What’s in a word?
Whatever the causes, it seems obvious that broken relationships, separation, and divorced families are increasingly evident in today’s society.
In many cases, this involves children from the partnership, and they too must deal with the changed circumstances. Counsellors note that it isn’t the separation that stresses kids out, it’s how the two parents relate to each other in sorting out the day-to-day logistics of managing the children.
The first word to deal with is child. The legal definition is a person who is not yet 18 years of age, and while teenagers approaching that age may well cringe at the term, it is what legally applies. And while having that status, it’s a legal requirement that their safety and ongoing growth in terms of food, shelter, education, healthcare, cultural exposure, discipline, and loving pastoral care is formally organised.
Which brings us to the second word – custody. Joint custody, split custody, sole custody are terms frequently used when describing where children are to be placed, and how they spend their time. However, the Family Law Act 1975 does not use that term. The Act uses language that more completely describes the task of custodian by defining it as parental responsibility.
It is far better if a schedule for organising which parent the children are with on what days can be mutually agreed to by the parents. Individual circumstances vary widely and there is no single solution. Further, changed employment, change of school from primary to secondary, geographic relocation due to a new partner can all mean that what worked initially may have to be tweaked as requirements alter.
Parents who have arrived at a mutually agreed solution may wish to have the Court formally recognise the arrangement by issuing a Court order. Since both parties have agreed, or consented to the solution, they are called Consent Orders.
It’s important that such schedules take into account not only the needs of the parents, but the needs of the children, and depending upon their age and maturity, their desires. Children of divorce or separation have probably experienced enough upheaval, so some degree of stability going forward is desirable.
It is probable that while responsibility will be shared, time spent with one parent may be greater, purely for the logistical reasons of school attendance. How much time and in what durations a child spends with the non-primary carer will also vary with age.
Infants may be scheduled for timeframes measured in hours a few times per week, but this will steadily grow to several consecutive days as the child advances in years.
Should parents not be able to agree, then leaving it to the Court to decide is the only alternative, although it’s a requirement that mediation is attempted first, rather than take up Court time if it can be averted.
When the Court decides
In all cases, the overall abiding rule is that the welfare of the children comes first, no exceptions. The Court will start from a presumed position of shared responsibility, but will certainly amend that stance if there is any threat to a child from any abuse, including substance abuse, or abandonment, neglect, mental illness, or incarceration.
Teach by example
Relationship breakdowns occur all the time, but parents can still lead by example if they demonstrate calm, rational, respectful, and considerate deliberations in providing responsible care to their children.
Help is also available from trained and experienced family lawyers who deal with such circumstances every day.