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Couples can divorce – parents can’t

by Vincent Ciccarello

Picture of 2 childrenUniSA postgraduate students are playing a vital role in the design, trial and evaluation of a comprehensive model of family services delivery as part of the Children and Families in Transition (CAFIT) project.

Project director Associate Professor Dale Bagshaw said the project’s latest report, Children and families in transition: towards a child-centred integrated model of practice, reveals children are being let down by a family law system focused on satisfying separating adults and managed by the many practitioners unqualified to address children’s needs.

Education and training, she said, will play a critical role in any shift from an adult-centric approach to a child-centred model of separation. To this end, postgraduate students have interviewed parents, children and relatives during a statewide phone-in, consulted Indigenous service providers, helped to develop the content for a new website – Children and Teens First (CHaT First) – and are now helping to develop the content to be used by education groups for parents and children.

A field education unit will be established by the School of Social Work and Social Policy in partnership with Centacare Family Services so that students to gain experience in child-inclusive practices that could include running information sessions and education groups for children whose parents are separating.

"We need to run groups that focus on educating parents, relatives and children, as well as judges and teachers. And we need counsellors and mediators specifically trained to interview children, with appropriate undergraduate degrees or postgraduate qualifications," Prof Bagshaw said.

The report shows children are voiceless in the separation process and yet are deeply affected by it – a situation the Federal Government’s new Family Relationship Centres hope to improve.

"The system underestimates the effects of separation on children, especially where there is entrenched parental conflict and violence," Prof Bagshaw said.

"In addition to missing an absent parent, children experience grief and loss in other ways: when they change schools; move homes; give up pets; and don’t get to see other family members as often."

Denying children a voice in the process, and thereby failing to address their needs, has serious practical consequences.

"Very poor decisions may be taken and inappropriate parenting agreements can be made," Prof Bagshaw said.

The report concludes the Government’s new Family Relationship Centres are unlikely to address the issues facing children "in any significant way", and calls for a child-centred model of service delivery that: prioritises the needs and rights of children; enhances communication between parents and children; minimises the effects of parental conflict, violence and abuse; and assists parents to help their children to cope with separation.

Children and Families in Transition is a collaborative project between UniSA’s Conflict Management Research Group in the Hawke Research Institute and Centacare Family Services, funded by the Telstra Foundation.