Chapman & Timms 2014 FamCA 316

A child aged 11 years was emotionally distressed and the parents disputed the reasons for this distress.  The mother reported that the child suffered violent and unpredictable mood changes when he would attack the mother verbally and would become abusive and say angrily that she was ‘evil’, or he might become sullen and silent.  The mother argued that the child’s oppositional behaviour occurred as the child had observed the father behave in a similar manner towards the mother when the family was intact.  The mother submitted that the father continued to describe her relationship with the child in a negative light when speaking to the child.  The mother alleged that the father used manipulative and surreptitious behaviour to enlist the child into the father’s world, creating a sense of secrecy where the child was encouraged to exclude his mother (alienate).

The father argued that the mother’s dysfunctional relationship with the child was the root cause of the child’s problem.  The father submitted that the child reacted adversely when the child saw the mother trying to restrict the child’s time with the father.   The father proposed to increase his time with the child.

The father acknowledged that he had discussed his personal view about the mother’s friends with the child, and the father agreed with the judge that this was an adult topic that should not have been discussed with a child.

One issue for the judge to determine was whether the child’s involvement in the parental dispute was a direct result of the father’s overt behaviour or whether it was an inadvertent and an unfortunate by-product of the dispute between the high conflict couple.

The school reported that the child socialised well at school, he had a good group of friends, he had no problems with other children and generally he was progressing well.  However the child reported that he wanted to change school as he was being punched by another child.  The child had been diagnosed with oppositional defiant disorder with behaviours cited of soiling his pants and threatening self-harm (temperament).

The family consultant opined that the child exhibited behaviours indicative of a child who was forced to choose between two households and between his parents.  The child had delivered what seemed to be a well-rehearsed list of complaints about his mother (coached).  The family consultant considered that the boy blamed the mother entirely for the family breakdown, had cried when the father cried, was strongly aligned to the father, and had difficulty in making any positive comment about his mother.  The child perceived his father as a victim who needed to be protected, and who was an “all good, all loving parent who can do no wrong”.  The family consultant considered that the child was reacting to the emotional despair of the father.  The family consultant recognised a strong bond between the father and child while recognising a clear tension between the need to protect the child from psychological harm but also to promote a meaningful relationship between the child and both of the parents.

The judge found that the father had attempted to undermine the relationship between the child and mother, and had been manipulative.  The judge found that the child’s behaviour towards the mother was the result of outside influence, and that there was a risk of alienation.  The judge found that neither party had demonstrated any goodwill towards the other, and that the parental conflict had embroiled the child to an extent where the child’s perceptions of reality may well be distorted because of his desire to align with his father’s emotional distress.  The parties were not able to communicate without expressing significant mistrust and suspicion, and both had behaved in ways the judge considered to be punitive towards the other.

The judge ordered that the mother be delegated sole parental responsibility for the child’s health and education with a requirement to consult with the father, and that the parties have shared parental responsibility in relation to other matters. The judge ordered that the father’s time with the child be suspended for a period of four months so that the child’s relationship with the mother could be re-set in light of the father’s manipulation to encourage the child to hate his mother.