A recent Family Court case has reached the news. In my many years of practise as a Family Lawyer, I have never had a Family Court Judge or Magistrate speak to the children or even see the children. In this case Magistrate Altobelli wrote a letter to the children, who were aged 10 and 6, and ordered that it be given to the children to read when they reach 14 years of age.
The children are to have no contact with their father, whom the mother alleged had abused the children. Whilst the Magistrate found that the Father had not hurt the children, he still felt it was best that the Father have no contact with the children. The children had said that they did not want to see the Father and it appears that a high conflict situation had emerged. In these circumstances the Magistrate decided that it was better for the children to be removed out of the conflict, at the expense of their relationship with their father. It will be interesting to see in 4 years time whether the children decide they wish to contact their father, or whether they will be firmly entrenched in a view that they side with their mother and will not see their father. Will a letter from a Magistrate change anything? The content of the letter is:
“DEAR X and Y,
After your mum and dad separated they could not agree about where you were to live. You were 10 and 6 at the time.
As a judge it was my job to make this decision. I had a lot of help from the lawyer who was representing you, and each of your parents, as well as an expert child psychiatrist. Even with all of this help it was a hard, sad case to decide. This letter is to try to explain my decision to you, even though you probably won’t read it for many years.
The most important thing I want to tell you is that both your mum and dad love you very much. They loved you from the day you were born, love you now, and will love you for the rest of their lives. Just because your dad may not have been around for a while, it does not change that he loves you.
At the time I had to decide the case your mum believed in her heart that your dad hurt you.
My job is to look at all the information, and listen very carefully to what everybody says including the experts. I decided that you had not been hurt by your dad. Even after I told your mum what I decided, I think she still believed in her heart that your dad had hurt you.
This just goes to show that sometimes words do not change a person’s heart.
At the time of the case both of you were saying things, and doing things, that told me you did not like your dad, and did not want to spend time with him. I don’t think you really meant this. I think maybe you were picking up the things that mum was worried about. I listened to what you were saying, but in the end the hard decision I had to make was not because of what you were saying or doing.
I told you this was a hard, sad case to decide.
I decided that even though your dad really wanted you to live with him, it was best that you lived with mum, even though this might mean moving away from where you lived at the time. I knew your mum would look after you really well. I decided not to make your mum let you see your dad, even though your dad wanted this very much. I thought it would make things harder for you if I had done this.
By the time you read this letter I think you will be old enough to make up your own mind. I hope you will think about contacting your dad and getting to know him again.
There are people called counsellors who can help you with how you feel about this, and help you to make it happen.
Please remember that both your mum and dad love you very much, even if they love you in different ways.”
These are extremely hard Family Court cases to advise on and for the Judges to decide. The Court has to consider that even if one parent is totally in the right (in just pursuing a relationship with their children) and one parent is totally in the wrong (by making false accusations and alienating the other parent), whether the damage to the children being caught in the middle of the conflict is greater or less than the damage of children growing up with only one parent.
The best way to avoid this is to work very hard before and after separation to build open communication with the other parent, and to co-parent in an amicable environment. Often easier said than done, but as you can see the alternative can be truly devastating.