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Shared custody: new thoughts on what's best for kids

Children under the age of two ‘ideally’ should not be sent on sleepovers with the non-primary carer in custody arrangements because it disrupts their mental health, new guidelines issued by the Australian Institute for Infant Mental Health Incorporated state.

But Nichola Coombs, president of the Victoria Branch which led the development of the guidelines, says the issue isn’t quite so black and white. “We are just trying to help separated parents provide the best care for their babies,” she said. “We felt it was our duty to give the infants in custody a voice in these difficult circumstances.”

The guidelines are based on research which says children under the age of four should ideally not be disturbed in their routines, particularly when they are at their most vulnerable around bedtime. “We don’t talk about mothers or fathers. This isn’t about gender bias, we just recognise the relationship the child has with the primary career whether they are a mother or father. Kids have special needs and they need to be recognised. These are guidelines, they aren’t law. We just want parents to use common sense,” said Nichola.

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Caroline Overington is the author of Matilda is Missing who has extensively researched the Family Court for the novel and her work as a journalist. She writes:

Fathers are not going to like it, but it seems to me that we are coming to the end of the great ‘shared care’ experiment.

To explain:

For a very long time in Australia, it was taken as given that children should stay with their mothers after divorce. There were a few reasons for that: for a long time, mothers did most of the child-rearing. They nursed the children and made the beds; packed the lunches and were home for the kids, after school. Fathers tended to work full-time, meaning they had much less hands-on time with the kids. When parents got divorced, it was considered too much of a wrench to the children to have them suddenly live only with their fathers, and to see their mothers only on weekends.

Most fathers wouldn’t be able to take on the children, in any case: they had to work.

Caroline Overington

It was also taken as given that children should stay in the family home after divorce, on the grounds that stability is what children need, more than anything else. They need the comfort of knowing where they live. It’s not ideal, to have them changing schools all the time. As a result, the model for most divorced families was: kids live with Mum, and see their Dads every other weekend, and on school holidays.

Society has changed, of course, and there are now very many fathers who have quite a lot to do with their children, even when they are very small. A great many fathers – and children – suffered under the old model. Fathers who could no longer accept losing contact with their children after divorce lobbied the Howard government for change.

I must admit, I had a lot of sympathy for the argument: children do need a relationship with both their parents, even if the parents are divorced. Girls in particular benefit from having a strong bond with Dad.

The Howard government’s shared care law, introduced in 2006, was designed to force the Family Court to at least consider a ‘shared care’ arrangement, under which the children would spend ‘substantial’ time with both parents. It didn’t have to be equal time – but certainly, it had to be enough time to allow a ‘meaningful’ relationship to continue, between fathers and their kids.

As a reporter for The Australian newspaper, I spent more than a year studying the effect of the ‘shared care’ law. As I say, I had a lot of sympathy for Dads – and for their kids – who really had been missing out. That said, it’s become clear to me that ‘shared care’ only works when you have two mature, committed parents, who are dedicated to making it work, and it works best for children who are old enough to make sense of it.

Evidence is starting to mount that very young children find it confusing, to be living one week here, and one week there. Psychologists refer to these kids as the ‘suitcase generation’ – condemned to trudge back and forward between two homes, never really sure where they are supposed to be sleeping that night.

Shared care is not ideal for breastfeeding babies.
It’s not ideal for infants, whose sleep patterns aren’t even established.
It’s not ideal for children whose parents who don’t live near each other.

It’s particularly awful, if the parents are at war, and shouting at each other at change-over, and doing a tug-of-war over who owns what set of clothes, and whether one should have to wash the socks paid for by the other, and so on, and so forth. That said, I wouldn’t like to see a law that flatly says: no shared care for children under the age of two.

That wouldn’t be fair to the parents who can and do make it work. The Family Court should be able to make its decisions based on what is best for the children – and not what is best for their parents.

Have you had any experiences, good or bad, with custody arrangements and the Family Court? What do you think of the new guidelines?

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