EDITORIAL WEDNESDAY 10.06.09.
There are never any simple solutions when it comes to marriage and relationship breakdown, but when it comes to child custody arrangements the complexity is magnified by an exponential factor. One of the legacies of the Howard government was a reform of family law and child custody arrangements which for the most part has been successful and generally beneficial. The starting principle is that the best interests of the child should be paramount, and that encompasses the concept that any child should be entitled to a relationship with both parents. Unfortunately, that’s where the complexity can reach the point where those good intentions can actually deliver a paradoxical situation which fails to serve the best interests of anybody.
The concept of “shared care” sounds like a good one, and it is intended to not only provide the child with that opportunity for a relationship with both parents, but also to engender a sense of responsibility in those parents to remain engaged with the process of caring for the child. However, there is increasingly widespread concern among both the legal profession and health professionals that the impact on very young children may be the reverse of what is intended, undermining rather than promoting their wellbeing.
A study conducted at Flinders University has found that shared care arrangements ordered by the Family Court are forcing infants under the age of 12 months to spend one week with Mum and one week with Dad. On the surface of it that might not appear to be a problem apart from the logistical inconvenience of shuttling back and forth, but when you consider that many of these infants are breast fed the problem should become immediately obvious to anyone with an IQ above room temperature. While there is no particular cut off point recommended for weaning a child from the breast, the conventional wisdom is that anywhere up to 12 months is reasonable, and some mothers prefer to breast feed even longer than that. Most health experts recommend a minimum of six months for the child to experience the health benefits of natural feeding.
This is such a blatantly fundamental issue that it is difficult to understand how the law was drawn up without recognizing this simple truth. But that’s not the only concern. There is also evidence to suggest that sending very young children to spend one week with one parent and the next week with the other is also destabilizing and can undermine their emotional and psychological wellbeing. It can erode the sense of security that comes from having an established home base. Whether or not it causes any lasting psychological damage is less clear, but surely common sense should tell us that such an arrangement is less than ideal.
There has been much concern in recent years about men’s rights and the importance of fathers remaining in contact with their children, and rightly so. Fathers should also have both rights and responsibilities, and when there is a requirement for financial support to be provided it can be seen as grossly unjust if the mother tries to restrict or even refuse access to the child. But that’s why this is so complicated. And that’s why it is sometimes easy for those involved to forget that the whole thing is supposed to be about the best interests of the child. The basic principles of shared care are correct, but the practical application has unfortunately resulted in decisions that seem to defeat their own purpose.