Separation and divorce represent major stressors in the lives of family members, particularly where changes in children’s parenting arrangements are concerned.
It is a time of profound physical, social and emotional change. While sometimes the transition from one family arrangement to another goes smoothly, for other families, this is a time of loss and crisis for which parents and children are seldom prepared.
Practitioners in the field of Family Law are in a pivotal position to assist parents, and therefore their children, to most successfully navigate the foreign terrain ahead of them. This is especially so when a parent has a mental illness and may be particularly vulnerable and in need of support.
Making assumptions about clients with mental health problems will ultimately be to their detriment. Every individual and their mental illness is different in the way it presents and manifests.
Legal practitioners will be of most assistance to their clients if they take a holistic approach to them rather than attempting to understand them primarily as individuals suffering from mental illness.
The negative repercussions of stigma and disadvantage usually associated with mental illness have historically presented clients with difficulties in disclosing mental health problems. This applies in particular to legal professionals, for fear of negative outcomes for themselves or their relationships with their children.
Legal practitioners should not assume that their clients will inform them of vital information concerning a diagnosis of a mental illness, treatments or medication.
You are most likely to achieve positive parenting arrangements and agreement in the children’s greatest interest when parents are able to participate in assisted negotiation and community mediation. However, at times it may be that a Judicial Officer of the Court is the individual who makes a decision about arrangements for children who are the subject to Court proceedings.
In this situation legal practitioners can facilitate the best possible outcomes via Family Law proceedings if they;
Mental health problems are often associated with social and economic disadvantage. Legal practitioners are in a critical position to support the general well-being of their clients and to intervene broadly for better legal outcomes for them and their children.
Remember, good referrals to support agencies are reflective of quality child-focussed Family Law practice and can have a positive impact on social and economic disadvantage. For example, think about referrals to Centrelink Social Workers and PHAMS programs.
The stress of ongoing abuse can lead to a victim’s poor mental health, such as depression and anxiety, or exacerbate pre-existing conditions. Some clients may exhibit aggression as part of mental ill health that is not managed. Legal practitioners should place family safety as a priority of their service.
It is now well-documented that parental conflict can have lasting effects on children’s emotional well-being, predisposition to mental health problems and the capacity to form successful long-term intimate relationships into the future.
Practitioners should aim for a reduction in conflict and to protect their client and their client’s children from undue stress where it is possible.
Parents and children where one or both parents have a mental illness are particularly vulnerable to the stresses of Family Law proceedings. These clients will be most supported by legal practitioners and other professionals who are;
Encourage your clients to get the support that they and their children may need during separation and divorce. School counsellors, church and community support organisations may be good sources of help to consider.
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Content based on information provided by Louise Salmon, a member of the COPMI Lived Experience Forum. Louise is also a Social Worker who has twenty years of experience in the fields of child and family health and family law. She currently works with children and their parents with regard to their parenting arrangements.