Government Policies

COAG – Levels of Parenting

The Council of Australian Governments COAG considered child protection matters in 2009 after state governments expressed concern about the increasing numbers of children being removed from the care of their birth parents into long term guardianship following notifications about child protection concerns.  COAG adopted a National Framework to Protect Australia’s Children that identified four levels of parenting and four levels of support that would be funded by state and commonwealth governments.

The four levels of parenting are:

  • adequate parents or competent parents who provide parenting that is good enough, and who co-parent their children.  Competent parents receive universal supports that are available to the whole community.
  • vulnerable family who are eligible for voluntary focused early intervention while the family remains together or intact
  • high-risk families where children are removed while rehabilitation occurs followed by possible re-unification
  • unfit parent whose parenting rights are permanently removed.


Family Assessments

If a separated couple is unable to decide about parenting matters following mediation and they take their dispute to a Circuit Court, then the court is likely to request a family assessment report by a family consultant who has professional training and experience in psychology or social work.

An initial family assessment is usually a broad assessment of family functioning that focuses on issues in dispute that need to be resolved in the best interests of the children.  Initial family reports commonly describe how parents relate to each other and to each child, identify any barriers impeding joint decision-making, and recommend steps to be taken in the best interests of the children.

A family consultant’s report may assess the level of involvement demonstrated by each parent by considering whether parents have taken opportunities:

  • to participate in making decisions about major long term issues in relation to the child
  • to spend time with the child
  • to communicate with the child
  • to fulfil parental obligations to maintain the child


Focused Assessments

Family Circuit Courts may request a focused assessment on topics of family functioning where specific allegations are made such as:

  1. high parental conflict or family violence
  2. a parent not fostering a meaningful relationship with the other parent, or alienating a child from the other parent
  3. alleged impaired parenting capacity
  4. allegations about a poor parent-child relationship, attachment disorder
  5. marked instability in the family environment
  6. safety of a child
  7. a parent involves a child in adult disputes
  8. neglect of a child


Procedures followed by Family Consultants

Procedures followed by family consultants have changed since the 2006 amendments to the Family Law Act.  Before 2006 family consultants commonly compared the relative parenting skills of each parent to identify the better parent who would receive custody and sole parental responsibility.  After 2006 family consultants assess parenting skills against standards of competent parenting that are recognised by court.


Practice Standards for Family Assessors

Practice Standards for Family Assessors have been published by the Family Court.


Confidentiality of Family Reports

Family Courts commonly declare family reports to be confidential to the parties.  Permission of the court is required before a family report can be passed on to a third party such as a therapist who provides treatment/therapy for one member of the family.


Family Relationship Centres

The Australian Government funds Family Relationship Centres to provide mediation and conflict resolution services for separated couples who dispute topics.  Attendance at a Family Relationship Centre is required before separated couples can take their dispute to a Family Law Court.

An evaluation of Family Relationship Centres by the Australian Institute of Family Studies in 2009 found that the majority of couples were helped by the centres, but that about 20% of couples continued to dispute topics and took their disputes on to a family court.


Complex Cases

Family Circuit Courts report that about 40% of cases are more complex as:

  • one parent raises child protection matters by alleging mal-practice by the other parent, or
  • one parent alleges the other lacks parental capacity

Judges are more likely to request a family assessment report in complex cases.

In a complex case, a judge may issue interim orders to allow time for couples to address topics that have been criticised in a family assessment report, and then issue final orders when reports from a family assessor and possibly a therapist have been received and considered.


Authority of Extended Family

Under Australian legislation, the right to make decisions about children belongs to biological or birth parents.  This means that other members of a child’s extended family including grandparents and stepparents do not have an automatic right to make decisions but need to be specifically authorised to make parenting decisions.

Members of an extended family may need to obtain specific legal authorisation to make decisions that fall within the realm of parental responsibility, such as to:

  • collect children from school
  • sign a consent form for a school excursion
  • take a child to a doctor except in an emergency