‘Give children a bigger voice, more of the time’: Findings from the Children and Young People in Separated Families project
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Recent research undertaken by the Australian Institute of Family Studies investigated the experiences and needs of young people whose parents had separated and had accessed the family law system. The Children and Young People in Separated Families project was commissioned and funded by the Australian Government Attorney-General’s Department. It involved in-depth, semi-structured interviews with 61 children and young people aged 10–17 years and was supplemented by interviews with 47 parents of these children.
Engagement with family law system services
The main services parents interviewed for the study reported accessing during and after separation included:
- lawyers (96%)
- counselling, family dispute resolution (FDR) and/or mediation (94%)
- court services (83%)
- family consultants/report writers (60%)
- independent children’s lawyers (ICL) (36%).
The main pathways parents used to finalise their parenting arrangements were courts (62%) and counselling/FDR/mediation (21%).
Issues important to children and young people in making post-separation parenting arrangements
Most children and young people involved in the study (76%) wanted parents to listen more to their views about parenting arrangements and the separation more generally.
Children and young people sought support from parents and others as they processed the change in their living circumstances and relationships. They wanted their views to be taken seriously by family law and related services, particularly when safety concerns were raised.
More than one-third (38%) of participating children and young people described wanting ongoing communication with parents and others to understand more about what was going on in the post-separation context. They indicated they would like to be kept informed regarding various aspects of the legal process.
Children’s experiences with family law system services and supports that children and young people find useful
Children and young people involved in the study were asked about their experiences of any family law system services that their families engaged with when separating. Services included courts, lawyers (including ICLs), family reports/assessments and FDR/mediation and counselling. The data suggest that children and young people had mixed views and experiences of family law system services.
Some young participants described how professionals working in the family law system had helped them participate in decisions about parenting arrangements. However, a substantial proportion of children and young people suggested the approaches adopted by service professionals operated in a way that limited their practical impact or marginalised their involvement in decision making about parenting arrangements.
A number of children and young people identified what they perceived to be inaction on the part of family law system professionals (particularly in response to safety concerns raised) as causing them distress. Overall, most young participants were dissatisfied with either their level of input to, or awareness of, the decision-making process or the final parenting arrangements. In contrast, children and young people were more likely to describe themselves as directly benefiting from post-separation counselling and, more commonly, they reflected positively on the support they received from counsellors.
Most young participants described their family (e.g. one or both parents, grandparents, siblings or other extended family) to be of some assistance in coping with the circumstances of their parents’ separation, while just over half identified friends and peers as important sources of support after their parents’ separation. Around half of the children and young people interviewed described receiving support from their school during or after their parents’ separation, with this support primarily provided by counsellors. A majority of young participants had some engagement with mental health services and more than three-quarters described these services as helpful in some capacity.
Implications for professional practice
When children and young people were asked about what effective professional practices looked like, they described professionals who:
- allow them the space to speak and who listen more effectively to their views and experiences
- take steps to build trust with the children and young people they interact with (including via the exercise of qualities such as patience, empathy and respect), as well as being more mindful of children and young people’s needs
- engage in open communication by providing more information relevant to the decision-making process in their cases
- act protectively to respond to their concerns and keep children and young people informed about issues that affect them.
The findings of the Children and Young People in Separated Families project suggest a child-inclusive approach be adopted incorporating these features of effective professional practice. Child-inclusive approaches should:
- facilitate children's and young people's participation in decision-making processes
- keep them independently informed about these processes
- provide clear and accurate explanations of decisions made
- provide access to ongoing therapeutic support and assistance as required
- allow the flexibility to change parenting arrangements and have ongoing and meaningful communication.
While further research may inform the development of professional practice and service delivery specific to particular judicial, legal and non-legal professionals and service providers, a commitment to this approach would be an important step towards meeting the loud and clear calls from participating children and young people to ‘give children a bigger voice, more of the time’ (Alana, F, 12–14 years).
Further reading and related resources
- Children and young people in separated families: Family law system experiences and needs
This AIFS research report sets out findings of a study that investigated the experiences and needs of young people whose parents had separated and had accessed the family law system.
- Independent Children’s Lawyers Study: Final report
This AIFS research report, commissioned by the Attorney-General's Department, examines the use of independent children's lawyers (ICLs) in the family law system.
- The meaning of home for children and young people after parental separation
This CFCA short article discusses a study exploring the meaning of home for children and young people after separation aims to inform living arrangements that work for them.
- Give children a bigger voice more of the time: Children’s and young people’s experiences of the family law system
This CFCA webinar discussed recent research on young people’s experiences of the family law system and its implications for child-inclusive practice.