Wrong way, go back

Mike Franklin believes that once the Family Court gets involved, everybody loses.

I have a friend whose life over the past six years embodies much of what's wrong with Family Law, and perhaps with our society as a whole. I'll call him Jonah, for that seems to sum up the most recent events in his life. He hasn't come to terms with his situation yet, but his story is a cautionary tale for the rest of us.

1991 marked the beginning of a new (and disastrous) phase in Jonah's life. The first significant event was the birth of his daughter. Shortly after the birth, Jen (his ex-partner) decided to end their relationship. Jonah could live with that, but Jen also decided that this signaled the end of Jonah's relationship with his daughter. This he was not prepared to accept. Thus began a saga of six years in the Family Court - an expensive exercise for Jonah, who was self-employed and went into bankruptcy, but less so for his partner, who qualified for Legal Aid from day one.

Six years and an estimated $200,000 in legal expenses later, the Family Court battle continues. Allegations have been made. Nothing has been resolved, and the protagonists remain immutable as ever. The saddest element of this saga, is that no-one involved appears to have learnt anything of value from their involvement.

Jonah's life effectively ground to a standstill six years ago, and he remains single-minded, consumed by anger, guilt and grief. He believes he is fighting for his daughter's rights, and regardless of the cost, will not give up the fight.

Jen maintains her right to live her life where and how she chooses, and views Jonah not as their child's father, but merely as an obstacle in her path. She has re-married, moved interstate, and steadfastly frustrated his attempts to build and maintain a relationship with their daughter. Involvement with the Family Court has cost her dearly in terms of stress, but she refuses to acknowledge any responsibility for its continuance.

The Court still seems incapable of finding a means to end the conflict, or even enforcing its own orders. A succession of Judges have perused the files, listened to learned counsel and sent the protagonists on their respective paths with little more than platitudes.

It seems that no-one will accept responsibility for their part in perpetuating this conflict, and regardless of all that has transpired over the past six years; that is the real problem. As a society, we appear to have become adept at apportioning blame, but lost the capacity to accept responsibility for our own actions.

Jonah's is an extreme case, but it highlights the fact that the legal process of divorce won't help you deal with the emotional issues, and those need to be addressed if you are to avoid self-destruction. Deal with it - talk to your friends, your family, your priest - anyone who is prepared to listen, but avoid talking to a lawyer until you have the emotional issues covered.

No matter how just your cause, there comes a point beyond which you stand only to lose, and despite your best efforts and intentions, the outcome will be beyond your power to control or even influence. You'll recognise that point when you step across the threshold into the Family Court for the first time. From there on, regardless of the outcome, you're both losers.

You may feel that you are abandoning your child by backing down from a struggle with a mother who is denying you contact with your child. You will almost certainly feel that the court which allows this to happen is condoning her intolerable behaviour.

In that case, it may help to look at the situation as a "hostage drama" - your ex has taken possession of the child. Officers of the Court know, probably from experience, that if they displease the mother, they endanger the child, and are wary of sending angry women from Court to caregiving situations where the child may suffer the consequences of the mother's rage, resentment and spite.

The anger and distress of the non-custodial parent impacts less directly on the child, except when that parent does something desperate, like suicide or violence. The Court makes the choice which in the short term is less risky for the child.

Imagine a "hostage taking" situation where a bank robbery has gone wrong. The police show up in numbers and with the force necessary to go in and blow away the perpetrator. But they do not rush in; they negotiate. In the beginning they give the hostage holder whatever she wants, to ensure the safety of the hostages.

Does that mean they approve of the actions of the hostage taker? Certainly not. It means that they are trying To find reasonable means to get the hostages out safely, after which they can subdue or destroy the hostage taker.

Asking the Court to force a mother to allow contact can be like sending the SWAT team into the bank. You might "capture" or "disable" the hostage taker, but how many hostages might be wounded or killed in the process?

If your child was in that bank, would you want the police to rush the place with guns drawn? In what way might such aggression provoke the hostage taker?

Standing outside the bank you might feel hopeless, but as long as your child remains alive, and regardless of the intensity of your feelings, you must wait patiently outside and resist his emotional response to make a daring rescue bid.

The second challenge is to separate your love for your child from your rage toward your ex-partner.

If your child has been taken hostage, the law is not likely to be much help. Your problem is not a legal one - it is an emotional one. You need a range of personal supports. There are some 24 hour helplines which focus on men's issues. We need many more. Men need "refuges" in these circumstances, but there are none. A facility of that type would help to ensure the safety of the child and mother as well as the man himself. Even a small percentage of the Family Court budget allocated to supporting disenfranchised fathers would reap a huge benefit.

You need contact with men who have survived what you are going through, men who have "been there" and have survived the horror of it all. You need to know that life settles down eventually once the struggle ends.

Accept feedback, particularly when you are feeling rage or despair.

Listen when someone who has supported you suggests that your struggle may be moving into the realm of obsession, that it may be harming you as a person and that it may now threaten the wellbeing of your children, even if you still think that you are acting in their best interest.

Your feelings of rage, helplessness, pain, and loneliness are valid.

It will help if you express those feelings, and not just intellectually.

Find a safe place to scream and yell and rave and cry.

Taking your case to the Family Court will not solve your problems - it can only aggravate them. Talk to other men who have trusted the Family Court to support them. They are seldom content with the decisions of the court and are often profoundly distressed by their experiences.

Resolving disputes over children requires an attitudinal shift on both sides, and a willingness to compromise that can't be imposed by a Court Order. You might feel that the only power you have is to use the Courts to enforce your rights, but don't be seduced by this illusion. Once you hand responsibility for your life over to the legal fraternity you have given away your power. The law should be your last resort - and only once you are convinced that the childen are at risk and the damage to them, their mother, and yourself is justified.

No matter what happens, stay focused on the one thing that really matters - your children. Let your love for them guide the choices you make, and the rest will follow. Again, you'll know when you finally begin to move in the right direction, as each successive step will become easier; but that first step out of the shit you've been stranded in, is probably the hardest you'll ever take.

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