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LIV President's Blog
March 30, 2011

The murder of Darcey Freeman must be a catalyst for change.

Arthur Freeman has been found guilty of murdering his four year old daughter. Here are my views of what needs to be discussed and debated as a society to prevent similar things occurring again.
 
The four-year-old's horrific death -- tossed off the West Gate Bridge by her father, Arthur Freeman -- needs to stop us and make us think.
As a society, we need to ask ourselves this question: how can we stop parenting disputes ending in violence? The answer is complex, but for the sake of at least one little girl we need to find it and act on it so we do our best to prevent this type of tragedy ever happening again. 
It is critical that there is greater, continuing support for people who are going through divorce and the painful process of working out parenting arrangements. They are vulnerable and the legal system can be intimidating. 
Psychological counselling services need to be readily accessible to parents who are separating and to their children. They need to be part of a system of checks and balances before, during and after the process. Think of it as an early detection system. Those services should not be confined to what currently occurs – assessment of the parents via a family report.   
Had this family been better supported by psychological services throughout the court process, would we be mourning such a young life lost?  A psychologist might have been able to read the signs, to expertly help Arthur Freeman with his anger, frustration and disappointment.  At present, psychologists are involved primarily in assessment and not support. 
So, the need for greater counselling services for those involved is urgent across the board. Whilst parents can access counselling at any time, once they have completed an attempt at family mediation through private organisations or via the Family Relationship Centres, there are few support services utilised systemically whilst the court process continues. 
Working out the nuts and bolts of separation -- who gets how much, who spends time with which parent -- is a difficult and confronting process whichever way you look at it. However, handled the right way, it can mean both parents walk away from the negotiating table with their concerns heard, their wants met and their dignity intact. These three things are central to a successful custody arrangement.
This is what happens in collaborative law, an alternative to litigation. Collaborative lawyers sign a contract that precludes lawyers going to court. Lawyers for both sides focus 100 per cent of their efforts on tailoring mutually acceptable parenting options, while transparently working around a table with all parties involved in the process -- two parents, two lawyers, and, in children's matters, a psychologist.
In their lawyer, each parent has their champion and together the two sides create an agreement. It is not combative. There is no denigration of either parent. One does not have to prove the other is a "bad" parent.
There is no game play. Rather, they are encouraged to focus on the positives, to preserve what was successful in their relationship. It is a mutual effort to make the best of a bad situation.
When children are involved, there is a collaboratively trained psychologist at the table, too. Their role is not to assess as they would in court, but to support parents as they make important decisions about their future parenting relationship and to help them reality-test possible solutions. 
Within the collaborative process, the need for children to come first is emphasised. I encourage my clients to think of themselves as directors of a company and their children as the shareholders. Like all good company directors, they must constantly ask themselves, what is in the best interests of the shareholders? It's more practical than personal and it works.   However this process is not for everyone and therefore it is critical that when forms of alternative dispute resolution don’t work, are unsuitable or have been exhausted, the court acts swiftly.
It is certainly in the interests of children of divorcing parents to have cases resolved as quickly as possible. It is well documented that it is the fight, not the divorce itself and not the ultimate childcare arrangements, which damages children in these circumstances, in the short and long term.
For children to endure a protracted court dispute that lasts years is torturous. It only exacerbates their trauma. The courts must move faster on resolving cases so everybody, particularly the children, can move on with their lives, to begin healing and rebuilding.
To minimise harm to children, our most vulnerable, in divorce proceedings, more court resources are required. The court system needs to be better supported to ensure access to justice is meaningful. Let an injection of funds, earmarked for more judges and more social services within the Family Court, be a priority for the federal and state governments in the coming year. 
We desperately need shorter waiting times for cases to be heard and more judges to be appointed so that custody arrangements can be dealt with as swiftly as possible.
I do not find it helpful to suggest a solution to these terrible situations is for lawyers to be compelled to disclose threats their clients may make. Clients have the benefit of lawyer/client confidentiality and more often than not, most family law clients in the grip of proceedings will threaten others and themselves without this meaning anything more than an expression of frustration and pain. Lawyers are not trained as counsellors and yet often have to develop those skills to assist their clients better understand and endure what they are experiencing. Whilst lawyers have ethical constraints, as I have often told family law audiences, we are also members of the human race and as such we have moral responsibilities that may take us beyond the bounds of professional privilege. I am aware this poses a conflict but each family lawyer when confronted with this dilemma has to decide where their priorities lie. This is never easy if you have found yourself in that precise situation.
Darcey Iris Freeman's death should not be in vain. We must learn from the lessons that this terrible tragedy has shown us. We must be there for our families and our children in their times of greatest need.
A society is judged on how it treats its weak and its vulnerable and at the moment, we are found wanting.
Leave your comments below to add to this discussion.


Sections of this post were originally published in the Herald Sun
Comments

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Marguerite Picard
I think it is time for a complete media embargo on stories about the death of children in these circumstances. Today's media is filled with voyeuristic details about the latest of these horrible tragedies. Where is the public interest in any of this? It seeems to me that there is a grave risk of this coverage feeding into the aims of the perpetrators, by giving them a notoriety that may well be part of what they seek.

I support Caroline's reference to Collaborative practice, with one difference. The work of a child psychologist in collaborative cases is not the only role for psychologists/counsellors in this setting. It is also helpful to provide parents with the support of a psychologist/counsellor to assist their communciation, and to identify any need for individual therapeutic support, or deep issues that will stand in the way of good negotiation.

Psychological support for parents, particularly in hig conflict separations, is known to be effective . We should all support Caroline's call for that support to be readily accessible to families in separation.

Marguerite Picard
Melbourne Collaborative Alliance
5/05/2011 11:10:48 AM

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