Monday, May 16, 2011

Social Work and the Family Court

The following article appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald recently. Read. It reminded me of a client I have been working with over the past three years. For most of that time he hasn’t had access to his two children. His ex-wife has been particularly obstructive. There is no evidence that this man has ever fathered poorly a part from some dubious statements made by the mother. I have attempted to contact the mother so that I could hear her side of the story and confront her ex-partner if need be. She refused to speak to me and at one point was very rude and dismissive. Clearly thought I was the enemy. 

What interested me was that the mothers versions of events was seen as valid and the male was simply seen as a nutter. His love and ability to father these children was never an issue but the mothers fear for the well being of her children became paramount even though these fears were not substantiated in any way. Both these parents come with a large degree of personal baggage which eventually caused the relationship to fail. The father worked significantly on his by undertaking a number of personal development courses and contacting professionals so that he cold work on his issues. There is nothing that suggests that the mother had done the same and there is no acknowledgment by the court of the work undertaken by the father.

It seems unhelpful to suggest that the Family Court is more female friendly than male friendly. I would like to think that the court was a little more balanced than that. However what we are seeing here is the same problem I have highlighted around child protection issues. The Family Court will ask for psychiatric reports on the father because the court is told that he is the problem, but there needs to be a balance which says if we are going to have a report on the father then we need one on the mother or visa versa.

I admit that I have worked with many men who because of their level of violence and hostility to their partner I wonder about the wisdom of them having access to their children until they can demonstrate that they understand the impact their behaviour has on others and have found ways to think about their world differently. Almost an unattainable task for some men.

When one thinks about the Family Court and Child Protection it becomes evident that the Family Court lacks an interested in social justice and doesn’t focus on providing tools for people who find it difficult to parent. I accept that this is not the courts mandate and that one would expect parents who are struggling to seek help from the many community and private base providers who can offer assistance.

The Family Court wants to resolve disputes through mediation and often a very hostile court environment but when it is impossible to use either of these methods the system fails. It is admirable that the court is focussed on the best interest of the child but often it appears to be very quick at deciding who is the better parent and in doing so disadvantages one party over another. Often the children are the ones who suffer the most and as in this case will not be seeing their father for many years.

Over what do you fight?

There are many times I wonder what I need to fight over. How many times do I take on work which is exhausting, time consuming and from which I earn nothing? Most of the time. I decided that this year would be different from last year. By the end of last year I was burnt out. I didn’t have the usual crash where I feel totally miserable and alone, nor where I felt overwhelmed. This time it seemed to be different. I just wanted to take a break, have a nice long rest and regather my energy in a productive and meaningful way. To some extent that is what I did. I was determined not to have to fight in the way I have in the past to perhaps find some different ways of working which proved to be more productive and less draining.

I know that working in the area of Child Protection sucks all my energy out of me. That fighting a system which refuses to change is even more frustrating. I know that at this point I haven’t found the fight that I use to love and the energy I use to possess. However none of that has meant that I am going to turn down clients or stop doing some of the work I have in the past. Fortunately I have had another project present which has provided a break from what I would normally be doing and which has meant that I haven’t had the need to focus on other areas of my practice. Financially not a good thing because it has meant that I have let go of the more financially rewarding aspects of my practice.

But when one thinks it is all going to be easy something presents which makes you wonder what is this all about and over what am I fighting?
A client was referred to me a couple of weeks ago. Remember I didn’t have much energy and didn’t want to do much of this advocacy work at the moment because I need to focus on the financially rewarding activities. But never the less here I was with a new client and a bugger of a problem to solve.

Her daughter had been removed because of mental health issues. She was diagnosed with schizophrenia and is currently under a Community Treatment Order. In my meetings with her I haven’t noticed anything which presents as a major mental health problem. There is are issues around grief and loss concerning a relative who raised her and the lack of support she experiences from her family. She certainly feels alone and isolated and is not heard. She is rational and clear about her needs and wants. She has been able to maintain the same home for over ten years. There are no significant drug and alcohol problems. So what is the real problem?

It is the way she presents. She talks about being assertive and how this is often interpreted as aggression. I can certainly understand that because there have been many times when I have chosen to be assertive, that is talk about my feelings and how I would prefer people to behave, and this has been read as aggressive. Sometimes when people choose to be direct and honest and choose not to be passive they are read as being aggressive or are seen as having a mental health problem. This is because people have a certain view as to how people are expected to behave under certain circumstances.