Family Mediation: Confidence, Culture and Cooperation

By Moloney, Lawrie | Journal of Family Studies, December 2011 | Go to article overview

Family Mediation: Confidence, Culture and Cooperation


Moloney, Lawrie, Journal of Family Studies


... I want to know if you are willing, to live day by day with the consequences (love and the bitter unwanted passion of your sure defeat ...

--David Whyte (2)

Those who offer professional assistance in complex and emotionally charged post separation parenting disputes may have been surprised to read the results of the Australian Institute of Family Studies (AIFS) survey of just over 10000 parents who had separated after the 2006 family law reforms. The survey, part of the AIFS evaluation of the 2006 family law reforms (Kaspiew et al., 2009), found that an average of 15 months after their separation,

* 62% of parents reported having friendly or cooperative relationships with each other;

* 19% said their relationship was distant;

* 14% rated the relationship as highly conflicted; and

* 5% (7% mothers and 3% fathers) rated the relationship as fearful.

Of some consequence is the fact that the 'fearful' rating was the only one in which significant gender differences were reported.

These and other data from the AIFS evaluation serve to remind those engaged in promoting the welfare of children and families that the majority of parents appear to find ways of handling the process of separating reasonably well, while about a fifth seem to cope by preserving or developing a relationship that is primarily functional and business like. (3) Beyond that however, is another fifth whose post separation relationships are quite problematic both for them and for their children. (4) These and other data in the AIFS evaluation have assisted professionals in obtaining a better picture of the extent and the type of separation-related family disputes that children and parents find especially distressing--the sort of disputes that also typically 'use up' a significant proportion of the available legal and family relationship services.

The place of family mediation (5) in the mix of service options for separating families in dispute over their children is the main focus of this issue of JFS. The first article by Cashmore and Parkinson (2011) is included in this issue because it assists us to understand more fully, the dynamics of parenting disputes at the more problematic end of the spectrum. The relevance of this study to the question of family mediation is that it provides a backdrop for consideration of both the limitations of this form of intervention in post separation parenting disputes and the alternatives that should be contemplated. Put simply, family mediation is not a panacea.

The families described by Cashmore and Parkinson (2011) were participating in a Contact Orders Program known as Keeping Contact. (6) The program was being run by Unifam, a well-known family services agency in Sydney. Attendance at such a program means that the parents and children have been deemed to be in need of assistance beyond that which the mainstream family law system can offer. They were adjudged by the authors to be in 'high conflict'. But what is the nature of that conflict?

Cashmore and Parkinson (2011) found the key issue for many of the families attending this program was concern about the child's safety and well-being while in the care of the 'other parent'. Many would therefore be likely to be in the 5% of parents identified in the AIFS evaluation as 'fearful'. Linked to these concerns were parental reports of resistance from many of these children, over half of whom were less than 5 years old at the time of separation, to spending time with their 'other parent'. Parents reported that these children were especially resistant to spending nights with this parent. According to the authors, other issues such as the presence of new partners and disputes over money appeared to inflame the disputes but were not the key reported reasons for their concerns.

This study reinforces the need to continue to think carefully about the timing and sequencing of family law services to such families.

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