Jennifer E. McIntosh and Caroline Long

Report to the Family Court of Australia

Jennifer E. McIntosh & Caroline Long
July 2007

The Authors

Jennifer McIntosh (BA. Hons., M. Psych (Clin. Child Psych.), Ph.D., MAPS) is the Principal Investigator in this evaluation. Jenn is a clinical child psychologist and researcher, holding adjunct positions of Associate Professor at La Trobe University and Senior Lecturer at the University of Melbourne. She is the Director of Family Transitions.

Caroline Long (B.A., Dip. Ed. Psych., M. Psych. (Clin.), MAPS) is Research Manager at Family Transitions. Caroline is a clinical psychologist with extensive experience in diverse research and clinical settings.

Family Transitions is a clinical, research and training consultancy dedicated to the needs of children and parents experiencing family trauma and transitions, and the support of professionals who work with them.

Acknowledgements

The authors thank the Family Consultants of the Melbourne Family Court for their invaluable assistance.

The intellectual property and copyright in this material vests in Family Transitions Pty/Ltd. The views expressed in this report are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Family Court of Australia.

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AUSTRALIA.
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Correspondence to enquiries@familytransitions.com.au

The Child Responsive Program Pilot, within the Less Adversarial Trial: A follow up study of parent and child outcomes

Introduction

This report describes a follow-up study of the Child Responsive Program (CRP), piloted in the Registries of Melbourne and Dandenong in 2006. An initial evaluation was conducted, with a report in September 2006 providing baseline data on families using the CRP, together with 49 parents' immediate impressions of the CRP and its impacts. The report included several case studies and the results of a practitioner focus group. This current report deals with data from 77 parents from 54 matters, who responded to a follow up survey, four months after settlement. This report should optimally be read in conjunction with the first evaluation report, where the background of the Child Responsive Program and this study are detailed.

The Child Responsive Model as a new "front end" to the Family Court of Australia

The Family Court of Australia introduced a series of significant changes to its role in and response to post-separation parenting disputes. These changes and their socio-legal history are detailed in the recent publication, Finding a Better Way (Harrison, 2007). In summary, the Less Adversarial Trial (LAT, formerly known as the Children's Cases Program) was the first of these major initiatives. The LAT is a supportive Court process for separating parents, aiming to maximise early and effective dispute resolution, without full adversarial armoury. It focuses on the interests of the child and the parents' proposals for the future of each child, rather than the past history of the parties' relationships. Each case is closely managed by one Judge, who actively determines the issues to be decided and the way in which evidence will be heard. Crucially, the less formal, supportive and available manner of the LAT Judge appeared to create better outcomes for parents and their children than were achieved through the mainstream court process (McIntosh, 2006).

The Child Responsive Program (CRP) is the second major initiative in the Court's recent reforms. Designed as a stand alone or integrated intervention, it provides an improved screening and support intervention, to rapidly engage parents in supported consideration of their children's experiences and needs related to the dispute. The CRP aims to assist pre-trial settlement where possible, and where a trial is required, to complement the work of the LAT.

Elaboration on the Child Responsive Program

The Child Responsive Program is staffed by social science specialists, called Family Consultants (FC). One FC is allocated to each case for the life of the Court's involvement. Following the viewing of a parent education DVD, each parent has individual time with the FC, to discuss history and current concerns related to the dispute and the children's well-being and future care. The FC explores each parent's personal views and their respective needs, intent, maturity and capacity to focus on productive dispute resolution.

Drawing on evidence about the efficacy of Child Inclusive Family Law interventions (McIntosh and Long, 2006), the Child Responsive Program includes a specialised, private consultation with school-aged children over whom proceedings have been issued. These interviews with children occur early in the pre-Court assessment. It screens the developmental needs and emotional 'equilibrium' of each child with respect to their parents' dispute, and the child's views on the options available for resolution. Children are not placed in a decision-making role, nor are they expected to communicate directly with their parents. Rather, the brief assessment explores the psychological adjustment of each child, their attachment relationships and their feelings about different care options. The children's assessment is then summarised in a Preliminary Report by the FC, which is presented and discussed with parents in a feedback session to which their legal representatives are also party.

This meeting with children was designed foremost to offer children an opportunity to debrief, and ultimately to help their parents focus on the children's needs and interests more mindfully within their negotiations. The intent was that this intervention alone might assist some parents to resolve their matters without needing to proceed to trial, with consequent benefits in parental empowerment, time, expense and reduced litigation. In the event that matters do not settle during the pre-trial interventions, the FC's report then informs the Judge about the issues screened, efficiently bringing the children's needs and unique views into the Court's earliest focus. Once the LAT commences, the FC continues to accompany the matter, providing informal and expert evidence as needed, and following through with more detailed Family Reports as requested by the Judge. The role of the FC continues beyond the final Orders, through a follow up interview with parents (and at times children) to ensure that Orders made are understood and to assist with referrals to services where necessary, to further support parents and children.

Summary of the first CRP evaluation findings

The first evaluation in 2006 explored the characteristics of families who participated in the new Child Responsive Program in the registries of Melbourne and Dandenong, during early 2006. The shape of parental conflict and cooperation was explored through an entry survey, and re-evaluated at the point of exit from the CRP process. Parents' impressions of and immediate outcomes from the CRP were explored. The findings from 49 parents, whose matters had finalised at that time, were encouraging, including the following:

  1. A striking increase in parents' willingness to attempt to cooperate with each other immediately following the CRP intervention.
  2. The majority of parents (70%) found the role of the Family Consultant supportive and helpful. Only four of 49 parents reported a negative experience with the FC.
  3. Forty-seven of the 49 parents reported a positive experience and outcome for their children from the CRP children's interview.
  4. The majority of parents found the feedback they received about their children's needs and views to be a highly influential and insightful aspect of their Court process.
  5. A trend for reduction in minor conflict, acrimony and distrust was evident between the parents immediately upon completion of the CRP.
  6. Parents reported high levels of satisfaction after CRP, with children's living and visiting arrangements decided during the process.
  7. Ninety percent of the sample left the CRP with a strong sense of how to carry on in the management of their separation and dispute, from that point.
  8. The Family Consultants uniformly experienced the CRP as a powerful and preferred way of working with families pre-Court.
  9. An important screening role was identified for the CRP in the early detection of children who required Child Protection involvement, or therapeutic services, and of parents who required early, specialist services to assist the management of their separation, particularly those with personality or mental health disorders.

The Current Follow-Up Study

Methodology

The data reported in this paper are from a survey of parents four months after the completion of their Court matter (this included matters on Interim Orders). Parents had already completed an entry survey, prior to the CRP phase of their Court journey and an exit survey, within two weeks of the last CRP contact. Parents who did not respond to a mailed survey were followed up by telephone, and approximately 20% of the interviews were completed over the telephone with a researcher.

Of the original sample, pre and post data were available for 77 parents from 54 cases (61% of the original sample; which is a good retention rate for this type of study). There were no significant demographic differences between parents who continued in the study and those who did not, however a trend was evident for parents who were more dissatisfied with their immediate CRP outcomes, to complete the follow up survey.

As families had been followed from their entry into the Child Responsive Program, through to four months post settlement, the data afford the opportunity for repeated measures analysis. Specific hypotheses were not formed, and the analyses remained exploratory.

The sample

A gender balance was achieved in this sample, with 49% fathers and 51% mothers, reporting on 128 children1. Sixty-two percent of the children concerned were boys. Twenty-three percent of children involved were in the pre-school years or infancy, 55% were in primary school and 22% were in secondary school.

One third of the parents' relationships had lasted for less than five years. Forty-seven percent presented to Court within two years of separation. Twenty percent had been separated for longer than five years. Thirty-two percent of parents surveyed were now co-habiting in a new relationship, and 50% of those involved step-children.

Characteristics of those who settled in the Child Responsive Program

Forty percent of the matters studied concluded by consent during the CRP. Sixty percent went on to a Less Adversarial Trial. Some parents appeared confused about where and when their matter was actually settled, but it appears overall, that approximately thirty percent of the matters studied were settled by or were in the process of settlement by Judicial determination, and thirty percent in a "door of the Court" settlement, facilitated by legal parties.

Differences between parents who settled following the CRP intervention and those who went on to the Less Adversarial Trial were explored. The cases were not distinguishable on demographic grounds (income, LOTE, education, age), nor on levels of conflict or acrimony. There were equal numbers of self-represented litigants in each group and of matters with children who were separately represented. LAT parents were, however, significantly more likely to be worried that their children were unsafe in the care of the other parent and to have a history of Child Protection involvement. That is, complex cases with dominant child safety issues appear to have (appropriately) gone beyond the CRP for Judicial attention.

Children's main residence four months post Court

Prior to Court, 76% of 116 children were in the care of their mothers for more than one night per week. Post Court this increased to 86% (p = .025). Before Court, 16% of children had no overnight contact with their mothers, and after Court, this had fallen to seven percent of children.

More dramatic, were the figures regarding contact with the father. Prior to Court, 32% of children spent (on average) more than one night per week in the care of their fathers. Post Court, this figure rose to 49%, a significant gain (p < .000). The vast majority of children (79%) were in the care of their father at least one night per month.

Prior to the matter appearing in Court, in 24% of these cases, children never had overnight contact with their father, and post court, this figure fell slightly to 21%. This study is not in a position to comment on the appropriateness for these children of having no contact with their father or mother, however, histories of Child Protection involvement were reported in 33% of these matters.

Parents with a weekly residential parent role were asked to rate how much they perceived their children enjoyed contact with their other parent. Nine percent of the children concerned (n = 12 out of 132) refused contact four months after Court. A further eleven percent were reported to severely dislike contact with the other parent. Forty-three percent were rated as enjoying time with the other parent, and 37% were described as having mixed feelings.

Substantially shared care

Complete data was available pre and post Court for 85 children. In this sample, repeated measures analyses showed a significant increase (p = .006) in the number of children who left Court in a substantially shared care arrangement, compared to those who entered Court in this arrangement. This occurred across all stages of the children's development. Twenty-eight percent of these children entered Court and 46% left Court in a shared care arrangement, that is, five nights per fortnight or more, in the care of each parent. It appears from parent report that half of these matters were on Interim Orders.

This outcome occurs in the context of significant legislative changes which took effect from July 1st, 2006, imposing an obligation on the Court to "...¦consider whether the child spending equal time with each of the parents....", or otherwise "...¦whether the child spending substantial and significant time with each of the parents would be in the best interests of the child..." (Sections 65DAA(1)(a) & 65DAA(2)(a), Family Law Act 1975). Corresponding obligations to inform parents that they could consider such arrangements were also placed on Legal Practitioners, Family Counsellors, Family Dispute Resolution Practitioners and Family Consultants (Section 63DA, Family Law Act).

In light of these legislative reforms, an increase in shared care can be seen as a mark of success. However, this study and previous research (McIntosh and Long, 2006) identified data suggesting that increased shared care in this Court sample proved less than successful for the emotional well-being of certain groups of children, post settlement. These analyses and findings are detailed in a later section.

The decisions made: Satisfaction and durability

Four months following Court, decisions reached during the CRP or LAT process were still fully in place for 72% of cases. Seven percent were awaiting final Orders, 8% had completely fallen through, and 13% were partly in place. Four months post Court, 69% of mothers and 53% of fathers reported they were satisfied with the decisions reached in the Court process, regardless of whether their matter had completed at the CRP stage or had proceeded to LAT. There was no significant difference between satisfaction rates of respondents and applicants.

The impacts of CRP and LAT on parents' relationship and parenting

i) Co-parent relationship

Overall, 62% of parents (n = 38) reported a negative impact of the Family Court process on their parenting relationship, specifically their regard for one another. This was heightened for parents who continued beyond the CRP intervention.

  • Fifty-six percent of parents who settled during the CRP phase reported that their relationship with the other parent suffered as a result of this Court process.
  • Twenty-six percent of this CRP sample said their relationship with the other parent had improved as a result of the court process. There was a strong trend for CRP-only parents to report greater improvement in parenting relationships when compared with parents who proceeded to LAT (37% CRM: 13% LAT).
  • Seventy-three percent of parents who went on beyond the CRP, reported that their relationship with the other parent suffered as a result. Of concern, this latter result is similar to that reported by parents who went through full adversarial court process, as researched in the NSW Children's Case Pilot (McIntosh, 2006).

ii) Parental cooperation

Overall levels of cooperation between parents increased post LAT, with 19% of parents at intake reporting adequate cooperation, and 37% post Court. Thirty-three percent felt they now handled conflict better between themselves, and 67% reported protecting their children better from conflict. Those who went through only the CRP differed significantly post Court from those who went further in the LAT process on two variables: they reported significantly better cooperation and significantly better management of their conflict with their former partner.2

iii) Relationships with children

Seventy-six percent of respondents reported that their relationship with their children had improved as a result of the Court intervention, and this was constant across the CRP only sample and the Court sample.

It is interesting to compare these data with the Children's Cases Project data, from a comparable study. In the Children's Cases sample of parents, 43% (n = 21) reported improvement in their relationship with their children. That 76% of Child Responsive parents indicate improvement in the parent-child relationship may suggest that the additional CRP element is providing a further and important intervention for parents around the consolidation and recovery of their relationships with their children.

Court impact on safety and conflict

Post Court, repeated measures analyses show a significant reduction in the degree to which parents worried about their children being unsafe in the care of the other parent.3 There was a trend for decreased acrimony between parents, however no significant reduction in overall levels of conflict reported between parents.

There was a significant reduction in parents' levels of concern about their children's safety when in the care of the other parent.

Being a client in the CRP and LAT processes

Many parents reported a positive experience of the Family Consultants, with 69% reporting they felt well supported by the FC and 60% indicating they felt listened to and their children's needs were understood. Fifty-eight percent continued to regard their FC as having been supportive. These numbers are comparable to parent self-report shortly after completing CRP.

A clear majority of parents (79%) left the CRP process feeling clear about what their next steps should be in the management of their parenting issues. The CRP was described as helpful overall by 62% of parents.

The CRP process evoked a more positive response from parents generally, with more parents reporting that they felt listened to, more positive accounts of their Court experience, and greater optimism about durability than did parents who entered the LAT phase of the court process (see Table 1 below).

Table 1: Comparison of parents' experience of the Court processes

Parents' experience CRP only LAT Overall
Did not feel listened to 20%
n = 30
42%
n = 47
30%
Felt supported as parents 64% 48% 54%
Felt their children's needs were understood 67% 55% 59%
Confident their decisions would last 65% 48% 55%

Differences in the above outcomes need to be considered in light of the varying nature of parents who attended the two court streams (i.e. cases requiring trial were likely to involve more complex issues such as Child Protection histories). At the least, it can be said that resolution at the CRP stage appears to shield parents from the negative consequences engendered by the subsequent strain of ongoing litigation.

Qualitative findings

Narrative data from 39 interviews with parents were coded for the main themes around the core research questions, in particular, the impact on children. The gender ratio between mothers and fathers was equal in the data below, unless otherwise indicated.

What was most helpful for your children?

Parents were asked to consider what aspect of the CRP had the most positive impact on their children. The most common response referred to the children having their views heard. Clearly many parents were cognizant of the potential benefits to their children of having a protected forum to express their ideas and concerns about their parents' separation. Previous research (McIntosh & Long, 2006) indicated that parents were more likely to trust information gathered by an independent specialist in such a forum, rather than information reported by the other parent or carer. An independent interviewer bypassed the role of one parent as the 'gatekeeper' of information and enabled the corresponding parent to better hear what the child had to say.

Children had a voice and views were heard

59%

Increased time with non resident parent

18%

Regular routine / rules in place

13%

Parenting has improved

5%

Better relationship with the child now

5%

Parents who indicated their children benefited from a regular routine, referred to their family's need to come to a set of agreements after a period of uncertainty, and for those arrangements to be formally expressed. A number of parents said that decisions made in the Court environment, either CRP or LAT, resulted in routines and arrangements that they believed were more likely to be adhered to by the other party.

Parents in this sample who went on to the LAT commented on unhelpful aspects of the Court process for their children in seven cases. The concerns they raised were:

  • The children were not listened to about their fear of seeing their other parent or they were too frightened to speak out. (This was mentioned in four cases.)
  • The Child Representative focused on irrelevant information.
  • No monitoring was put in place for a controversial contact Order.
  • The child was coached. (Two unrelated parents identified this.)
  • The Family Consultant's interaction with child was positive, but the child did not feel listened to in resulting Orders made through a Court Registrar.

In considering these concerns, it is important to recognise both that the CRP interview took place in a single session. Some parents were dissatisfied if information they were given did not match their own perceptions, and had no opportunity for recourse or review, unless a Family Report was ordered. Dissatisfied parents who went on to a full report also protested about the lack of recourse given them to respond to Family Reports with which they disagreed in part or in full (see later section).

What aspect of the Court process was most helpful for parents?

Similarly, parents were asked to consider what had been particularly helpful for them from the Court process, in their role as parents. A third of parents (n = 11 out of 33 responses) reported benefiting from information about the way in which their children were affected by the discord between them and their former partner. Some parents indicated they had previously been unaware of the ways in which their children were affected, or had not appreciated how aware their children were of the conflict.

A third of parents who went through to the LAT found the Judge was a critical factor, amplified through the intentional informality of the Court and the direct discourse allowed between the Judge and the parents. This is in contrast to traditional Court procedure, in which communication to the Judge occurs via the legal representative. Only a modest number of parents identified the improved speed with which matters were heard, as a key benefit, although in telephone interviews, parents often acknowledged this as an advantage, if prompted.

Recognised how my children experience our conflict

33%

The Judge

33%4

A set of rules was established

15%

Increased contact time

12%

Fast timeline

12%

Learned better parenting skills

9%

What was most unhelpful for parents?

Parents identified what had been particularly unhelpful about their Court experience revealing common experiences of powerlessness, even in this facilitated environment.

Parent's concerns not taken into consideration

36%

No opportunity for recourse re Family Report

36%

High legal costs

27%

LAT was unexpectedly lawyer driven and adversarial

9%

Many parents who were frustrated by having no opportunity to correct a Family Report said they believed there were errors of fact or of emphasis and there was no evident procedure to enable them to query or challenge these. High legal costs were a recurring complaint for many people attending Court, but some parents indicated their awareness that the costs of legal representation were at least moderated by the improved speed with which cases were heard. Still others noted that CRM and LAT reduced their dependence on legal representation. Four parents said after Court that, had they clearly understood how LAT operated, with its emphasis on less formal protocols, they would not have engaged a lawyer to attend with them, seeing the expense involved as unnecessary and the role less pivotal. Also frequently mentioned as unhelpful, was the dearth of services in regional centres and the consequent long travel times required to attend Court in Melbourne, necessitating leave from work and children's absence from school. One shift worker wrote about his experience of being awake for 56 hours straight, having come off a shift, driven to Court, attended Court, only to have the matter adjourned, driven back to the country and returned to his next shift.

Children's Emotional Well-Being

This follow-up study provided the opportunity to explore the emotional adjustment of children four months after determination of child-related matters in Court. Using the Emotional Symptoms Subscale of the Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire (Goodman, 1997), a brief behavioural screening questionnaire, parents were asked to rate their children's functioning across domains of anxiety, tearfulness, fearfulness, psychosomatic symptoms, and separation anxiety. Data for 111 children, aged three years and over, was obtained from parents who had overnight care of them.

This scale helps to distinguish those children with normal, commonly occurring levels of anxiety from those who are in what is called the "clinical range". The clinical range can be thought of as a concerning level of functioning that warrants professional intervention, i.e. counseling or specialist child psychiatry services. In the general, normative population in Australia, about 14% of children would normally fall into this category (Sawyer, et al., 2000). In this current Family Court sample of 111 children, 28% of scores were in the clinical range, indicating a high degree of emotional distress. At a global level, this figure is slightly higher than rates found at the same follow up period in an earlier study of the NSW Children's Case Pilot, but significantly lower than the very high rates of emotional distress (46%) reported in children whose parents had participated in an adversarial trial (McIntosh, 2006).

The data from the current study were explored to see what might account for poor emotional functioning in children post Court. Multiple regression modeling was used, controlling for whether the parent was applicant or respondent (respondents were significantly more likely to report negative mental health outcomes for their children)5. Of the 192 variables explored in the study, the following five variables together best accounted for children's poor emotional outcomes:

  1. The child was unhappy with their living and care arrangements.
  2. The parent's relationship with the child had not improved post Court.
  3. The child lived in substantially shared care (35% or greater).
  4. The parent had concerns about child's safety when in the care of the other parent.
  5. The parents remained in high conflict.

These findings closely echo those from a larger longitudinal study of divorced families (McIntosh & Long, 2006). The emotional climate in which these children share their lives between their parents is further illustrated by the following findings:

  • In four of the shared care cases in this CRP study, parents reported never having contact of any kind with each other. Presumably, the children in each of these families were responsible for conveying day-to-day messages between their parents, involving them directly in potentially unpleasant communications about and between their parents.
  • Seventy-three percent of parents involved in shared care arrangements post Court (41 of 56 parents) reported 'almost never' co-operating with each other.
  • Thirty-nine percent of shared care parents reported "never" being able to protect their children from their conflict.

These data offer an important caution within the current climate of obligation upon the Court to "...¦consider whether the child spending equal time with each of the parents...." or otherwise "...¦whether the child spending substantial and significant time with each of the parents would be in the best interests of the child..." (Family Law Act, 1975). The developmental impacts upon a child who experiences a poor or unavailable parental relationship, and whose parents are in high conflict over time, are already well documented (McIntosh, 2003; Kelly, 2000; Kelly & Emery, 2003). The data from this study suggest that a significant proportion of children emerged from Court under conditions that meant substantially shared care between their parents posed a psychological strain upon them. Seventy percent of these Orders were made by consent, either in the CRP or out of Court settlement. Thirty percent were Judicially determined.

It seems important that all Court staff, and the legal profession in general, are aware of the conditions under which substantially shared care is likely to strain rather than support children. While further research needs to be done in this area, this study, like another recent study of a high conflict community sample (McIntosh, Wells and Long, 2007), identifies key predictive factors that need to be looked for and given weight in recommendations and Orders around substantially shared care. In essence, emotional difficulties emerge most strongly for the young child (aged under ten) living in shared care when:

  • The care climate is marked by apprehension about the child's safety,
  • At least one parent reports a poor relationship with the child,
  • An alliance between the parents is absent,
  • Considerable levels of inter-parental conflict remain present, and
  • The child is unhappy with the substantial division of their time and life.

With these variables all operating simultaneously, the levels of anxiety and worry evident in these children are of little surprise.

It is equally important to note that substantially shared care was not associated with poor outcomes for children when parents were cooperative, conflict well managed and parent-child relationships were reported to be strong or considerably improved post Court. The issue is not that shared care is harmful per se, but that the regular movement of children through a cross-fire of acrimony between parents who do not cooperate, brings accumulating and damaging levels of stress to children who are imperfectly, if at all, shielded from that discord.

Referral function of the CRP

One third of parents reported they were referred on from the CRP to a support service in the community, such as personal therapy or alcohol/drug counselling. However, four months post Court, only 40% of these parents had followed through with the referral. This indicates a need for follow up with parents and the facilitation of "warm" referrals by the Family Consultant, that actively and quickly engage the parent with their new counsellor or therapist.

Summary

This research paper reports on follow up data from 77 parents, involved in 54 independent matters in the Registries of Melbourne and Dandenong, during 2006-2007. There were 128 children involved in these matters. The study looked at post Court outcomes, concentrating specifically on progress made through participation in the Child Responsive Program (CRP), the new "front end" education, assessment and child inclusive dispute resolution pilot program in the Family Court. Comment is also made on those cases who proceeded through to or toward the Less Adversarial Trial (LAT).

Forty percent of the matters studied concluded by consent and were diverted from the LAT following the Child Responsive intervention. Four months after CRP involvement, the majority of the decisions (72%) reached there remained in place, and a majority of mothers remained satisfied with those decisions (69%). Fathers overall were less positive about the decisions reached; 53% remained satisfied with the decisions reached in the Court process four months post settlement. Sixty-two percent overall reported that the CRP had been helpful to them. The majority (59%) identified "Having my children seen and heard" as the most valuable aspect of the program, together with the greater recognition of "...how my children experience our conflict"(33%).

Negative or mixed findings in this study did not arise out of the CRP per se, but from the Court process overall and specifically from the nature of children's well-being outcomes:

  1. A small but significant proportion of parents commented on the LAT being unexpectedly lawyer driven and adversarial, which conflicted with their understanding of what this new process was offering.
  2. Most country residents complained about the lack of services in regional centres, requiring long trips, and necessitating leave from work and children's absence from school.
  3. Overall, 62% of parents (n = 38) reported a negative impact of the Family Court process on their parenting relationship, specifically on their regard for one another. This was heightened for parents who continued beyond the CRP intervention into the LAT (73%).
  4. In contrast to findings from the Children's Cases Program Pilot (McIntosh, 2006), that identified a Court process, which did "no further harm" to parental relationships, the current findings were not as positive. It has to be remembered that, after July 1st 2006, the Melbourne sample were not "opt in" clients of the LAT, as they were in Sydney, and may have differed in important ways from the Sydney sample. Nonetheless further consideration could be given to processes within the program and to training of both CRP and Judicial staff around elements of intervention that safeguard or contribute to parental alliance.
  5. Work around referral follow-up is indicated. It is beyond the scope of a brief intervention like the CRP to make serious inroads into very damaged parental relationships, and referral on to therapeutic and support services is necessary for many. However, with only 40% of parents following through on the referrals made by the CRP, the likelihood of effective long term change is further diminished.

Finally, in the arena of "mixed outcomes", there was a significant increase in the number of children who left Court in a substantially shared care arrangement (46% post-Court: shared care being defined here as a minimum of a 5:9 overnight ratio between parents). This increase occurred across all age levels of children. In turn, 'shared care' was highly associated with poor emotional outcomes for children, when it occurred simultaneously with ongoing high conflict between parents, safety concerns, poor parent-child relationships and when the child was personally unhappy with the arrangement. These data offer important guidelines about the conditions under which substantial and significant time with each parent is not likely to be in a child's best interests.

Major gains from the CRP/LAT process identified through this study included the following:

  1. Overall levels of cooperation between parents increased post Court, with 19% of parents at intake reporting adequate co-operation, compared with 37% post Court.
  2. There was a trend for decreased acrimony between parents post Court. A third of parents reported that they continued to manage their conflict better (although levels of actual conflict did not significantly decrease), and 37% reported an improved relationship with the other parent as a result of the CRP.
  3. The majority of parents (67%) reported continuing to protect their children better from their conflict.
  4. Seventy-six percent (76%) of respondents reported that their relationship with their children had improved as a result of the CRP intervention.
  5. A significant and dramatic increase overall in time spent with fathers was noted in this sample, as were arrangements that brought about restoration of time with mothers.

Study Limitations

The sample size in this study was relatively small, and the follow up period was confined to only four months post settlement, hence longer term durability of outcomes could not be explored. Findings were strengthened, however, by a repeated measures design. Verification of the representative nature of this sample against the wider Court population would be highly desirable; unfortunately at the time of writing, the Court's newly established database was not fully operational.

Conclusion

Through this second evaluation study of the Child Responsive Program, short- term outcome data suggest that, in addition to offering face-to-face support and the experience of being heard to all members of the family, the CRP has impacted significantly on parents' perceptions of their relationships with their children. This is a core factor in the long- term well-being of children in high conflict divorce. The experience of hearing from their own children through the more objective person of the Family Consultant, offered many parents lasting insights. While overall levels of conflict did not diminish for this complex group of litigants, most parents reported significant gains in being able to better protect their children from that conflict. The Child Responsive Program, as a new front end to Less Adversarial Trials, offers a brief but significant intervention in the lives of highly conflicted, separated families, diverting 40% away from litigation and the additional strains that Court appearance brings, with 73% durability of arrangements arrived at the CRP.

Together with the Less Adversarial Trial, the Child Responsive Program Pilot presents a solid beginning in the Court's wider efforts to embrace responsibility for assisting, wherever possible, the psychology of family separation.

References

Goodman, R. (1997). The strengths and difficulties questionnaire: A research note. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 38 (5), 581-586.

Harrison, M. (2007). Finding a Better Way. Family Court of Australia publication accessed on 10/07/07 at http://www.familycourt.gov.au/wps/wcm/connect/fcoaweb/reports-and-publications/reports/2007/FCOA_pr_Finding_Better_Way

Kelly, J.B. (2000). Children's adjustment in conflicted marriage and divorce: a decade review of research. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 39, 963-983.

Kelly, J.B. & Emery, R. E. (2003). Children's adjustment following divorce: Risk and resilience perspectives. Family Relations, 52, 352-362.

McIntosh, J.E. (2003). Enduring conflict in parental separation: Pathways of impact on child development. Journal of Family Studies, 9(1), 63-80.

McIntosh, J.E. (2006). Children's Cases Pilot Project: An exploratory study of impacts on parenting capacity and child well-being. Final Report to the Family Court of Australia, accessed on 12/07/07 at http://www.familycourt.gov.au/wps/wcm/connect/fcoaweb/reports-and-publications/reports/2006/FCOA_pr_Childrens_Cases_Pilot_Project

McIntosh, J.E., & Long, C.M. (2006). Children Beyond Dispute: A prospective study of outcomes from child focused and child inclusive post-separation family dispute resolution, Australian Government Attorney-General's Department, accessed on 12/07/07 at http://www.ag.gov.au/Publications/Pages/ChildrenBeyondDispute-October2006.aspx

McIntosh, J.E., & Long, C.M. (2006). The Child Responsive Program Evaluation. A report to the Family Court of Australia. Unpublished.

McIntosh, J.E., Wells, Y.D., & Long, C.M., (2007). Child Focused and Child Inclusive Family Law Dispute Resolution. One year findings from a prospective study of outcomes. Journal of Family Studies, 13(1), 8-25.

Sawyer, M.G., Arney, F.M., Baghurst, P.S., Clark, J.J., Graetz, B.W., Kosky, R.J., Nurcombe, B., Patton, G., Prior, M.R., Raphael, B., Rey, J., Whaites, L.C., & Zubrick, S.R. (2000). The Mental Health of Young People in Australia. The Child and Adolescent Component of the National Survey of Mental Health and Well-Being. Canberra: Australian Government Printing Service.

Sections 65DAA(1)(a) & 65DAA(2)(a), Family Law Act 1975 (as amended) Commonwealth.

Section 63DA, Family Law Act 1975 (as amended) Commonwealth.

Appendix 1

Table 2: Multiple regression outcomes: predicting children's emotional symptoms

Model B Unstandardized Coefficients 
Std Error
Standardized Coefficients 
Beta
t Sig.
(Constant)

5.269

1.002

 

5.258

.000

Sub shared care at follow up

1.319

.521

.250

2.532

.014

Child is satisfied at follow up

-2.711

.728

-.389

-3.723

.000

Relationship with child improved

-.631

.183

-.340

-3.450

.001

Children seen to be unsafe with other parent

-1.393

.659

-.230

-2.115

.038

Parents' conflict

.499

.265

.215

1.885

.054

a Dependent Variable: Emotional Symptoms total score

Footnotes
1 Numbers reported in tables will vary slightly according to the completion of survey data by parents, and ages of children. 
2 (Pearson chi-square = .026 and .043 respectively, n = 72 parents)
3 p = .035, n = 44.
4 One third of parents (n = 27) who went before a Judge mentioned their positive impact.
5 See appendix for regression table.