When you and the other parent of your child or children, cannot reach an agreement on the living arrangements for your children after separation, and you have exhausted all avenues of dispute resolution, as a place of last resort, litigation can be commenced.
How though, when a Court is faced with two parents, with different views on what is best for their child or children and different perspectives on the history of their parenting relationship, is a Judge to sift through these different perspectives and make a decision in the best interests of the children?
A Judge does not meet your child. They know them only as a name and as they are described by their parents. This is where a Family Report comes into play.
Arguably the Family Report Writer is the second most powerful person in your parenting proceedings after the Judge. Why is this so?
- They are typically the only person who will meet both the parents and the child or children outside of the court room. They have the opportunity to interact with the children and observe them with their parents and significant others. The observation aspect of the Family Report is more often than not more impactful than the interviews.
- They are independent. Whilst appointed by a Court or the parties (if they are funding a private Family Report), they are independent in so far as they have no vested interest in your outcome.
- They are experts in social sciences including psychology or psychiatry in some cases. They apply different knowledge bases and influences to assist the Court, rather than the lawyers speaking of things through a legal prism.
Family Reports can be undertaken prior to any litigation processes, as a further step along the way to resolving matters by agreement. Even though not Court appointed in that event, the report will still hold significant weight by the Judge.
So, what is this seemingly all-powerful document called a Family Report?
It is a report prepared after interviews and observations which comments on the child’s views, wishes, experiences and family dynamics. It then ties all of those matters together and makes recommendations. Relevant family dynamics that may be explored include:
- Parenting capacity or incapacity.
- Domestic and family violence.
- Drug or alcohol use or abuse.
- Mental health or emotional health functioning and irregularities.
- The child’s views and wishes (subject to their age and maturity level).
- Special needs of the child or children.
- The extended family dynamics including grandparents, aunts and uncles, new partners, siblings, stepsiblings, or half-siblings; and
- Relevant cultural considerations for families of indigenous origins or other foreign cultures.
Whilst very important, it is oft quoted in the Family Law Courts, “Family Report Writer’s don’t make Orders, I make Orders” or such other variation of that decree. They are simply a piece of evidence that is assessed along with all other evidence that is accepted by the Court.
Given the significance of a Family Report, it is important to prepare for your interviews appropriately. Some things to remember:
- You will be assumed to be on your best behaviour, so you don’t have to put on any more of a front than you are.
- Dress respectfully and speak with the Family Report Writer respectfully and professionally. They are just doing their job. Remember that anything you say can be reported verbatim to the Court. A memorable quote from a Family Report that I saw some years ago, which made its way into the final judgement “You can tell Judge X that I don’t care what he says he is (insert many expletives here), I am doing what I want for Child X”. Needless to say, that litigant was not viewed in a particularly favourable light.
- Be mindful that it is not just what is said during your direct interview that can be included in the report. Your interactions in waiting rooms with the staff of the Writer, with your ex and their new partner or family and with your children are all likely to be being observed and form part of the Writer’s assessment of you.
- Do not use the interview process as an opportunity to dig a thousand knives into your ex. Behaviour such as domestic violence, drug use or poor decisions are likely to be raised by the Family Report Writer and you will have an opportunity to address those concerns at that time.
- Be positive about the other parent. It astounds me the number of litigants who think that it is important to say all the bad stuff in order to “win”. It is quite the converse. Showing that you can see the good in the other parent and speak of them with kindness when it comes to their role in your children’s lives and how that is a positive for your children will produce a fair more accurate report. The reality is the cases that a parent has NOTHING to offer to a child are extremely rare indeed.
- Do not be someone you are not. Be honest and candid. Accept when you may have done things wrong, you are human and there are no perfect parents.
- You do not have to present them with “evidence” to support your case. It is likely that they will have or will eventually, read the court documents but as noted above, it is likely their observations and interactions with you and with your children will be more important to a social scientist.
- Do not coach your children about what to do and say during the interviews. There are age appropriate resources available via the Family Court Website to assist in what to say to children and how to say it. Coaching will be patently obvious to an experienced Family Report Writer.
Where time permits, it is important to prepare for your Family Report interviews. An experienced and expert Family Lawyer will be able to speak with you openly and honestly about their concerns for how you may present during the interviews and how to best combat any worrisome behaviour.