What you need to know about family therapy sessions if you are separated.
Parenting matters are often very stressful for all parties involved, children included. It is also an area that is fraught with complex emotional issues and can become increasingly complicated, particularly when the children begin entering into young adulthood.
The challenge in these sorts of cases is to assist parents to recognise the need to support their children, whilst at the same time ensuring that the children maintain a meaningful relationship with both parents, having regard to the paramount considerations outlined in Section 60CC of the Family Law Act 1975.
In some parenting matters, it is not unusual for one or more than one child to resist contact with one of their parents. The reason for the resistance can sometimes be nuanced and challenging for the Court to respond to. Whilst the Court can make any Orders it feels is in the child(ren)’s best interest, it is futile to make such Orders without first understanding (and dealing with) the emotional issues and/or trauma the child or children may have. In those instances, it is in the parties’ interest that they and/or the children consider attending family therapy.
In the event the parties do undertake family therapy in the context of separation, the next question is whether that therapy will be reportable or non-reportable.
What does reportable family therapy and non-reportable family therapy mean in the context of family breakdown?
As the name suggests, reportable family therapy is where the family therapist will report to the Court as to the progress of the therapy. In some cases, a Court will direct families to engage in family therapy where the parties are made aware, at the outset, that the therapist will be called on to provide evidence to the Court. They may also be required to outline the parties’ progress with family therapy.
In some other circumstances, the Court may order parties or the child(ren) to participate in non-reportable family therapy. This means that the parties and the children attend upon a therapist in a completely confidential setting, without the fear that any information disclosed at those sessions will be disclosed at some point in the Court matter.
When and how is family therapy accessed?
Whilst there is no set rule as to when family therapy should be considered, it is often best introduced relatively early in any family law matter. In so doing it allows underlying and important issues to be therapeutically addressed and possibly resolved or narrowed as quickly as possible and without the need for unnecessary and often blunt Court intervention.
Although, it should be noted that parties can begin family therapy at any stage in the matter, and indeed, it is often encouraged by the Court.
What are the advantages and disadvantages of reportable family therapy?
There are clear advantages and disadvantages with respect to engaging in family therapy which is reportable to the Court, as follows:
- If an Independent Children’s Lawyer is appointed, they would be able to speak with the family therapist on a regular basis to discuss ongoing issues and challenges, the progress of family therapy, and whether there are any matters or concerns the Court should be made aware of.
- Following on from the above, should the Court become aware of any issues which arise in family therapy, it is able to make Orders which deal with this issue. For example, if one party has anger management issues, then the Court could order a party to enrol and participate in an anger management course to address this challenge.
- In the event that a Court orders a Family Report to be conducted in a matter, then the expert appointed to prepare the report would be able to speak with the family therapist and better understand the complexities of the issues in dispute.
- The family therapist would likely have access to Court material, which would allow them to be better informed of both parties’ allegations. Meaning, they would not be limited to only one party’s account. This can overcome problems that can arise should a “complete picture” not be available. For example, in the case of Maher & Mills (2015), it was found that the family therapist involved was providing the child with counterproductive counselling as he was accepting unconfirmed allegations of sexual abuse from only the mother. Eventually, his evidence was found to be inadmissible as he had “lost professional impartiality” in accepting the mother’s evidence unquestioningly.
- Some parties may feel apprehensive or appear to be disinterested in the process, especially in circumstances where the Court may become aware of the issues addressed during family therapy. As a result, parties may be less receptive to opening up to the therapist and meaningfully engaging in the therapy. Alternatively, parties may also be deliberately selective in what they say to the therapist as they know it may contradict what was said to the Court.
- When children (who are often significantly affected by parental separation) meet with a therapist, it is often a very delicate and fragile relationship. So when a practitioner reports on matters discussed with that child, it may damage their relationship, which might prevent any real progress from developing in the future.
What are the advantages and disadvantages of non-reportable family therapy?
Similarly, there are advantages and disadvantages of engaging in non-reportable family therapy. They include:
- By ensuring that the family therapy is completely confidential, it allows the parties (and the children) to feel as though they are in a safe space to discuss the issues in dispute, and in some cases, to allow a party to confront and accept any damage, they may have inflicted (whether consciously or unconsciously).
- Non-reportable family therapy ensures that the important relationship between the practitioner and the party is protected as it avoids the risk that parties (and more importantly, children) may feel betrayed by a practitioner disclosing private information to the Courts. In the case of Hastings & March (2019), the trial Judge was asked to determine whether to permit into evidence the Subpoena material of a family therapist who had been treating the children for a number of years. The judge had serious concerns about the “potential damage to the therapeutic relationship” between the children and the therapist and as such upheld the objection and did not allow the material into evidence.
- The Court (and if applicable the Independent Children’s Lawyer) would be unable to discuss family therapy with the practitioner. This also includes an expert who has been appointed to prepare a family report, which means that the report could potentially not contain crucial information that would be relevant for the Judge to make a determination.
- The family therapist may not be provided with all the necessary and relevant information in order to provide an effective therapeutic service, and in turn, his or her involvement with the family may actually be more harmful than beneficial.
In conclusion, whether family therapy is reportable or non-reportable, it is evident that any additional assistance by an experienced family therapist would be a vital resource for families undergoing separation. However, parties should carefully consider at the outset, if possible, whether any family therapy that is appropriate for them (and their children) to participate in, should be reportable or non-reportable.
About the Authors:
Lisa Wagner is Principal of Doolan Wagner Family Lawyers. Lisa is an Accredited Family Law specialist and a nationally registered Family Dispute Resolution Practitioner. Lisa has close to 30 years of experience as a specialist family lawyer, experienced litigator and skilful negotiator in all family law matters.
Connect with Lisa on LinkedIn: Lisa Wagner
Disclaimer: These posts are only intended as an overview or comment on current issues that may interest you and are not legal advice. If there are any matters that you would like us to advise you on, then please contact us.