Mental health in family law the focus of Wagga conference

psychologySTIGMA and mental health – they’re two words that can be hard to separate.

A conference – hosted by the Riverina Family Law Pathways Network (RFLPN) – in Wagga yesterday delved into ways to better approach mental health in the context of family law.

Justice Hilary Hannam, a former local court magistrate in Wagga, was one of a number of speakers who addressed the “Mind Matters” discussion.

“For all sorts of reasons we have quite an overrepresentation of people who have mental health problems who end up in family court proceedings,” said Justice Hilary Hannam, who was appointed to the bench of the family court in August 2013.

Given that prevalence of mental health in the family law system, and the impact it could have on children caught up in proceedings, she said it was a “very important area to try and improve”.

Justice Hulary Hannam spoke about making the process less adversarial and more collaborative, along with the “growing problem” of unrepresented people who tried to work through the litigation themselves.

Asked if the stigma attached to mental health in society translated to the court system, she said people were often reluctant to talk in fear of the possible consequences.

“When you have a typical adversarial court situation, people get particularly defensive and they mightn’t want to be open to admitting they’ve got a mental health problem, they don’t want it to be seen as some sort of admission,” she said.

“The kind of changes that we’ve had in the law and in court processes are helping people to be able to identify and recognise where they’ve got problems, so that they can seek assistance and recover from them for the benefit of their children.”

RFLPN chairwoman Robyn Gooden said family law was often a “very difficult field to work in” and the conference was an opportunity to network.

Mother escapes jail but loses custody of 3 y/o child abducted to Europe

international-child-abductionA mother who abducted her three-year-old son and secreted him to Europe for 2½ years has been handed a 28-day good ­behaviour bond by the ­District Court of NSW.

The woman, who cannot be named for legal reasons, was extradited from Europe to ­Sydney to face the charges.

When the boy was three, the mother became convinced the ­father had sexually abused the boy and feared he had involved him in a pedophile ring.

She spirited him away to ­Europe, where the father ­found him in September 2010.

The boy and his ­father returned to Australia in January 2011. The ­mother was extradited to Australia two months later and was held in custody until June 2011.

The mother was convicted by a jury late last year under section 65Y of the Family Law Act of taking the child out of Australia, in breach of parenting orders.

She faced a jail term of up to three years.

However, District Court of NSW judge Donna Woodburne yesterday released the mother with a 28-day good behaviour bond in Sydney’s Downing Centre.

She took into account the mother’s good character and said the mother had been punished enough by not being able to see her son.

Last month, Family Court judge Garry Watts ordered the boy live full time with his father in Australia and spend no time with his mother.

Justice Watts said he accepted the mother “unshakably and implacably” believed the boy was sexually abused by his father, but he found the mother had a psychotic illness and was sometimes deliberately untruthful.

“Placing the child with his mother in circumstances where there is no short or medium-term prospect that the mother will gain the insight to seek treatment for that disorder is in fact a highly risky position into which to place the child,” he said.

He said the boy was to have only phone or Skype contact with his mother, when he requested it. A photo of the mother was to be prominently placed in the boy’s bedroom.

Justice Watts found there was no unacceptable risk the father had sexually abused the child or that he had been involved in a pedophile group.

He said the road back to the mother having a relationship with her son was for her to seek treatment for her mental illness.

“I understand the mother will not be able to accept my findings at this time and that she believes I fit into a profile of ­judges which she thinks exist in the Family Court, who brand as ‘mad’ ­mothers who make sexual-abuse allegations against fathers of their children,” he said.

Only 1 in 20 Australians have end-of-life plan

advance-care-planningMost Australians are missing out on an opportunity to influence where and how they die, says a study that shows a serious lack of end-of-life planning.

Only one in 20 has an advance care plan, which means doctors might keep most people alive when they would prefer to die in peace.

They could also die in hospital when they might prefer to spend their last days at home.

A lack of certainty about their wishes causes unnecessary anguish for loved ones, says the study released to mark palliative care week.

It shows 50 per cent of Australians don’t have a will when they die, 71 per cent had not indicated their wishes on organ donation and 81 per cent had failed to provide a loved one with a power of attorney over their end-of-life wishes.

An advanced care plan can include anything from where people prefer to die to the level of intervention they want to keep them alive, says Professor Patsy Yates, president of Palliative Care Australia, which conducted the study among people who had lost a loved one.

Legislation differs from state to state, so it is important for people to seek advice from a lawyer or doctor, or from the Palliative Care Australia website.

Informal discussions are also important, says Prof Yates.

“It is difficult if people don’t know or are surprised by what you want.”

An advance plan allows people to stipulate if they would prefer to die at home, says Nicole Shenko, a nurse.

“Most people want to die at home, but only 16 per cent do,” she says.

“It is distressing for someone who is unwell to have family members argue at the foot of their hospital bed.

“Every person over the age of 18 should have an advance plan.

“It takes away the burden from your family because all they are going to do is follow your wishes.”

Dr Yvonne Luxford, CEO of Palliative Care Australia, says the “kindest thing” is make plans so carers would know “what you want when your time comes”.

“You only die once, so you might as well have your say in it,” she says.

Family Court Chief Justice concerned about budget cuts to legal aid

diana-bryant, family courtThe Chief Justice of the Family Court has expressed concern about cuts to legal aid in the federal budget.

Justice Diana Bryant said access to legal aid was already a problem in the Family Court, and she was worried about the impact of a further $15 million in Commonwealth funding cuts outlined in the budget.

She said a lack of legal representation was particularly problematic in cases involving allegations of domestic violence.

“In Victoria, for example, in the last 12 months they’ve not been funding one party where the other party is unrepresented, so that a mother who is asserting violence where the father is unrepresented would not get legal aid,” Justice Diana Bryant said.

“It’s bad enough to be cross-examined by the violent party, but it’s worse if you have to run the case yourself and people can’t do it.

“That means that the quality of the evidence that’s before the court is severely compromised and I think that’s a real problem for all of us.”

The Law Council of Australia said the lack of legal representation in the Family Court was “a national disgrace”.

According to the council’s access to justice spokesman, David Neal SC, the problem is not limited to Victoria.

He said a similar pattern was seen in other states, with people embroiled in bitter family law disputes left without legal representation.

“Victims of domestic violence face the horror of having to confront the perpetrators in court without the assistance of a lawyer, therefore increasing their trauma,” Mr Neal said.

“The Law Council calls on the Government to remedy this significant injustice.”

The Attorney-General’s Department says the funding withdrawn to legal aid was supplementary only and would have expired at the end of the financial year.

In a statement it said the base funding under the National Partnership Agreement on Legal Assistance Services was not affected by the budget cuts and had been extended for another year.

The Federal Government will contribute $204.4 million to legal aid commissions in 2014/15.

Nationally, 83 per cent of Commonwealth legal aid funding goes towards assisting people in family law cases.

The Government said it was considering options for future legal assistance arrangements from July 1, 2015 that would focus on frontline services to the most vulnerable Australians.

“The findings of the Productivity Commission’s inquiry into access to justice arrangements and the recent Review of the National Partnerships Agreement will inform future decisions concerning legal aid services,” the Attorney-General’s Department told the ABC.

‘Ultimately we can’t predict all human behaviour’

In a wide-ranging interview with the ABC, Justice Diana Bryant gave an insight into the difficulties judges face in making contact orders in cases involving domestic violence.

“The court has got to look at the right of the child to have a meaningful relationship with both parents, but that has to be weighed up against the need to protect the child from risk,” she said.

“So you’ve got to assess the benefit to the child of the meaningful relationship and then whether that relationship can be maintained without risk to the child.”

She said it was not unusual to see cases where parents with a history of violence had been granted access to their children.

“You will often find that although there has been a level of violence, parents themselves have made arrangements for contact between the parties,” she said.

“If they are happy for some kind of contact to take place, and there’s a reasonable relationship which is of benefit to the child, the Family Court will probably make orders.”

The murder of 11-year-old Luke Batty by his mentally ill father earlier this year has led to questions about whether more could have been done to protect him.

Justice Bryant said the Batty case had never come before the Family Court as the parents had reached their own agreement on access.

The Chief Justice said there was only so much the law could do to prevent violence.

“Ultimately we can’t predict all human behaviour,” she said.

Fines from dead-beat dads stay in government coffers

child-support-agencyTHE Federal Government is hoarding millions of dollars from dead-beat dads that could be helping support their partners and children.

Rather than hand fees and penalties over to custodial parents, the Government pockets the money.

But last year’s $9 million total was only a fraction of the $116 million that could have been charged to parents who failed to pay their child support on time, employers who failed to pass on payments or other offences.

National Council of Single Mothers chief executive Terese Edwards says the $9 million ought to go to custodial parents.

“A penalty is a small acknowledgment of the financial duress, hardship and uncertainty that the receiving parent and children have to endure. At times child support debt can span years.”

It would compensate for the times parents were left struggling to pay bills when child support was late.

Shared Parenting Council of Australia executive secretary Wayne Butler said fees were an ineffective but necessary way to make parents pay up.

“If they don’t charge something some people won’t pay,” he said.

“It’s a negative process on top of an already difficult time. Many people are struggling to pay child support.”

He knew of suicides and people losing all their assets as they struggled to meet their child support commitments.

But he also knew of parents who had negotiated payment plans enabling them to avoid penalties.

Child Support operations are handled by the Department of Human Services while the Department of Social Services sets policy.

A spokesman said penalties could be waived if the overdue child support was paid in full.

“Our goal is to ensure that child support is paid in full and on time, and to resolve any child support debt before enforcement is needed.”

A Parliamentary Inquiry into the Child Support Program is underway. Submissions close on June 13.

Greek-Australian Grandparents Shut Out from their Grandkids

greek-australian-grandparents-and-child-contactMaria* hasn’t seen her granddaughter for more than a year. She sits, nervously crumpling the papers in her hands, trying to get the words out.

Her granddaughter is the only living connection she has to her son. He passed away four years ago, just ten months after he and his wife welcomed a healthy baby daughter into the world.

When her daughter-in-law found another partner a short time later and had more children, Maria soon found that the door to visit her granddaughter had closed.

“I’ve called, visited the house and she closes the door on us,” Maria says, choking back tears.

“I need help to see her again, I don’t want to go to court, I don’t want to put my granddaughter through this.”

Maria is just one of hundreds of Greek Australian grandparents caught in an ongoing battle to get visiting rights for their grandchildren.

It’s a growing problem where grandparent’s become collateral damage when couples with children get divorced.

Heightened emotions during this time cause a ripple effect that not only has the children suffering from a split home, but leaves grandparents in a tough predicament.

As visitation rights are divided up between parents, not much thought is given to the time grandparents have with their grandchildren. In fact, for many people stilted by divorce, cutting all contact with the other person is one of the first things they feel they need to do to move on, and by consequence, it means cutting all contact with the extended family.

For seven years, the Australian Greek Welfare Society has held workshops to help grandparents understand their rights and mange the emotional situation of their children’s separation. The five-week workshop is designed to help grandparents deal with the pressure of their children’s separation and repair relationships. They invite counsellors and experts to teach affected grandparents to deal with stress, they give advice on what rights they have and what services are available to them and also give tips on how to keep civil relationships with the other family and ways to be impartial around the grandchildren.

Organisers Antonios Maglis and Kia Antoniadis have witnessed first hand how many grandparents are unaware of their rights and are ill-advised on how to be a supportive force rather than a destructive one in these turbulent times.

As a counsellor for the Greek community in these matters, Ms Antoniadis has seen the issue deepen with more and more coming to her for professional help.

“There’s a crisis in our community,” she says.

“The children are suffering, they are confused saying when am I going to see mum or when am I going to see dad?

“When they feel that their parents hate one another and fight all the time it causes them mental anguish.

“But what we’ve discovered is that grandparents are also suffering.

“Their children’s problems become burdened on them.”

In the workshop, grandmother Voula* says the pressure from her son’s marriage breakdown has caused her undue harm.

“I’ve lost 15 kilos in the past couple of months, I’m losing sleep,” she says.

“Its not just about looking after the grandkids, it’s about looking after the whole family.”

It’s something the organisers of the workshop see on a weekly basis and understand that the Greek tradition of protecting ones family over their own interests can be extremely damaging in these circumstances. Because of that, the group is taught ways to battle stress, ways to help deal with emotion to help them sleep better and ways to better communicate personal problems to people who can help.

Ms Antoniadis sees that stress and poor communication facilitates desperate situations when marriages break down, and without a change in attitude, the children will continue to suffer.

“It’s hard for us as people to function in a nice way when these issues exist,” she says.

“You need to walk in your grandchildren’s shoes.”

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, nearly one in three marriages in Australia end in divorce, and sadly 48.4 per cent of those divorces involve children aged under 18. The number of children affected by divorce has increased from 43,867 in 2011 to 48,288 in 2012.

The law is there to help the children of divorce, and if having a relationship with their grandparents is in their best interests, the law uphold that.
But the courts are to be used in extreme cases. Before the courts get involved, all cases must go through mediation, showing just how important it is to keep calm and civilised in these situations.

Picking sides and harbouring spiteful opinions isn’t the answer they say, especially for the grandchildren who expect to escape the one sided view their parents might still have.

“Don’t let your issues rain down on your grandchildren,” Mr Maglis says.

“Be the umbrella that protects your grandchildren from all those issues.”

He says it’s important to keep opinions about the other parent to oneself, and not denigrate them in front of the children. The same goes for the parents.
One grandmother at the workshop, Eleni*, says the relationship with her husband has been at breaking point because her husband refuses to be objective.
“It’s straining our marriage,” she says.

“When my husband wants to talk about all the wrong things one parent is doing and I don’t want to contribute it causes strain and anger in our relationship. He wants to take sides.”

The workshops are a way to show grandparents that they are not alone with their problems. You can see from the first meeting that those taking part have come at their breaking points, desperate for help, but still hopeful of a brighter future.

The ongoing group meetings since 2007 show how prevalent the issue is, while highlighting the complexities of each situation. No story is the same.

Grandmother Effie* has struggled to find enough time to make an impact with her grandchildren when her son only has 10 court ordered days a month to see his children with most of the visitation given to the children’s mother.

“The kids cry when they leave,” she says.

“One week because of camp they were losing to days with us, they were heartbroken.”

Sadly the emotional situation of separation means that parents don’t see the value grandparents can play in their children’s lives.

Ms Antoniadis says it’s sad to see how many parents close their minds to the idea of a healthy relationship with their children’s grandparents.

“Parent’s shouldn’t see this as something that will create problems, it’s the opposite,” she says.

“If a child doesn’t have a relationship with its grandparents, it won’t understand its roots and will miss out on cultural practices.”

The Oakleigh workshop is held on the premises of the FMC Mediation and Counselling Victoria in association with LifeWorks. Counsellors could see that when they were helping Greek.

Australian couples through their marriage troubles, they would find that grandparents were struggling just as much in the process without being given the help they needed. That’s why the AGWS workshop was born, to help deal with a growing demand in a language they could understand.

Family relationship educator at Lifeworks, Wendy Driscoll has dealt with many Greek Australian families and finds that many couples struggle to be objective when deciding what’s best of their children.

“Grandparents play an incredible role in children’s lives, because when their parents are going through a separation, even with the best will, there’s a huge amount of emotion.

“If the grandparents are non-judgmental, loving and don’t belittle either side, the can be the rock.

“They can provide a fantastic safe space for children.”

The workshop is open to all grandparents and is free. The group operates in two locations in Oakleigh and Brunswick, with the next workshop starting on July 14 at the Brunswick location.

For those needing help or would like more information on services available, call the AGWS on 03 9388 9998.

*Names have been changed for privacy reasons.

Community legal cuts will hurt women

Heather Nancarrow

Heather Nancarrow

The next time a woman dies at the hands of a violent partner and we read with trembling hearts that she could not get any legal help to stop that partner, we will be able to sheet the cause of death to Tony Abbott and Joe Hockey and whichever other disgraceful politician allowed cuts to community legal centres in Australia.

How long will it take for the Abbott government to start counting the cost to the community of its budget changes?

And how long before someone – anyone – in their ranks considers the impact on Australian families of the cuts to health, education, benefits of all kinds?

And I wonder how long it will be before we start counting dead women.

Australia’s new body to research violence against women is the National Research Organisation for Women’s Safety (ANROWS) and its chief executive is Heather Nancarrow, who has long experience in this area.

Heather Nancarrow says there are gaps in data on violence against women and their children and she hopes to fill those gaps. I wish she didn’t have to.

But there are matters about the budget which concern her and should concern all of us. She fears cuts to community legal centres may lead to a reduction in the reports of domestic violence and sexual assault. There is clear evidence there is already a serious disparity between reports and prevalence.

She also says there is a correlation between economic disadvantage and domestic violence. We can’t be sure it’s the cause but these two factors appear alongside each other in too many cases where women are killed at the hands of their partners.

Heather Nancarrow is careful in her analysis but she says: “While social and economic disadvantage is not a direct cause of domestic and family violence, it is a contributing factor and it is certainly a direct constraint on women and children being free from violent  partners/fathers.”

The Australian Bureau of Statistics’ Personal Safety Survey for 2012 found one in six women experiences domestic violence at the hands of a partner she lives with or has lived with. That figure does not include date violence or the violence from a partner not sharing the home. If you were the victim of sexual abuse before you were 15, you are nearly three times as likely to experience partner violence after the age of 18.

And here is the crunch, and one which will be much tougher for women in the light of changes to funding across all sectors: If you are the victim of domestic violence, you are highly unlikely to report it to police if you still live with the perpetrator.

Now it will be harder to leave and even harder to get legal support.

The Community Legal Centres across Australia have supported women for years. Last September, the centres discovered they would all suffer cuts which they thought would amount to $4 million. Now they discover it’s closer to $6 million.

That money will be cut from about 60 services all around Australia and family violence work will face a huge cut.

Those centres are where women go to get the support they need to apply for intervention orders, for apprehended violence orders, for protection orders. That’s where you go if you need help to keep your partner away from you, away from the children, away from your mum, who is half his size.

“That may be the only way to keep an abusive partner away,” says Liana Buchanan, chair of the Community Law Australia campaign.

As a result of these changes – and because I, along with many other women, fear the changes, please count the cost to our community.

From today, I hope you will join me and others as we commemorate those women who died as a result of violence and we acknowledge that no one and nothing but the perpetrator is to blame for domestic and family violence

The British campaign, Counting Dead Women, is a powerful memorial to those women who have died violently.

On behalf of online feminist action group, Destroy The Joint, I rang British campaigner Karen Ingala Smith, who said having international partners in the project made change more likely – a “united we stand” kind of approach. I hope she’s right. But I wish this wasn’t necessary.

The Australian movement will, like its British counterpart, acknowledge women who died from violence. While it will have some focus on partner and family violence, it will also remember those women who have died at the hands of strangers.

It will serve as a memorial for those women but it will also serve to remind politicians all their actions have outcomes.

We need to protect the safety of living women in Australia and if it means we have to count dead women, so be it.

Free seminar aims to educate about estate planning

estate-planningPEOPLE keen to gain a greater understanding of estate planning and how to ensure their affairs are in order are invited to a free public seminar on May 21.

The seminar, Estate Planning, will be delivered by financial adviser Mark Rabius from ESI Financial Services Pty Ltd, part of industry superannuation fund Energy Super.

Mark will be joined by a representative from McCullough Robertson Lawyers to discuss issues including Wills, Powers of Attorney, Superannuation and Taxation.

The seminar will be held at The Events Centre, Caloundra from 6pm on May 21.

Mr Rabius said estate planning was more than just having a will, but taking full control of your affairs so that you and your beneficiaries are properly looked after.

“Under current laws, there are a range of matters all Australians need to be aware of when it comes to estate planning, from developing a will through to appointing an enduring power of attorney,” Mr Rabius said.

“For example, many would be surprised to learn that your superannuation is not automatically treated as an asset under your will.  In fact, it needs special consideration to ensure your super passes to those you choose.  There are also some tax benefits to be gained by planning your estate effectively.

“Regardless of your stage of life, this seminar will cover what you need to know now to ensure your estate can provide a lasting legacy to your chosen beneficiaries.”

► Places are limited – people interested in attending the free seminar must register first at www.energysuper.com.au by accessing the “Forms and Tools – Webinars and Seminars” tab on the homepage.

Relationship Tune-ups – Govt Proposes $200 Counselling Voucher for all Aussie Couples

kevin-andrews-counselling-voucher

Govt to offer $200 counselling voucher 

Every three years Kevin Andrews and his wife Margaret book themselves in for a joint ­session on a marriage counsellor’s couch — or the workshop, as he prefers. They have a solid and loving 35-year marriage, he insists, but he likens his relationship to the modern motor car. “It might last a lifetime,” the Minister for Social Services explains from a couch in his Melbourne electoral office as modern motor cars scurry along Doncaster Road, “but usually we get it serviced every two or three years.” Without that service the car, like his marriage, may still run along, seemingly OK, “but the tyres get a bit bald, the brake pads need replacing and, you know, the steering needs adjusting — if you’re fixing it up, you’re going to go on for longer.”

Andrews, an ordinarily waxen figure, becomes animated by the topic and whips out a yellow sticky notepad, drawing a large circle in the middle. “That’s the relationship,” he explains. He then draws half a dozen smaller ­circles ­surrounding the large circle. “These are all the issues surrounding a relationship — they may be work, leisure time, finances… every now and again one of these issues attaches itself to the relationship,” he says, scribbling vigorously. “The issue gets bigger and bigger and it eats away at the relationship. The issues end up taking over the relationship.” And when that happens, it’s time for a service. Possibly even a new transmission. Bald tyres are so Noughties.

The relationships of Australia are about to get a free tune-up, courtesy of Kevin Andrews. In July this year he will introduce a program whereby couples of all persuasions — those about to be married, the already married, the unmarried, same-sex couples, those hoping to soup up a sagging sex life — will be able to apply online for a $200 counselling voucher. The $20 million pilot will allow 100,000 couples to take that voucher to an approved provider, a marital mechanic, for a service. One can only hope they wheel Lawsy out for the advertising campaign: Counsoline — you know what I mean.

Divorce in Australia has been declining, from a high of 55,330 in 2001 to 49,917 in 2012.

Divorce in Australia has been declining, from a high of 55,330 in 2001 to 49,917 in 2012. It converts to roughly a third of first-time marriages failing and doesn’t take into account de facto relationships. Even in decline, that’s still a lot of broken families and potentially damaged people; the outcomes for the children involved when these unions end, married or de facto, can be dire.

He claims, rather boldly, that the direct cost to the taxpayer is at least $100,000 for each divorce.

Andrews hopes that through his scheme he can make a dent in the separation rate and, by extension, improve the lives of children. He claims, rather boldly, that the direct cost to the taxpayer is at least $100,000 for each divorce. He estimates that family breakdown costs the government in the vicinity of $15 billion a year, which he calculates by adding up the cost of the Family Court, welfare payments and a few other things, and then extrapolating from a recent UK study. He doesn’t produce Treasury costings to back up his claims and, frankly, his calculations appear a bit back-of-the-envelope. But still, the costs are significant.

He estimates that family breakdown costs the government in the vicinity of $15 billion a year…

“Some people say it is none of the government’s business, to which I say, ‘Well, unfortunately it becomes the government’s business when it doesn’t work out because we pick up all the costs’.” Which is all well and good, but how does this sit with a government that has adopted Abraham Lincoln’s mantra that government should do for people what they can’t do for themselves and no more? When a country is facing savage cuts across many services, isn’t couples counselling an indulgent pursuit?

The former Chief Justice of the Family Court, Alastair Nicholson, says that while he sees it “as a worthwhile social experiment, I would question the alleged economics of the program”. He doesn’t think it will put a dent in the cost of the Family Court or reduce welfare payments, as Andrews claims. The Opposition Leader, Bill Shorten, says it’s a “nice idea” but “when you’re cutting the Schoolkids Bonus, when you’re seeing childcare workers’ promises being underfunded and childcare workers not getting properly paid — where are the priorities of the Abbott Government?”

Andrews is undeterred. It’s a pet issue of his: his wife Margaret is trained as a counsellor, and as a socially conservative Christian he is an avid promoter of the tradition of marriage as “the bedrock of successful societies”. He even penned a book,Maybe ‘I Do’ — Modern Marriage and the Pursuit of Happiness, a 480-page ode to marriage, in which he says that the ­greatest threat facing the Western world is not climate change or radical Islam, but the “continuing breakdown of the essential structures of civil society — marriage, family and community”.

His scheme will mainly target people who are intending to get married but will be open to any couples for almost any reason: financial counselling, help with sexual problems, new step-families or young gay couples. “It’s not up to the government to tell counselling organisations what they should be counselling about,” Andrew says. “If we could get a five per cent reduction in the divorce rate, that would be a reasonably significant outcome.”

He cites research that claims up to 40 per cent of people who divorce wish they hadn’t.

Andrews tells me the driving force behind his scheme is to protect children and give them every chance of a stable upbringing. He cites research that claims up to 40 per cent of people who divorce wish they hadn’t. During his 23 years in Parliament the two most emotive issues “that people come into my office and sit on these chairs” to discuss have been immigration and family breakdown. “I’ve seen some pretty sad cases of family breakdown,” he says, recalling single mums struggling to raise kids, or fathers who’ve been cut off from their children. Counselling won’t work for everyone, he admits, “but all you can do is take all the evidence overall and say it would have a positive impact”.

With Kev’s words ringing in my ears, and his explanatory notes in my pocket, my partner Lisa and I take the plunge. We’ve been together for 11 years and had intended to get married — but Lisa got up the duff and didn’t want to be fat in her wedding frock. We thought about it again, more recently, but decided to spend the accumulated cash on a family holiday to Japan. We have two kids, Joe, seven, and Eliza, three, and we reckon we have a pretty good relationship. When Joe was just 12 months old we set off on a year-long odyssey around Australia in a caravan and managed not to kill each other (not even when, against her advice, I drove our vehicle into a crocodile-infested creek in the Kimberley and we didn’t make it out the other side). Now we have a Sydney mortgage, and you can’t get a longer-term commitment than that.

There are many counselling services out there, so which one to choose? Andrews and his wife co-founded a Catholic counselling service in Melbourne in 1980 called the Marriage Education Programme. (Both have since resigned from it and Margaret is no longer doing any counselling, Andrews’ office says). I thought it may be a good place to start but ­discovered they don’t run courses in Sydney. Its receptionist suggested I contact a Catholic group in Sydney called FOCCUS. On its website, Catholic Society for Marriage Education, there is an ­article by the Melbourne theologian Nicholas Tonti-Filippini, who pulls out some teachings from the Bible to helpfully reveal, in dot points, the church’s vibe on marriage: “Man is head of woman”; “Woman is reflection of man’s glory, as woman came from him”; “Man not created for sake of woman, but woman ­created for the sake of man”. And, my personal favourites, “Wives should regard their husbands as they regard the Lord” and “Church submits to Christ, wives to their husbands.”

I tell Lisa this is where we are headed. “Don’t be so ridiculous,” she tells me in a tone that ­suggests I am not the Lord in our family. We end up at the non-denominational, not-for-profit Relationships Australia on two Friday afternoons a fortnight apart. The counsellor is professional and friendly and we both like her but the first session is odd, at first, as we work through what we really want to gain from this. Lisa makes the point that, after 11 years, two kids and demanding jobs, we often don’t focus enough on each other. She is looking for ways to build intimacy, to be more “present” with each other. “You don’t necessarily always tune into each other,” the counsellor observes.

And me? In February this year the Australian cricket captain, Michael Clarke, was suffering a batting slump. Early in his career he couldn’t help but score, but in recent times his average had begun to wane. He was looking for ways to get back some of that exuberant early form. When asked why he’d given up a rest day for a day of practice in the nets he replied, “You don’t get better from the couch.” I am hoping the opposite, that the couch will improve my average.

The sessions take us down some unexpected corridors. The counsellor says it is a joy to be working with two people who want to build on their relationship and who are positive towards each other. “This must be a doddle for you,” I say, as most of her clients are at each other’s throats. She says it is a welcome relief, but in some ways it can be difficult when the adjustments are subtle. We are, she says, among a “trickle of clients”, like Kev and Marg Andrews, who come in “seeking to address the drift”. She tells us we need to be active in writing the story we want for our life “or life will write the other one for you”. The counsellor is able to draw things from us that we both hadn’t thought we’d reveal. She’s very good at her job. “I don’t need to tell you this,” she says at one point, “but it is so lovely to hear the way you speak and relate to each other. There’s humour, playfulness and concern.” She praises our eye contact too and we leave our second session feeling a bit chuffed. That night, we organise a babysitter and head out on a date.

Our friends are fascinated and it is a topic of dinner party conversations for weeks. “Was it worth it?” we are asked. Definitely. It put the focus onto us. We spend so much time prioritising the kids when probably the greatest thing we can give them is a good and loving relationship between us. We knew that already, but it was nice to have it reaffirmed. It enhanced the tenderness between us.

Gottman — claims he can predict the outcome of a relationship to within an accuracy of 91 per cent.

We were unaware of it but our counsellor was observing our facial expressions, eye contact and how we reacted to each other as much as she was listening to what we had to say. Much of this observation during therapy is based on the work of the famed relationship psychologist Dr John Gottman, who, over many years, has observed and analysed hundreds of conversations between partners in conflict in his “love lab” at the University of Washington, Seattle. Gottman then followed what happened to those couples over time.

With this research behind him, Gottman — by observing couples and how they interact, even for a short time — claims he can predict the outcome of a relationship to within an accuracy of 91 per cent. He’s like Bart Cummings, watching over his runners at a 5am track work session and knowing exactly how they’ll perform on Cup day.

“Usually these four horsemen clip-clop into the heart of a marriage in the following order: criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling…”

Gottman identified the four negative interactions between couples that can spell death for a relationship. He calls them the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. “Usually these four horsemen clip-clop into the heart of a marriage in the following order: criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling,” he writes. Contempt — “sarcasm, cynicism, name-calling, eye-rolling, sneering, mockery and hostile humour”, is by far the most lethal.

Contempt — “sarcasm, cynicism, name-calling, eye-rolling, sneering, mockery and hostile humour”, is by far the most lethal.

Conversely, one of the keys to a happy and lasting relationship is an ability to “fight well” and be able to reconcile the inevitable differences that arise in a relationship.

“What really separates contented couples from those in deep marital misery,” says Gottman, “is a healthy balance between their positive and negative feelings and actions towards each other. As part of my research I carefully charted the amount of time couples spent fighting versus interacting positively — touching, smiling, paying compliments, laughing, etc.” He found that the magic ratio was five to one. “As long as there is five times as much positive feeling and interaction between husband and wife as there is negative, the marriage is likely to be stable over time.”

“As long as there is five times as much positive feeling and interaction between husband and wife as there is negative, the marriage is likely to be stable over time.”

But can this be taught? Can couples learn to admire each other? Can they be made to see that their good points far outweigh their bad ones? Can they learn to fight in a good way? Can relationships in severe distress be saved?

Jack, 49, is still bitter about his counselling experiences. Fifteen years ago, he and his partner Kylie attended six ­sessions of pre-marriage education. They then went on to have a couple of kids. And then, prior to their separation two years ago — which became a divorce — they attended marriage counselling. “There is no medicine man for marriage,” he says adamantly. “You either get along or you don’t. I just don’t believe there are people on this Earth who have the wisdom to fix a relationship between two people they have never met before.”

He now understands that Kylie had left the marriage years before — he just didn’t know about it. “She hung on for years; it was completely unbeknown to me that she was unhappy. What looked to me as sudden was the tail-end of five years of her thinking, ‘How do I get out of it?’ ” The only way the relationship could have worked was for him to have “changed my personality 180 degrees… I would have loved to stay together. She grew up and changed and I didn’t change enough. It’s a common story.”

Susan Visser tells me that an unfortunately high number of people come into counselling with one of the partners looking for a way out.

susan-visser

Visser laments on hidden counselling agenda of some couples

Susan Visser, director of clinical practice for Relationships Australia WA, tells me that an “unfortunately high” number of people come into counselling with one of the partners looking for a way out. “It’s heartbreaking,” says Visser, a counsellor with 30 years’ experience. “One is desperately trying to hold on and the other is using counselling as a way of softly ­telling the other person the relationship is over. They have already psychologically divorced.” “Would it be this way in, say, 20 per cent of cases?” I ask. “Oh no, much higher than that.” But she won’t put a figure on it.

It is very difficult, Visser adds, to save a ­marriage when it has passed that “tipping point”. “I think that is why counselling sometimes gets a bad rap,” she says. “Sometimes you actually have to help the couple tell one another where the relationship is going, and that sometimes means ending it.”

However, when there is goodwill from both partners, even if the relationship is in deep crisis, it can be saved. Professor Margot Schofield, head of Counselling and Psychological Health at La Trobe University, is part way through a major study on the effectiveness of couples counselling in Australia. The results, so far, show it doesn’t work for everyone but “overall … there is an improvement” not only to the relationship but also if either person is suffering from depression, which often accompanies relationship distress. She points out that only a small percentage of people who divorce or split from a long-term de facto relationship had sought counselling.

Schofield is an enthusiastic supporter of Andrews’ new policy. “We pay for all sorts of preventative care in relation to physical health,” she says. “There is an argument to be made for early intervention with relationship problems because it affects every part of a person’s life, their children’s lives and society as well.” Just one protracted Family Court matter could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, she says, let alone the distress to those involved.

What she and Andrews are hoping is that this goes some way to de-stigmatising counselling in Australia. If couples have had a positive experience in a premarital counselling course it may encourage them to seek help “down the track when they confront something that really is very stressful, like the death of a child, or a partner who loses their job”.

Duncan Underwood, 39, the manager of a Sydney design firm, has twice been through an Anglican Church-run marriage education course. His first wife, Nicky, died three and half years ago following a long struggle with breast cancer. He married Catherine 14 months ago. “I definitely think it is worth it,” he says. “It forces you to think about the nature of ­marriage and what it really means.” But is it the best time, I ask, when you are madly in love and having lots of sex, to be seeking advice for ­problems that may arise down the track?

“Well,” he says, “it’s a way of saying, ‘Things are going to get pretty mundane. Here are some helpful tools that may help you along the way’.”

In the US, Professor Bill Doherty, an expert in family therapy from the University of ­Minnesota, says a recent paper in the Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, which reviewed much of the research into couples therapy from the previous decade, found that while it didn’t work for a third of couples, it did for the other two-thirds. That’s a lot of families that are still together because of counselling, he says.

Doherty coined the term “relational intelligence”. “That is not something we acquire going to school learning reading, writing and arithmetic.” He says this relational intelligence — about how our relationships work, how we ­communicate with our partners and the things that have shaped us — can be learnt through counselling sessions. In essence, it is the whole point of them.

Doherty says couples tend to catastrophise when they hit a rocky patch. In his analogy, “they have a version of the common cold and they think they have cancer”. Because people tend not to talk about the problems within their relationship, as they would, say, about the problems they are having with teenage kids, “they are often not aware that most other couples have exactly the same problems and these problems are solvable.”

While it has been shown that counselling for couples in distress is beneficial, the effectiveness of pre-marriage counselling is harder to quantify. Doherty says the evidence points to it having “a moderate effect” on couples remaining married. He is “intrigued” by Andrews’ experiment and says that even if it only has a modest effect on separation rates it would be a good thing.

“I am often a critic of both sides on this,” he says. “Our progressives tend to ignore the ­ability of family to address problems like ­poverty. They want to emphasise important things like unemployment, structural inequality and ­education — and they are important — but they have an aversion to addressing divorce and unmarried parenthood, and yet there is tons of research connecting this to poverty and social inequality. The conservatives want to wring their hands in moral exhortation and say people should just live better, get married and stay married — and that’s not particularly helpful either. So when I see people like Kevin Andrews trying to create something to actually address this, I say: ‘Good for you.’ ”

It may be a good idea. It may even work. It just seems an odd one at this time, when the age of entitlement is supposedly over. With one hand Andrews is doling out money for counselling, his pet project; with the other he has flagged cuts to social service spending. This is the government that controversially pulled a website which informed consumers about high sugar and fat content in foods, aimed at fighting obesity. Obesity costs the government billions too, but some within its ranks argued it wasn’t the government’s place to tell people how to live their lives. I’m not sure what the difference is.

So, if you’re looking for a tune-up and free floor mats courtesy of Kev’s Garage, get in fast. It’s an offer that may just be too good to last.

Friends with benefits win Centrelink benefits

friends-with-benefits-centrelinkSocial security claimants can be “friends with benefits” without losing their Centrelink benefits, a federal tribunal has ruled.

An attempt by the welfare agency to deny a Queensland woman a carer’s allowance because she sometimes had sex with her housemate has been overruled by the Administrative Appeals Tribunal in a case that will be watched with interest by casual acquaintances around the nation.

The tribunal, sitting in Brisbane, was faced with the tricky task of deciding the difference, for the purpose of Centrelink form-filling, between a de facto couple and “friends with benefits” as the woman, Ms T, described her relationship with a man known as Mr D.

Ms T claimed a carer’s allowance in 2012 as her mother’s health deteriorated and she grew more dependent on her daughter, but Centrelink officials knocked back the application, deciding Mr D was Ms T’s live-in-lover.

But in her appeal to the AAT, the 46-year-old Ms T said their relationship was far from exclusive and that after two failed relationships, she was determined to “enjoy her life” and often met other men, whom she first contact through online dating sites, for “physical companionship”.

She shared a house with Mr D, but they had their own rooms, were financially independent of one another and had no joint assets.

“Importantly, it was noted that at no time did Mr D support Ms T,” tribunal member Peter Wulf noted in his decision.

But it was understandable that Centrelink, and later the Social Security Appeals Tribunal, might get the wrong idea about what was going on between Ms T and her sometime lover.

“When completing her original application, Ms T indicated that she was a member of a couple,” Mr Wulf wrote in his decision.

“Based on this, it is quite understandable how both the SSAT and Centrelink came to the conclusion that Mr D and Ms T were members of a couple.

“However, when making her original application for the carer payment, Ms T also made it clear on her form that her relationship with Mr D was ‘friends with benefits’ rather than a couple.”

Centelink’s case relied heavily on the occasional intimacy between Ms T and Mr D but, said Mr Wulf, there was more to a relationship than sex.

“From the evidence of both Ms T and Mr D, it would appear that the relationship is not in any way monogamous, in fact, it is quite the opposite,” the tribunal member noted.

Ms T’s openness about seeing other men away from the home she shared with Mr D seriously undermined Centrelink’s position the two were in a de facto relationship.

“The openness of the relationship, if one exists other than sharing a bed, would suggest that sex outside the relationship was the norm,” Mr Wulf wrote.

“When considering a normal de facto relationship it would be unusual, in the tribunal’s opinion, for such actions to occur with such regularity.

“On this basis, the tribunal does not find that Ms T and Mr D are in a de facto relationship.”