21 July 2007
Dads' sea of tears
Special investigation by John Flint
High rates of migration and marriage breakdown have sparked a large exodus of children from Australia - leaving behind a sea of tears.
With the blessing of the courts, children are heading overseas with one parent, causing incredible heartache in the lives of the other parent, grandparents and relatives.
In special reports The Sunday Times and STM today reveal:
- The anguish of parents - usually fathers but in some cases mothers - who are paying high rates of child support for kids they never see.
- The ineffectiveness of court orders to protect ongoing access for parents who remain in Australia.
- The muddied approach of the courts to relocation applications, despite new shared parenting laws which were meant to protect the right of children to a meaningful relationship with both parents, in cases not involving violence or abuse.
State Government Minister Alannah MacTiernan has called for a process so that judges get to see ``what happens in real life'' after they make decisions.
Many court orders, to safeguard the rights of children and the parents left behind, were impractical, said the minister. She has spent the past six years fighting on behalf of one "childless father."
The Child Support Agency's international caseload has increased five-fold in the last six years. It collects millions of dollars from non-custodial parents in Australia for children who are overseas with the other parent. The agency currently collects and transfers on average 2,900 payments each month.
Many dads are paying high rates of child support for kids they never see.
And court orders that are supposed to give comfort and guarantee contact after their children have moved overseas are, in reality, ineffective.
The harrowing story of one Perth father's fight to remain in his daughters' lives after they were uprooted to the other side of the world is told in today's STM.
Ms MacTiernan said the Family Court of WA and the Family Court of Australia needed a reality check.
"I think there should be some process whereby judges who make these decisions then actually get to see what happens in real life," said Ms McTeirnan, who is dismayed by the experience of a father she's been trying to assist for the last six years.
In that case, the judge gave permission for the man's ex-wife to relocate to the UK with his children so she could be closer to her relatives. The devastated father, who spent $50,000 fighting their removal, was awarded "liberal contact" with his kids during holidays.
"Notwithstanding the Hague Convention, it has proved impossible for those orders to be enforced," said Ms MacTiernan.
The father said: "I haven't spent more than 36 hours continuous hours in the company of my children since 1999."
Ms MacTiernan said: "In any decision I make (as a government minister), I get to see what happens as a consequence, so that I can be better informed next time. What tends to happen in these court situations is that decisions are made and there is no follow-up, so judges presumably can be living in some fools paradise that these orders are actually doing the job."
Even if the orders worked, Ms MacTiernan said it was impossible for many fathers on moderate incomes to save up enough money to see their kids whilst paying high levels of child support, and having to support themselves in Australia.
She suggested one way around this Catch 22 was for the Child Support Agency to quarantine a portion of payments to fund access visits.
The agency doesn't categorise its overseas clients. But many would be mothers who have returned to their country-of-origin with their children after the collapse of their relationships in Australia. Another recipient group would be Australian mothers taking up overseas career opportunities or moving to be with new partners in other countries.
The agency indicated reciprocal arrangements struck with other countries had contributed to its burgeoning international caseload. "In recent years Australia has successfully negotiated with other countries to administer child support across borders," said a spokesman.
In all but the most extreme cases, the CSA does not take into consideration whether court orders are being breached - denying fathers and children contact with each other - when assessing child support liability. The CSA says it makes assessments ``based on the actual care arrangements rather than those ordered by the court.''
The Shared Parenting Council of Australia say this acts as an incentive for some mothers to obstruct contact. The less access fathers get, the more money they have to pay.
"You can distort the arrangements for the monetary gain," said federal director Ed Dabrowski.
Ms MacTiernan said the courts could anticipate many more applications for international relocation. "I think the potential for there to be many more of these cases is quite great because we are getting many young migrants and no doubt we are going to find families breaking up and one of the parties wanting to go back."
Barry Williams, national president and founder of the Lone Fathers Association said international relocation would be a key theme at its annual conference in Canberra next month.
He said: "I have invited the Chief Justice of the Family Court to come along or send a representative. We want to ask why they are allowing it?
"In some of these international relocation cases, it's like the courts are saying the child does not need a father."
Anglicare WA runs a Family Relationship Centre on behalf of the Federal Government. Jennie Hannan, executive general manager services, said interstate movement of children was much more common.
"We're such a mobile population in WA anyway. It's important to recognise that there are many families that manage to amicably negotiate contact, even from interstate.
"If you ever travel on planes at the beginning of the school holidays and at the end of school holidays, there are kids travelling all the time unaccompanied all over this country to have access to parents interstate. Only five per cent of cases ever get to the Family Court and it's really important to remember that."
At least one in four separated or divorced Australian parents live more than 500km from their children.