Child Focus and Participation in Family Dispute Resolution

Professional family facilitation is not therapy per se, but is dispute resolution with a therapeutic outcome which prioritises children.
– Jill Goldson (2006)

Today is Children’s Day in New Zealand and is a good day to highlight the issue of children and their families as the new reforms in family law kick in at the end of March.

The New Zealand Family Court budget escalated dramatically over the last few years and this increase was driven by parents in dispute about their children. The increased costs did not justify the results. In fact delays in decisions mostly increased family distress, shown by research to directly contribute to child risk of mental ill health.

With this law change we have an opportunity to examine better ways to work with families and their children who are going through the separation of their parents. Nothing can be more important than getting this process as right as we possibly can.

Except for urgent cases of risk, Family Dispute Resolution (FDR) will now be the compulsory step before any thought can be given to entering court. With the help of a mediator, who understands the need for families to find a way to sort through differences, parents will have the opportunity to make the best decisions for the children they love.

The family will always remain the family – whether or not they stay under one roof or are rearranged. The evidence tells us that children must be the focus of any arrangements made between their parents. Sometimes this can involve appropriate participation by the children in the process – in a careful and professional way. Many parents say it was only when they realised just how their conflict was impacting their children, that they were able to think more clearly about what it takes to be a good parent rather than a warring ex partner.

It’s very challenging to manage separation in families–one of the really big life transitions. But with understanding – and the right processes in place – children  will  show resilience and adapt – as long as a lingering acrimony and conflict is kept at bay.

Anthony Douglas is the CEO of the UK organisation Children and Family Courts Advisory and Support Services (CAFCASS) . His organisation works with 150,000 separating families and their children each year in the reform environment in the UK. The Family Matters Centre is co sponsoring Anthony in April to give seminars for the public in Auckland , Wellington and Christchurch and to  run classes for professionals.

Discussion and exchange at this time of new opportunity is a great chance to make sure we do the best we can for the family in transition in our country.

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