It’s that time of year again and things can become a little tense as holiday, Christmas Day and New Year plans for separated families are negotiated or implemented.
Separation is never easy; and special occasions like Christmas can often be very difficult, highlighting the reality of the changed living arrangements post separation. This can be the case for parents who have “custody of children” as well as for the parents who have arrangements traditionally thought of as “access”, “contact” or “spends time and communicates”.
The important thing to remember in any post separation parenting situation is negotiations occur “in the shadow of the law”.
This means both disputing parents ought to consider how the law might apply to their circumstances when they are engaging in negotiations.
The law empowers judges to exercise “discretion” to make parenting orders, and the process by which this occurs is complex.
However, two very important propositions bear heavily in the mind of a judge being called upon to make a parenting order. These are:
- Children have rights; while parents have responsibilities;
- Parenting arrangements ought to be in the best interests of the children.
From a practical perspective the best thing for both parents to do is remain “child focused”. This means try to consider what arrangements will place the best interests of the children, ahead of their own interests or feelings.
In my experience as a Brisbane Family Lawyer, some of the things that may be relevant for you to think about, or ask yourself, in making parenting arrangements at Christmas:
- Making Christmas time a happy childhood memory. One of the most important issues for children’s mental health is to not be exposed to disputes between their parents. Studies have shown witnessing family violence generates similar response in children as having violence directed towards them; and some writers argue “exposing a child to domestic violence is a form of abuse in itself, regardless of whether the child is the target of such violence or not.”
- Would the children be excited to see both of their parents, grandparents and other people who are important to them on Christmas Day? Is splitting Christmas Day in half what the children would likely prefer? Or would they be happier not to travel on Christmas Day; instead spending Christmas with one parent one year, and with the other the next;
- If one parent has issues affecting the children’s safety, such as drug or alcohol problems, is there someone trusted who might supervise the time?
- Will you let them take some of the gifts to the other parents home? Sometimes an item can represent a connection to the home they are not in;
- Can they give a gift to the other parent?
- Have you made planned holiday activities and outings, and taken time off work etc.
These are adult issues and it’s not a good idea to question your children directly as to what they want. Hopefully you know your children well enough to have an instinctive knowledge of what parenting arrangements they would prefer.
One of the most child focused post separation steps you can take for your children is to be “business like” in your dealings with the other parent, even in difficult circumstances, or when Court proceedings have commenced.
If you are dealing with a difficult or litigious ex-partner in a parenting matter, conducting yourself in a manner consistent with the above will be important evidence that you are child focused.
Judges make Orders they think will promote children’s rights and best interests. In my experience it is usually very obvious to the Judge whether one party (or both) is not behaving in a child focused way. If it’s not obvious immediately, it will usually become obvious as the litigation proceeds.
If you need the assistance of the Court to spend time with your children at Christmas, remember this is traditionally a busy period, and it is a good idea to get advice as earlier in the year. Rule 5.01A Family Law Rules 2004 provides the application must be filed before 4.00 pm on the second Friday in November of the application year if it relates to Parenting Orders during the Christmas School holiday period.
Ref: Flood and Fergus 2008 referred to in Morgan A and Chadwick H (2009) “Key Issues in Domestic Violence” Australian Institute in Criminology, Summary Paper No 7, at 8.