Children at the centre of family breakdowns are at an increasing risk of harm, due to underfunding of Australian family court services, according to a leading family lawyer.
Official figures show children fatally abused by a parent account for one in every five domestic homicides in Australia and many experienced family breakdown prior to the death.
Australians are being urged to “play their part” to promote the safety and wellbeing of children for National Child Protection Week (September 6-12).
Slater and Gordon Family Lawyer Heather McKinnon has been acting as an Independent Children’s Lawyer for 20 years, representing children's best interests in parenting order cases.
Ms McKinnon said the family court has an important role to play in protecting children, but is struggling due to a lack of resources.
“I see so many children get lost in the vortex of family court litigation, with no voice of their own,”
“In the most serious cases, forensic psychiatrists are appointed to assess the family situation and ensure the child’s safety is not at risk.
“Their assessments are critical in protecting children from future harm, but a lack of funding means we are usually only able to afford a quarter of the work that is required.”
Ms McKinnon said the problem is getting worse.
“There have been cases I’ve handled where both parents need urgent psychiatric assessments, but legal aid doesn’t have the capacity to increase the grant amount to cover two people,” Ms McKinnon said.
“In situations like this, Independent Children’s Lawyers rely on the goodwill of psychiatrists to do double the work for an already well below-market cost – it’s an unsustainable system.
“The clincher is that when done properly, seemingly expensive psychiatric assessments are actually extremely cost-effective, because they allow the court to make more accurate orders in the first instance, potentially saving years of litigation to improve original decisions.”
Ms McKinnon said children in situations involving mental illness and substance abuse are the most at risk.
“We see too often that people suffering from psychosis, schizophrenia or other personality disorders can decompensate rapidly and without warning,” Ms McKinnon said.
“Without thorough expert evidence, the court has little chance of recognising these situations, putting children at risk of abuse, maltreatment and, in the most extreme circumstances, death.
“This is no longer a concern for the distant future – this is already happening and we need to intervene before it spirals out of control.”