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Family Court Proceeding Reform Bill 2013

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A verbal submission to the Panel Hearing Family Court Proceeding Reform Bill 2013; Graeme Clarke 

Held a Wigram Air Museum 45 Harvard Ave 1 March 2103

I welcome many of the proposed changes such as the measures to resolve differences of parents outside of court; expansion of the parenting after separation program and expanding the definition of domestic violence…all positive steps.

My genuine concern is the reduction in opportunity for counselling.
The way the current Bill is drafted will prevent people accessing counselling in relation to Court Orders.(Separation/Parenting). The pathway is for Mediation and Dispute Resolution.

From my experience of 28 years Counselling in the Family Court, and as a Clinical Psychologist, Separation is one of the most traumatic events we can experience, unleashes strong emotions; 1. through the process of separation itself and 2. disputes over guardianship.  I’m sure if any of you have been exposed to the process of Separation,or friends and family have, you would have an understanding of these feelings, such as feelings of betrayal ,hurt ,sadness ,anxiety  and anger.

The proposed Mediation Service (Family Disputes Resolution Service) has an important role, and will be effective in many types of dispute. But with many couples, where intense emotions are experienced and expressed ; for those couples mediation is unlikely to be effective

The written Case Study I presented is a typical illustration of this.
I could give countless examples where the emotional issues need to be addressed before other issues can proceed.
Counsellors and Psychologists are trained to understand emotions, the patterns that exist, the interpersonal issues (power, safety ) the effects on children.

The counselling process itself encourages couples to understand their feelings, their reactions, encourage taking responsibility, ways to regulate emotion, and awareness of the influence on the children, and what is in best interests of their children.

After these issues are addressed the pathway is paved to  consider solutions and appropriate resolution. Many of the couples seen are able to resolve their parenting arrangements with the counsellor.

My concern is for the parents and couples who will not have opportunity to address and resolve emotional issues at what is a crisis emotional time.
This may  lead in many cases to negative perceptions, unresolved feelings, and detrimental effects on the children, and the resulting wider social and economic costs.
Their exists  considerable Literature on the outcome of co-parenting conflict and tension, and the multiples negative effect on children, and impairment in the childrens’ and  adults health.

I appreciate the need to review the Family Court Procedures, given the time spent in Court and the adversarial issues. There is a need to reduce cost, and accountability, a 63 % blow out over seven years …but I believe as an early intervention process the Counselling is a cost effective approach. The benefits of this intervention are multiple, including addressing the core emotional issues that potentially leads to long term distress.

I recommend  retaining up to six counselling sessions, but at a minimum three or four sessions.
To address financial concerns , an option may be Means testing for those who cannot afford the service ideally have the opportunity for a full six sessions.
For others maybe three sessions and those that can afford would pay for further.

The literature indicates  that those under financial pressure tend to be more likely to separate.

Another concern has been the increase in couples locally post Earthquake separating with the financial pressures, problems with accommodation, EQC and  insurances issues, and the general increasing stress on couples and families. This is a time that couples would gain increased benefit from psychological support through their separation process.

But apart from Quaky and Ravaged Canterbury I am concerned for New Zealanders generally that the counselling component is compromised. People at this crisis time benefit from emotional support, and carried out effectively with skilled counsellors and Psychologists it is a powerful intervention

Where and when is the money best spent? My belief  is the earlier the skilled resolution of emotional issues the better.

Also mentioned or relevant, research based  data :

  • Census data, contributing to separation: Couples with higher income are less likely to separate/higher educated couples less likely to separate/those marrying older less likely to separate /stress of children exacerbate relationship issues /as does lack of communication related to intimacy and problem solving
  • Children of divorced parents are more likely to experience greater economic, social and health difficulties
  • Unresolved parental conflict and diminished emotional availability impact on children’s psychological growth
  • Co parenting conflict is a significant predictor of ongoing children’s distress
  • The developmental tasks most vulnerable with stressed parents are establishing core trust, attachment, regulating emotions, belief about self, and understanding the social world.
  •  ‘Emotion’ analogy. To help explain how emotion is different from logic.(Unfortunately did not get the chance to use this in the presentation !!) A  Parliamentary back bencher, debate, parliament of selves,making up the ‘parliament personality’,depending on intensity of current debate, be swept up by the emotional experience which is not the same as logic. It involves a complex non linear process of emergence and completion. But emotions are not chaotic or irrational. But there is order in that emotion and clients can learn to see patterns and make sense of their feelings
  • The self is a dynamic system. At any stage pools of emotional memories are  accessible or active, like a sportsman waiting to play.
  • Higher discord parents together or not, have negative emotional impact on their children
  • Data on relationship counselling, with approaches such as CBT and Interpersonal therapy. A lot of research showing improvement in Relationship satisfaction, Relationship wellbeing and emotional wellbeing (like Depression)
  • Intervention for high conflict divorcing families. Three types of intervention : Counselling and therapy/mediation/Parent Education Programs
  • Need more robust studies e.g. that measure the level of conflict, but there are some studies.
  • Judith Wallerstein, Psychologist, from  California researched extensively on effect of Divorce on children, tested a number of counselling/therapy programmes, and found the programmes that helped the parents ability to parent effectively are the most useful for the children
  • The two most important factors for children’s positive adaptation were sensitivity and commitment of the parent to the child.They concluded the most effective programmes to create this required clinicians with sophisticated skills

Graeme Clarke
Clinical Psychologist

Posted In: Mediation & Dispute Resolution
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