Most parents understand that the Family Law Act is concerned about protecting children’s best interests, keeping them safe from harm and where possible promoting the child’s ongoing relationship with both parents.
Most parents however do not know what arrangements they should put in place for the care of their children and commonly ask their solicitor, what is normal?
There is no normal in family law because every family is different. What works for one family after separation may not work for another family.
If there are issues concerning a parent’s capacity to adequately care for children including mental health or substance abuse issues, or a history of violence, tremendous care needs to be taken to protect children and to ensure that post separation care arrangements are appropriate in these circumstances.
On the basis that there are no risk concerns, it is important that parents are aware that they are presumed to have equal shared parental responsibility with the other parent, even on separation. This means it is expected under the Family Law Act both parents will make a genuine effort to try and reach an agreement about decisions affecting the children’s names, schooling, religion, medical procedures and if the child was to relocate with one parent making it harder to spend time with the other.
The Family Law Act reflects the Hague Convention rights of children which states that children should know both parents and the Family Law Act endeavours to involve both parents in the child’s day to day life.
One option under the Family Law Act is sharing the care of the children. For some families this arrangement works because they may have similar financial resources and be able to afford to live close by each other’s home and nearby the school, generally have a higher degree of co-operation between the households and the parents are able to communicate about the children.
Some families with a high degree of conflict may manage an equal care arrangement well because they can use a neutral venue such as school as the change over location. If a parent cares for a child in week one and returns the child to school on Monday whereupon the other parent collects the child from school each Monday and they alternate, those parents have no face to face time. For some families such an arrangement minimizes the child’s exposure to conflict, and may well be in their best interests.
For other families, shared care is impractical. The families may not live close to each other, there may be a higher degree of conflict and a large disparity in each parent’s approach to parenting the children whilst in their care. One parent may work away from home regularly or the children may struggle to manage a shared care arrangement.
The alternative under the Family Law Act is substantial and significant time with the other. Under the Family Law Act this means time other than just weekends and school holidays. The aim here is to involve both parents in the child’s day to day life and activities.
What do these arrangements look like? Commonly, this arrangement might include, for example, the child living with one parent and spending in week one mid week time with the other parent and each alternate weekend. School holidays might be shared or apportioned between the parents in accordance with their working commitments and with both parents spending time with the children on other important occasions and festive times.
It is important to note that whilst separation is a stressful event for children, it is ongoing parental conflict that would create the longer term stress for a child. Whilst it is important to understand how the Family Law Act will work and apply, it is also important to consider the emotional and psychological needs of the children and learn new strategies of communicating with the other parent so as to minimize conflict and promote harmony whilst parenting after separation.
Whilst the Family Law Act can encourage ongoing involvement in children’s lives by both parents, it cannot resolve all issues which can include a hostile parent, the angry parent or the parent that chooses to continue to involve the children in their dispute with the other parent.