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Feb 062010

Shared parenting by separated couples is not a perfect solution but that’s no reason to scrap it.

TWO stories last week resonated with a familiar timbre, that of shrill feminists yelling for men’s blood. The first was the hysterical reaction to Tony Abbott’s Women’s Weekly interview in which he expressed his opinion on what is both a father’s right and duty; the moral education of his children .

The second story has a similar thread running through it, with much graver implications. It concerns shared parenting by separated or divorced couples, which was a basis for family law reforms in 2006. According to some commentators, it is a failed experiment.

The reaction is puzzling since it goes against a supposed feminist notion of equality: that fathers and mothers have equal responsibilities and roles in their children’s upbringing.

This story has been building for almost a year and, depending on what you read, shared parenting is (according to this newspaper) “on the way out” or to be “rolled back” or “brings little change”. According to The Sydney Morning Herald: “Shared care failed children.”

Adding fuel to this is a report by Richard Chisholm and a psychologist, Jennifer McIntosh, that concludes the reforms of 2006 have not benefited children, especially in acrimonious situations, which one might have thought was obvious.

Since only 16 per cent of parents practise shared parenting — and, according to the Australian Institute of Family Studies, most arrangements work well — one wonders what Chisholm is talking about. To work well, they must be non-acrimonious.

But there is more. According to Chisholm many parents — read mothers who still are the main carers of children post-separation — are being “coerced” into shared arrangements by fear, and by a presumption on the part of the father that shared parenting equals 50-50 shared time.

According to Chisholm, an unacceptable number of children in court-mandated shared care are exposed to unnecessary levels of acrimony and possible violence.

However the legislation is clear that where shared care has been ordered by a court, the presumption of shared care is dependent on there being no violence; putting a child into a possibly violent situation contradicts the law. So what is all this about about?

Shared care and domestic violence are separate issues. Children should not be exposed at any level. But there is definitely a risk of violence to children due to family breakdown and not simply from the father, but from the mother and other males.
None of this bothers those who want the 2006 reforms abolished. For them mothers must have autonomy even at the expense of a child’s relationship with its father. They see a way to this amid Labor’s ascendancy. Single-mothers’ groups such as the National Council for Children Post-Separation, backed by feminists and some journalists, have deliberately muddled the two issues of violence and shared care.

Chisholm recommends extensive dismantling of the 2006 reforms. In doing so, he seems to have exceeded his terms of reference, which were strictly limited to inquiring into matters before the federal Family Court in which issues of family violence arise.

According to Richard Egan of Family Voice Australia, “Chisholm proposes radical changes that could profoundly affect all separating couples with children, not just those where family violence is an issue. The report proposes removing the qualifiers `equal’ and `shared’ from the key provision introduced by the 2006 reforms. These provisions affirm as a fundamental presumption of family law `that it is in the best interests of the child for the child’s parents to have equal shared parental responsibility for the child’.

“Chisholm’s recommendation would see this key provision reduced to the meaningless statement that both parents are presumed to have `parental responsibility’, but not necessarily in equal measure.”

As for 50-50 time, Attorney-General Robert McClelland has repeated Chisholm’s claim that it is an erroneous concept in practice. “. . . Regrettably, there have been instances where people have resolved cases, settled cases, on the assumption that the law intends an equal split of time.”

But the law does require the courts, when proposing to make orders for equal responsibility, to consider making an order to provide for the child to spend equal time with each of the parents, if this is considered to be practicable and in the child’s best interests.

The AIFS reports that of those children whose parents separated between July 2006 and September 2008, one in three never stay overnight with their father and one in nine never see their father. That is an improvement on the situation prior to 2006.

Before 2006 there was a de facto presumption in favour of an “80:20 outcome” in which, usually, the mother was given care of the child for most of the time with the father being given care of the child for every second weekend and half of school holidays.

Chisholm’s recommendations would only increase the incidence of practical fatherlessness already being experienced by too many Australian children, by depriving the court of any guidance favouring equal shared responsibility.

One suspects the claim some children in shared arrangements are unnecessarily exposed to domestic violence due to mothers being afraid to speak up is a sham to cover the number of false claims of such violence, which interestingly have dropped since 2006.

McClelland has said the catalyst for the Chisholm report was the death of little Darcey Freeman last year, allegedly at the hands of her father. According to this newspaper, her mother was intimidated into surrendering her.

Curiously the intimation is that only fathers who intimidate pose a risk. They don’t. When Gabriela Garcia jumped off the same Melbourne bridge with her baby later last year, no one began an inquiry.

These deaths are tragedies, the product of despair and madness, not a catalyst for gender wars.

If we want to fix child abuse that is another issue. Mothers are more commonly perpetrators of child deaths than fathers, and boyfriends are six times more likely to be perpetrators of physical and sexual violence than biological fathers.

As Patrick Parkinson, a principal author of the reforms, has said, “In the past 30 years, we have sown the wind in the revolution in attitudes to sex, procreation and marriage. We are now reaping the whirlwind. The societal problems which this has caused are problems that no law can resolve.” Family breakdown contributes to child abuse; shared care does not.

Angela Shanahan

Feb 042010

HIS greatest fear was that his estranged wife would take his children from their home in a tiny, snowy town in Canada, and run away to Australia.

So scared was he of losing them, he’d taken their passports and hidden them away.

The effort was in vain: Curtis McConnell, 31, of Millet, near Edmonton in Alberta, on Tuesday entered the house he once shared with his infant children to find something so much worse.

According to local reports, his wife, Allyson Louise McConnell, formerly of Gosford on the NSW central coast, had not taken the children.

She had allegedly drowned them in the bathtub and left their bodies in the water, for him to find.

Mr McConnell pulled the children – Connor, 2, and Jayden, 10 months – from the tub.

He rushed blindly to a neighbour’s house, but she could see that it was just too late.

Mrs McConnell, maiden name Meager, wasn’t at the scene.

According to reports, she had driven to a local Toys R Us, abandoned her husband’s Chrysler sedan in the car park, and then thrown herself from an icy bridge on to a busy freeway. She survived and is being treated in hospital.

The couple had been involved in a bitter custody battle over the boys. Court documents revealed Mrs McConnell wanted to bring them to Australia to live with her mother, Helen, in Gosford.

Mr McConnell wanted them to stay in Millet, population 2100, which is about 50km from Edmonton, where his family has lived for generations, and where the children were born.

In December, a judge had banned Mrs McConnell from leaving the country, and ruled that the children should stay in Canada on an interim basis, while the matter was being sorted out.

Canada has a shared parenting law similar to Australia’s, although the role played by parents before separation carries greater weight.

An affidavit lodged with the Court of Queens Bench, Alberta, dated December 10 last year, says the couple met in Canada in November 2005, when Allyson was in Canada on a work visa. They married in NSW on Australia Day, 2007.

Allyson got Canadian residency in April 2007 and the couple moved to a house on 52nd Street in Millet about a year ago.

According to the affidavit, Mr McConnell “noticed our relationship began deteriorating in approximately September 2009 when the respondent told me that she was not happy. We attempted marriage counselling, but that was not successful.

“Notwithstanding, we have been parenting our children equally in the same household.”

Until last month Mr McConnell was sleeping in the basement. He was paying $657 in monthly child support and, according to Curtis, he was as much responsible for caring for the children as his wife, waking them each morning and getting them ready for the day before he worked an afternoon shift at a hardware store.

“She has been threatening me that she wants to move back to Australia with our children,” Mr McConnell said in his affidavit.

“I am completely opposed to this and I am fearful that she will attempt to do this without my consent or knowledge.”

Feb 032010

A MOE mother who drank litres of alcohol a day got her five-year-old son so drunk he could barely speak or stand up, a court heard.

The boy was taken to hospital by ambulance with a blood alcohol content of .09 after she gave him four or five shots of home brew which was later found to be 44 per cent ethanol.

Kylie Eastwood told police she “just wanted to have a drink with her son because he likes his alcohol”, the Latrobe Valley Magistrates’ Court at Morwell was told.

Should this mother have been jailed? Join the debate in the comments below

Eastwood, 33, was spared jail despite breaching two previous suspended sentences and a call by police for her to be jailed.

Magistrate Clive Alsop gave her a five-month prison sentence, wholly suspended for two years, and told her she was on her last chance.

The court was told that when Eastwood gave her son grappa in July, 2008, she was already on a suspended sentence after being convicted five months earlier of leaving her three children under 10 home alone for several hours while she went drinking with a friend.

She had also breached a suspended sentence imposed in 2005 for refusing a breath test and driving while disqualified.

Eastwood, who has a five-month-old daughter, pleaded guilty to reckless conduct endangering serious injury, which carries a maximum of five years’ jail, and failing to protect a child from harm, which has a maximum of 12 months.

Mr Alsop warned her of the consequences if she returned to court in future.

“You know now, because you’ve had a lot of practice, what a suspended sentence means,” he told Eastwood.

“I don’t have to tell you what’s going to happen if you come back at some stage in the future having done anything which would adversely affect the welfare of your children”.

Mr Also said several changes in Eastwood’s life, but principally her abstinence since last September, amounted to exceptional circumstances that warranted a suspended sentence.

There had been an enormous change in her previously massive alcohol consumption, she had strong supports in place and had demonstrated in recent months the ability to keep her alcohol problem under control.

He said he also had to take into account the impact on her children if she was jailed.

Mr Alsop took the opportunity to accuse politicians of interfering in the business of the courts.

He said Victorian politicians were “apparently gearing up to do certain things towards the end of the year”, which could include the removal of suspended sentences.

He said it would be “a gross invasion of judicial independence” if the law allowing judges and magistrates to impose suspended sentences was changed.

Police prosecutor Dale Henry had urged the magistrate to impose an immediate sentence of 12-18 months’ imprisonment and said a minimum non-parole period of six months to serve would be appropriate.

Sen-Constable Henry said suspended sentences were meant to be a last chance for an offender to lead a law-abiding life, but Eastwood had “had her two last chances”.

“Denunciation, as a specific deterrent, should take precedence over rehabilitation in this case,” he told Mr Alsop.

“The defendant needs to be sent a message that the court will not tolerate repeated drunken, reckless behaviour that put young children at risk of harm.

“The community must be sent a message that child abuse is not tolerated in any way, shape or form”.

Sen-Constable Henry said making exceptional progress in changing a lifestyle was not an exceptional circumstance in relation to sentencing.

Defence barrister John Verhoeven said it would be unjust to reinstate Eastwood’s previous suspended sentence because exceptional circumstances had arisen since it was imposed.

Mr Verhoeven said Eastwood had consumed alcohol only once in the 13 months since discovering she was pregnant and was “clearly in the process of overcoming what was a chronic alcohol situation”.

He said there was no denying the facts of the case were “horrific, absolutely horrendous” and she had a shocking history in relation to alcohol and caring for children.

But she was now receiving counselling and support at a women’s refuge and had done a terrific job of addressing her problems.

He told the court Eastwood, who was now living west of Melbourne, was looking after her youngest child, a five-month-old daughter from a relationship which had now ended with a 70-year-old man.

A prosecution summary read to the court before the case was adjourned last October said Eastwood’s five-year-old son was having difficulty walking and speaking when ambulance officers were called to her home in Moe by the children’s father.

Police who were called said Eastwood was having trouble walking and her speech was slurred. Her son was unable to speak to police and “kept making grunting noises”.