If as parents you cannot reach an agreement about what used to be called the 'custody' of your children following separation or divorce, you might find that you have to participate in a family report.
A family report is a report prepared by a social worker or psychologist after meeting both parents and the children and any other significant carers, such as new partners.
The report will set out the account each parent gives of their own history and describe the relationship between the parents and the children.
Unless the children are very little, they will usually be asked to express their views on what they think the parenting arrangements should be, what they see as the issues, and any concerns they have.
The report can be prepared by agreement for the information of parents or as they approach a mediation or court event. Where there are contested court proceedings on foot, the Court may also order that a family report be prepared to assist the judge to determine what is in the best interests of the children at an interim or final hearing.
Why family reports are important
A family report, although in no way binding on a judge, is often the most critical piece of evidence in a parenting case and the recommendations made by the report writer about what time the children should spend with each parent will be given a great deal of weight by the Court.
Parents often settle their matter based on the report's recommendations without even getting to court.
It is therefore extremely important that parents who are going to see a family report writer be well prepared and have realistic expectations about the process. You are likely to spend only a few hours with the expert but the report that expert produces may have profound implications for the future of your family.
Preparing for a report
Set aside some time to think about your own history and practise giving a concise account of it, as well as be ready to answer the report writer's questions. Re-read any affidavits filed by you or your former partner. Think of something positive to say about your ex's parenting if you can.
Be mindful of some practical things.
Many report writers will comment at length in the report about how children present, how affectionately or not they greet the other parent and any third parties and whether the parent brought appropriate toys, snacks and clothing for the children on the day of the interviews.
Report writers often ask parents and children to engage in a card game as part of the interviews and how you interact with and manage the children during the game and during changeovers with the other parent will all be commented on in the report.
24 years later, I have never forgotten reading a report as a first year lawyer that contained criticism of my client for allowing the children to wear sandals and no cardigans in the middle of winter to the interview. The writer considered that this reflected poorly on my client's parenting ability. Thankfully we were able to convince the judge to depart from the recommendations in the report but I now remind my clients every single time to have all the right equipment for the day!
The focus on the children's best interests
More substantively, the family report writer will be very much focused on the level of conflict to which children are exposed, reflected not only by the parties' own accounts of their shared past but also by how each parent describes the other and what the children say goes on.
Good family report writers will sift through the children's wishes and form a view about whether they have arisen genuinely, based on their own experiences, or are as a result of concerted efforts by a parent to influence the children.
Parents need to be aware that the current fashion of telling children everything and involving them in lots of family or adult decisions, is not the one that the research says is in children's best interests post-separation and will be condemned by the Court.
For example, telling children that we no longer all live in the same house because Mummy or Daddy love someone else and seeking to have the children align themselves against the offending parent, may work for you as a parent in the short term in your grief and distress but often backfires eventually – damaging the children's feelings of self-esteem and security and compromising your success in the family report and the court hearing.
Cooper Grace Ward is a leading Australian law firm based in Brisbane.
This publication is for information only and is not legal advice. You should obtain advice that is specific to your circumstances and not rely on this publication as legal advice. If there are any issues you would like us to advise you on arising from this publication, please contact Cooper Grace Ward Lawyers.