Long wait for warring parents

By Deborah Gough
Social Affairs Reporter
October 4, 2004

Estranged parents are waiting up to 15 months to see their children in a supervised setting because there are not enough contact centres in capital cities.

Family Services Australia executive director Libby Davies said she believed the difficulties facing parents was contributing to resentment, which were manifesting itself in right-wing men's groups, such as the Blackshirts.

Blackshirt leader John Abbott was given a suspended jail term last week for stalking a divorced mother.

There are just 35 accredited contact centres nationally that provide supervised child contact visits ordered by the Family Court. Supervised contact is needed in cases of domestic violence, alleged abuse, psychiatric illness or substance abuse, but can also include cases where a parent has no experience of playing with children or handling a baby. They also provide disputing parents a neutral place to pick up and drop off.

One Sydney father has waited 15 months for supervised access to his children at a Parramatta centre, while in Melbourne's north-eastern and southern suburbs waits of up to nine months are common. A service in the west has a short wait.

Ms Davies said delays had got so long that some lawyers had stopped suggesting the centres when the Family Court made supervised contact orders and some parents gave up on waiting and either access was denied or other arrangements made.

Berry Street chief executive officer, Sandie de Wolf, said there was a nine-month wait at its Watsonia centre which was unacceptable.

"It just creates an incredible stress for parents and kids and a lot of anxiety for parents and kids about what might happen and when," Ms de Wolf said.

She said there was no funding to help parents move to unsupervised contact when the time was right.

Ms Davies said the 30 per cent increase in funding announced earlier this year by Prime Minister John Howard would only allow services to maintain their waiting lists because there had been no other increases for three years.

Gordoncare for Children executive director Julie Gummersall said demand was so great that it ran a philanthropically funded centre in Mentone as well as its federally funded Frankston service.

Ms Gummersall said many people were upset by the waiting times. "They are very distressed. People are in a very raw emotional state and often very angry. Sometimes they have gone through a divorce and haven't seen their children for some time."

Family Services Australia has assessed that there is a need for at least five additional centres in Victoria and at least seven in NSW.

A federal Attorney-General spokesman said the Prime Minister in July had committed to implement the findings of a report due out soon. The report comes after a House of Representatives inquiry into family law.

Family Services Australia president Jo Cavanagh said the organisation was unconvinced by the assurances, saying there had been no dollar commitment to funding, and service levels and more details from the report were needed.