She has witnessed countless bitter rows between her warring parents, including an incident at her primary school assembly that led to police being called. Her mother, a health worker, admits she has an alcohol abuse problem and her behaviour towards her former husband and his new wife has been ”appalling”.
Her parents can barely speak to each other. Tempers flared when her father took her on an overseas trip without telling her mother.
But when she wrote a school project about a child trapped in a vicious custody battle, a Family Court judge heard a cry for help.
”This has got to stop,” the 11-year-old known as ”T” wrote in a childish cursive script. ”Not in a few years. Not when people can finally be [bothered] to do it. It needs to be done NOW!”
In four sentences, the student traced the despair of thousands of children dragged into messy familial dramas in the courts – and their struggle to be heard above the fray.
”The heading of the writing … said that in the Family Court, children should have a say,” Justice Paul Cronin said in a judgment published last week.
”She said the court got to choose the residence of a child or what the child did, and she rhetorically asked whether that was fair. She said that children should have a day to go into the court and speak up.
”In a pointed remark, the child wrote that adults buy and build houses and children should at least get an opportunity to decide where they lived and with whom they wanted to live.”
Since 2006, the Family Court has been required to take into account any views expressed by the child when making parenting orders. In the vast majority of cases, their views are filtered through a lawyer, psychologist or a family consultant, who is an officer of the court.
T’s writing project, in a school exercise book, was brought to the court’s attention by one of the psychologists who gave evidence. The child, he said, had been living in a ”tragic split world” since her parents separated when she was five. She was ”the linchpin through which parental conflict was channelled”. The law says the Family Court’s ”paramount consideration” when making parenting orders is the interests of the child.
But for children such as T, who was assigned an independent lawyer by Legal Aid, court disputes over where they will live, and how, seem focused squarely on the parents.
Justice Cronin noted that much of the evidence in this case was about her mother and father, ”even though they may not have seen it that way”.
He said T’s mother was ”disarmingly candid” about her drinking problem but had produced records that it was under control. If she was unable to curb the problem, he said, ”the Sword of Damocles may now be sitting there” and T’s father would be ”well within his rights” to argue he could not have a relationship with his daughter while she was part of her mother’s world.
In a second piece of writing, T wrote about a family ”falling apart” and a father who was ”mean to her mother”.
”It has all of the remarkable hallmarks of the child referring to her own family situation,” Justice Cronin said.
”It oozes with particularity in her stream of consciousness. In a bizarre ending, the mother is stabbed. The child returns home to find her mother covered in ‘bright red blood’. It is a cry for help.”
The judge made parenting orders running to 27 paragraphs, including that neither parent should contact the other, outside of emergencies, until they had agreed in writing that they could be civil about their daughter. ”Unfortunately their focus has been on each other rather than on the child,” he wrote. ”It is time to stop for the child’s sake.”
Sydney Morning Herald. Childs school project becomes a plea to the family court.