Chairman of the Government’s peak family law advisory body, the Family Law Council, Professor John Wade, said shared-parenting rules risked creating a generation of ”ping-pong children” being shuttled between warring parents and needed to be changed.
The laws are subject to an automatic review carried out by the Institute of Family Studies this year, and battle lines are being drawn between the increasingly influential parents’ lobby groups.
Some parents groups have welcomed the news of the possible changes, but fathers’ rights campaigners, who lobbied for shared parenting for more than 25 years, have vowed to fight for the retention of the laws.
Under the current laws, the court’s default position in relation to custody is an equal and shared parenting arrangement if it is deemed in the best interest of the child.
Child defence expert witness Charles Pragnell says children are often being placed in dangerous situations by courts forced to consider shared parenting, and gave the recent example of a Melbourne court ordering that an 18-month-old spend alternating weeks with each parent.
”That will have a tremendously traumatic effect on that child, and cause severe and long-lasting emotional harm,” he said.
”Children of that age and older need a sense of belonging, consistency and security.”
He referred to several high-profile cases where courts had placed children in danger with tragic consequences, such as four-year-old Darcy Freeman, who died after her father threw her off Melbourne’s West Gate Bridge in January.
”The law is concerned about parents’ rights, and gives very little account or regard for children’s rights, even those children’s rights under the UN Convention to which Australia was a signatory in 1991, but hasn’t done very much about,” Mr Pragnell said.
”Children’s rights in this country are appalling compared to the UK and European countries.”
A spokeswoman for the National Council of Shared Parenting agreed that the current family laws gave priority to the parents, rather than their children.
She said when one or the other parent was forced into a custody arrangement, this often created unsafe or unhappy environments for their children. ”How do children get protected in all this? Their rights are being forgotten and not heard,” she said.
”It’s an awful situation, and it’s made awful by the fact that it’s so preventable.”
But Lone Fathers’ Association President Barry Williams vowed that the fathers’ movement would lobby hard to retain shared parenting.
”We’ve called for an appointment with [Attorney-General] Robert McClelland, and I’ll be taking quite a few people from quite a few different organisations,” Mr Williams said.
”We’re going to try to convince him not to take any notice of this rot that’s being put out by people with vested interests.
”In cases that we deal with, the children are quite happy and they like the shared parenting arrangements.
”We had 30 years of the old system when hundreds of thousands of children never saw their fathers.”
But one Canberra family lawyer, who did not want to be named, said one of the most frustrating aspects of the law was seeing a parent, usually a father, who had previously had little role in caring for his children and had showed no interest in their wellbeing, suddenly demanding shared custody.
She said the motivation was usually increased child support payments.