What is a Family Report?
Section 62G(2) of the Family Law Act (1975) provides for the court to direct a family consultant to prepare a family report on matters the court deems relevant.
But what does this mean?
A Family Report is a document prepared by a court appointed psychologist or social worker (usually one of these two professions) for the purposes of providing a recommendation to the court about what is best for children who are part of a matter before the court.
Why use a Family Report?
Judges rely on experts. In criminal matters, they rely on evidence of forensic scientists, eye witness reports and other evidence.
In family matters, there often is no tangible evidence. Sometimes, there is supporting documents but these are not evidence alone ? school reports, psychologist reports, domestic and family violence orders. But more often than not, it is one parent?s version of events against another parent?s version. A family report is used as an expert opinion of the relevant facts and information.
Purpose of the family report?
Section 62G(3A), (3B), (4) and (5) of the Family Law Act (1975) dictate what the report should be about:
- Consideration of the child?s view if the child is mature enough to provide their view and no other special circumstance for not providing their view applies;
- Care, welfare and development of the child;
- Any other matter relevant to the care, welfare and development of the child that the court deems appropriate.
What does a Family Consultant do?
A good family consultant is able to discern the issues, apply theory and make a recommendation.
When you and your child?s other parent disagree about what is best for your children (ie: usually you?re in Court and you?ve asked for Orders that are different from what your ex-spouse is asking for) a court will seek an expert to make a recommendation about the care, welfare and development of your child.
Eg. Dad says Mum is aggressive, relies on alcohol, and the child should live predominantly with him because he has the greater ability to care for the child. Mum says Dad is controlling, smokes marijuana and is always at work so doesn?t have a connection with the child.
The family consultant will interview Mum and Dad and if the child is old enough, talk privately with the child. In some cases, the court may ask the consultant to also interview step parents, siblings, grandparents ? especially if they have filed affidavits, are mentioned in the affidavit material, live with or spend significant time with the child, or any outcome impacts heavily on them.
The consultant will also observe you and your child?s other parent WITH your child. There will be time set aside for you to play with your child inside the consultants meeting rooms. The consultant is looking to see if you can supervise, pay attention to the developmental needs of and adequately discipline your child. The consultant will also be observing how your child responds and reacts to you ? whether they use appropriate eye contact, how they cuddle you, whether they instantly run to you or hang back and are nervous. They will be looking to see if your child relies on you, listens to you, takes cues from you. They will also look to see if your child is looking for their other parent while with you or how many times your toddler asks for their other parent and how you deal with this if it happens.
What will the consultant ask?
In some part, this depends on the issues. Just like in Court, you are being observed from the moment you step in the door until the moment you leave. In order to write the family report, the consultant is making note of everything ? from whether you bring food and toys for your toddler, to what your adolescent is wearing and whether you?re on time.
The most important thing is that you?re honest and that you be yourself. You will be nervous ? this is normal. But be yourself.
At the beginning, there will be general chit-chat to try to put you at ease. They may start by asking you about some history ? when your relationship began, children?s names, date of birth, your work history, general information. Then they will start asking more in depth questions related to the children and why the order you?re asking the court to make is the right order to make for your children. Every question they ask will be about why it is best for your child. It?s very likely they will ask you to describe your child, their favourite foods, shows, activities.
What will the family consultant use as evidence for the family report?
The consultant will read the court material, including affidavits and all other filed material (eg. appendix material).
They will observe the behaviour of your child and apply this to what they know about appropriate reaction and behaviour for a child of that age.
They will judge your presentation, timeliness and preparedness.
They will discern your state of anxiousness ? do you fidget, sweat, drink a lot of water.
They will watch to see how much eye contact you make. They will also listen to how much responsibility you take for the issues raised by the other parent. Do you blame everything on the other parent or are you able to see the part you play? Do you excuse all your own behaviour? Do you twist the truth to appear less guilty? Are you easily angered? Do you react emotionally?
They will also use the observations of you (and other people interviewed) and your child playing.
Role of the Judge
Judges are experts in applying the law. They freely admit they are not specialists in child development, attachment theory or family dynamics.
The role the Judge plays, is to rely on the advice, recommendations and testimony of the family report from the family consultant and then apply it to legal principles from the Family Law Act (1975).
The Judge will listen to legal arguments from your Counsel and if you?re at trial, your evidence on the stand.
The Judge makes the final decision in every instance unless you reach private agreement. Even then though, the Judge has the ability to add clauses or notations into your agreement before singing off on it.
The biggest mistake you can make
Coaching your child and lying about events is the biggest mistake you can make. Family consultants are experienced people watchers. This isn?t the first time they have met families in conflict. They can see through the nonsense and can see patterns of behaviour. They have training in child development, attachment theory and family dynamics. They know about mental illness and behaviour disorders. Don?t try to fool them ? they?re not idiots. Ever heard that saying ?if it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck it is a duck?? Psychologists are trained to see patterns in human behaviour. They will report on what is most likely or most reasonable. If what you?ve been doing looks like parental alienation, they will see it. If you?ve been harassing your ex with criticism and judgement, they will notice. They will report on what is most likely to be the truth, given the evidence they have in front of them.
Other names for a Family Consultant
Other names for a Family Report
Section VII Report
Child Consultant?s Report
What happens when the report is released?
This is really important ? don?t read the family report alone. Read it with your partner, or sit with a good friend. There are rules around sharing the report with unauthorised people so be mindful of this because the court can impose penalties if it is discovered you shared the report without permission. BUT ? don?t be alone when you read it as you are going to want to vent. However, in almost every case I have been part of the report is not as bad as you feel it is!! You may feel like you?ve been misrepresented, lied about, even lied to. Read it once and then try to forget about it for a few days. Go back and read it again a week later.
Problems with family reports
The biggest problem that arises is when the writer has misunderstood the issues. There is likely to be errors in your report ? whether the children?s names are spelt incorrectly or you?ve been referred to as the applicant instead of the respondent ? there will be errors. Report writers are human, they make mistakes. This will upset you. You?re likely to have spent thousands on this report and it is a defining moment in your case so your anger is justified. Like I said before though, the professionals on whom you?re relying have done this before ? they?ve seen flawed reports and worked with them; the Judge knows the issues and knows the names of your children. While the inaccuracies will upset you, they won?t impact the outcome. The outcome will only be influenced by the consultants ability to discern the issues and make appropriate recommendations. Focus only on the issues. Don?t worry that the report writer said you met in 2000 when you met in 2006. There will also be typographical errors (typo?s). Maybe your child?s name is Jakob and it is typed as Jacob. It matters to you, but it doesn?t matter to the content of the report. If the issue is that you?ve applied for unsupervised time and the writer reports as though you already have unsupervised time, THIS is an error. A mistake like this will effect the recommendations. Again though, your lawyer knows how to combat things like this.
Remember ? no two matters are the same. Just because your sister was included in the family consultant interviews when her new partner was in court, doesn?t mean that you will be included in your new partners matter. No two families are the same ? even when they have similar issues ? so no two family court proceedings are the same.
I don?t want to scare you, but a family report is a really, really big deal. This report will in most part, be the deciding material in the matter. If you go to trial, you (your lawyer) have the ability to cross examine the report writer. This means you can challenge their recommendations and findings. But generally, unless there are big flaws, the report recommendations will stand. This few hours of interviews may be the deciding factor in the relationship you have with your child for the rest of their childhood. Take it seriously.
For more information about family reports, the Family Court of Australia website has an information sheet.