching their child can be inadvertently exposed by the child. Even if a child has been thoroughly coached, they can slip up in telling a credible story. Or, they simply innocently reveal that their parent actually wants them to say a particular thing. This is precisely what happened in a recent case in the family courts (given the pseudonyms “Bickford & Bickford”), which dealt with parenting arrangements for two children aged 8 and 10.
In this matter the mother had tried to prevent the father from spending time with the children by raising a number of “extremely serious allegations” including physical abuse of the children. However, the court determined through the Family Reports that the mother’s account was fictitious and that the children had been coached to accuse their father of abuse.
This is because during the Family Report interviews in the matter, the children couldn’t help but reveal the coaching they had received. Further, their behaviour with their father as scrutinised during observations of their interactions demonstrated nothing but a “loving and positive relationship with their father”.
The Family Reports were “overwhelmingly positive for the Applicant. The picture painted by both report writers is diametrically different to what the Respondent reports about the children.”
The children had also been heavily embroiled in the conflict by the mother giving them detailed updates of family court proceedings and the father’s supposed “lies”.
Fearful of the mother’s reaction, not the father
The children had initially said they were nervous and scared and didn’t want to see their father, but when the Family Report writer probed the source of their fear, one child revealed that she was actually “more anxious and scared about her mother being upset about her seeing her father rather than being anxious and scared about actually seeing her father.”
The loyalty conflicts a child experiences when having to reject one parent to please another can be psychologically very damaging to children, as well as damaging the relationship with the rejected parent. This is why the courts are attuned to cases where one parent’s actions are likely to be the underlying cause of false allegations.
Serious allegations of abuse and violence
The court noted that normally allegations of abuse against children need to be given “very significant weight” in typical court proceedings. But it was pointed out that this matter was different. In this case, there was the content of the expert reports and the experts’ observations of recent interactions between the children and the dad, that indicated the mother was making false allegations. Another aspect was that the mother eventually made a “late submission that time with the father should now be reinstated”. It usually attracts a judge’s scepticism when parents make allegations of abuse during proceedings, but eventually submit that the allegedly abusive parent should have unsupervised time with the kids after all. This suggests that the alleging parent doesn’t actually feel concerned about the children when in the other parent’s care, as it’s a position incompatible with a genuine fear that the children will be abused.
Trying to influence children’s views
In this case the children’s interviews revealed that they were being excessively exposed to their mother’s completely negative views of the father. She had attempted to influence the children to share her views on the father. In coaching the children to tell lies about a parent abusing them, the danger is that children “begin to believe these falsehoods and ultimately their relationship with the [parent] is severed”.
The mother’s counsel tried to argue that “she ought not to be punished for acting protectively”. However, the court pointed out that the mother’s actions went much further than simply acting protectively. Aside from her coaching and discussion of the court proceedings with the children, she had also displayed other conduct which seemed to “disclose an agenda whereby she seems to stop at nothing to get the result she wants”.
The actions of the mother risked the children’s emotional wellbeing and mental health, but the court noted that this apparently did not seem to concern the mother.
As the court said, “It is not a decision to be made lightly to remove children from their primary carer, and I accept…that removing the children from their friends and family may well have some impact on them. It is, indeed, a very significant step to remove children in an interim hearing. In the ordinary course I would be very reluctant to do so. Here, however, I have concluded…that this is one of those rare cases where orders should be made immediately pacing the children in the care of their father.”
The matter has been listed for trial, but the children will now live with their father at least pending the outcome of the proceedings.
You can read this judgment in full here.
If you need assistance with a family law matter, please contact Canberra family lawyer Cristina Huesch or one of our other experienced solicitors here at Alliance Family Law on (02) 6223 2400.
Please note our blogs are not legal advice. For information on how to obtain the correct legal advice, please contact Alliance Family Law.
You may like to read our recent blog on parental alienation and family law reform in Australia.