Taken by the State

The Newsroom article, Taken By The State, republished by Stuff along with two videos of distressed children being forcibly removed from home by police officers, is harrowing viewing. The videos include interviews with a founding member of the Backbone Collective, (a lobby group for abused mothers) a professor of law, and an associate professor of social work, all of whom responded to the videos with considerable concern.

The Backbone representative was tearful and, among other things, she described the uplifting of children by the police, a “barbaric practice.” The comments from the other two were along similar lines and it is difficult to see the practice as anything other than merciless.

However, the Backbone representative was not impartial and I found the response of the Otago University representatives puzzling. To be fair to the professors, they were mostly concerned at the increase in uplifts following recent legislation which has made things worse.

Yet the consensus that emerged from these interviews was that the family court is to blame for the brutal removal of children following a court order, not the law or the parents.

What was missing from the Newsroom report and the videos was this: The ongoing conflict of custody disputes is usually characterised by hurt, anger and malice taking precedence over the child’s needs. And inevitably the manipulation exercised by parents is adopted by the children. This context was absent in both the report and the videos so let’s take a step back.

The very act of going to court to determine the future of your children suggests   the parents were unable to agree on what was best for their child. Perhaps they tried counselling and then mediation but still disagreed. By this time they would have been advised that by going to court they were handing over their parental authority to a family court judge.

Judge’s rulings are based on a submission from the appointed lawyer for the child, often social work and psychological reports, and submissions from the parent’s lawyers. A court file of previous hearings may also be available. So the judge is guided by various streams of information and facts to reinforce his or her judgement. Parents disappointed by a judges ruling have been known to ask how the judge sleeps at night. I ask the same question from a different point of view. Presiding over the family court takes the wisdom of Solomon and the patience, discernment and sensitivity that few ordinary mortals are capable of. There must be some poor judges yet I have been consistently impressed by the half dozen family court judges I have observed in action.

Custody battles are complicated. Emotions are to the fore. The relationships between separated parents in court mode are not pretty and often involve infidelity, rejection, lies, and possibly abuse, violence and hatred. Still, it is difficult to sympathise with a parent who defies a court ruling knowing the judge is likely to issue a warrant to uplift the child, particularly as the parents know this will be distressing for the child.

Given this context it would have been useful for an examination of the following questions: Who filmed these harrowing experiences? Was the filming for the benefit of the children or motivated by a desire to punish the other parent with evidence of the child’s distress?

Why did the parent not avoid police action (which was still possible) by returning the child to the other parent themselves, if necessary accompanied by police officers, thus reducing the distress for the child if not themselves? And, incidentally, police officers also need to sleep at night.

What was the history of these parents in complying with family court orders? And more to the point, how often had the children been traumatised in this way?

And finally, the media’s blaming of institutions, in this case the family court, for the inadequacies of individuals is now tedious as well as shallow. It would have been refreshing for a little light to be shone on the motives and conduct of parents.

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Chris Horan

Chris is a former social worker, probation officer and Family Court counsellor, living in Hawea in the South Island.