Chapter 2 – Getting help and advice

Chapter 2 – Getting help and advice

Chris and Michelle are now living separately, but they still have a lot to sort out. Day-to-day arrangements for their children, and money matters, are just the start. Family and friends offer support and well-meaning advice but Chris and Michelle both find that they need impartial, accurate information from a lawyer or a dispute resolution professional before they can make decisions and plan for the future.

This video is part of the When separating series of videos that include Chapter 1 – Telling your children and Chapter 3 – Planning for the future.

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Transcription

Text: It’s Happening to Us, Part II: When you need help and advice.

[Hayley and her friend Sarah sit on a picnic rug in the backyard as family and friends chat and barbeque in the background. Balloons and streamers decorate the veranda.]

Hayley: Yeah, what class are you doing? Aren’t you doing media and philosophy?

[The camera pans to the outside table where Dylan sits with other children and his grandfather. The children giggle.]

Dylan: Oh, yeah, that was hiliarious…

[Vision shows Michelle and her mother, Shannon, standing in the kitchen. ]

Michelle: I caught up with Kylie yesterday.

Shannon: Mmhmm.

Michelle: She said the kids would end up living with me ‘cause I’m their mum. But Marissa said they’d end up spending half their time with me and half with Chris. I don’t know who’s right.

Shannon: Aw, sure, I think your friends are lovely but I wouldn’t listen to everything they say. You really need to talk to somebody that actually know what they’re talking about.

Michelle: Who?

Shannon: I don’t know. Make some phone calls, go online. Maybe Legal Aid would be a good place to start. There’s lots of good services out there to help.

[The scene changes to Michelle on the phone in the family room.]

Michelle: Hi there, my name’s Michelle. I don’t know where to start, um…well my husband and I are separating.

[A toddler, Jasper, sits on the floor with his fingers in his mouth.]

Michelle: Uh huh. Well, Chris and I can’t seem to talk about anything. [Pause] No, there are no risks to the children.

[Michelle runs her hands through Jasper’s blonde hair.]

Michelle: We just find it difficult to talk to each other and work things out together. [Pause] Yep. The Family Relationship Centre.

[Michelle writes down “Family Relationship Centre” on a piece of notepaper.]

Michelle: Yes, OK. Thank you.

[The scene cuts to a woman, Heather, sitting at a desk with a headset on.]

Heather: Good morning, Family Relationship Centre, Heather speaking.

[Michelle is standing in her living room.]

Michelle: Hi, my name’s Michelle. I rang Legal Aid and they gave me you number, um…I’m separating from my husband and I need some help.

Heather: Hi, Michelle. Thanks for calling. We use a process called ‘family dispute resolution’. Have you heard of it?

Michelle: Hmm…well, Legal Aid gave me a bit of a run–down but it was only brief. I don’t know much about it.

Heather: Well, family dispute resolution involves a qualified person helping people affected by separation or divorce focus on the important issues in their family.

[Michelle nods her head as she listens to Heather.]

HEATHER: In many cases they’re able to assist couples come to an agreement that will work for the whole family.

Michelle: Um, so, if I wanted to do that what would I need to do?

Michelle runs her hands through Jasper’s hair.

Heather: You and the other parent would need to attend separate appointments with the family dispute resolution practitioner. Everything you say is confidential except as otherwise required by law. You’ll be asked a series of questions about your relationship with each other and the children to determine whether family dispute resolution is suitable and safe for you. Some family relationship centres also provide child–inclusive services if it is appropriate and both parents agree.

Michelle: Would you contact my husband?

Heather: With your permission, yes.

Michelle: OK.

[The scene changes to Michelle sitting in an appointment room with a friendly looking counsellor.]

Counsellor: How do you think Hayley and Dylan see you as a mum?

Michelle: Hayley would probably think I’m really embarrassing. Dylan just loves his mum. [Chuckles] He’s only a little guy.

Text: Family Dispute Resolution Practitioner.

Counsellor: Can you tell me something about how you and Chris have resolved conflict in the past?

Michelle: We used to be pretty good at it but the last few years we just end up having the same fights. And now Chris just walks away and I’m left standing there.

Consellor: How would you think Chris might respond if I were to ask him that same question?

Michelle: [Inhales] He’d say we struggle to resolve conflict. He’d probably say it’s because I don’t listen to him.

Counsellor: Have you ever been concerned for your own safety?

Michelle: No.

Consellor: Did you ever feel unsafe if you and Chris were unable to reach an agreement about something?

Michelle: [Exhales] At times he’s been really angry but I never felt unsafe, even then.

Counsellor: Do you have any concerns for your children’s safety?

Michelle: No.

Counsellor: Michelle, a family dispute resolution practitioner is independent of both parents and aims to help them work through the issues and to build a plan for their family’s future now that they’re separated.

[Michelle inhales]

Counsellor: Our role is to help parents focus on their children’s needs and not on the issues that led to separation. We ask each parent to consider and listen to the other parent’s views, to focus on what your children’s future will look like, and to explore and test options for resolving issues that are in dispute. Now, those issues might include where will the children live, how to deal with important and special days like birthdays and holidays, who’ll take them to events, activities—that sort of thing. We also can help parents identify where they need support and can refer them appropriately.

Michelle: So, will you give me legal advice as well?

Counsellor: No, no, a family dispute resolution practitioner cannot give legal advice. Our job is to facilitate, not advise. It is wise to obtain legal advice. It’s an important part of having an informed discussion and hopefully an informed agreement.

Michelle: So, will I have to go to court?

Counsellor: This process is an alternative to going to court. After we’ve seen both you and Chris we’ll be able to see if family dispute resolution is a process that’s likely to be suitable in your case. If it isn’t, then of course you can consider other options including court.

[Vision shows Michelle addressing the camera against a black background.]

Michelle: You want answers. You want everything to just be sorted out. The best advice that I could give anyone would, seriously, just be to go and see a professional who can help, and don’t put it off.

The scene changes to Dylan and Chris sitting on the family couch, reading a book.

Chris: Likes to hold a pencil as a staff.

[Dylan chuckles.]

[Michelle walks in the front door.]

Michelle: Hi, Dylan.

Dylan: Hi, Mum.

Michelle: Chris, can I have a word?

Chris: One sec, mate.

[Chris and Michelle walk into the hallway and lean against the wall, facing one another.]

Michelle: I think it’s time we figured out what we’re gonna do with the kids. I went to a Family Relationship Centre today.

Chris: You went where?

Michelle: A Family Relationship Centre.

Chris: Hold up, what for? You haven’t talked to me about any of this.

Michelle: I tried to, Chris. You wouldn’t listen. I needed to talk to someone to try to work out…

Chris: Work out?! Work out what? So, suddenly you think we need someone to tell us what to do with our kids?

Michelle: Chris, I don’t want to fight with you. We both need someone to talk to.

Chris: So you don’t want to fight but you’re gonna take me to court?

Michelle: Please, just listen to me for a minute. I’m not taking you to court. I don’t want to go to court. I found out about family dispute resolution.

[Michelle pulls a brochure out of her handbag and tries to give it to Chris. Chris walks away.]

[The scene changes to a school car park. A young teacher sitting at a desk. The classroom is empty except for Dylan who sits sullenly, eyes cast downward.]

[The teacher walks over and sits in front of Dylan on a chair.]

Teacher: Dylan, you alright, mate? You don’t have to talk if you don’t want to.

Dylan: It’s Mum and Dad. They’ve broken up . I think Dad’s going to move out.

TEACHER: Sorry to hear that, mate. My parents broke up when I was still at school. Dad moved away but we still did all the same stuff together. You can talk to me any time.

[Gentle piano music plays]

Teacher: It’s going to be OK.

[The scene changes to Chris and his friend sitting in hammock chairs and drinking beer in a backyard at night.]

[Crickets chirp]

Chris’ friend: [Exhales] So, how have you been?

Chris: Michelle spoke to someone at the Family Relationship Centre.

Chris’ friend: So?

Chris: What? She went behind my back.

Chris’ friend: Sounds like she’s just getting some advice. Maybe you should too.

Chris: Damn.

[Chris takes a swig of beer.]

[The scene changes to Chris sitting at a desk and talking with a family lawyer in an office.]

Text: Family Lawyer.

Lawyer: OK, so just to put your mind at ease—from what you’ve told me there’s no reason that you shouldn’t be seeing the kids and spending a good amount of time with them.

Chris: [Exhales] That’s a relief. The kids are living with Michelle at the moment. I’m seeing them a bit but not as much as I’d like to.

Lawyer: OK, first off, to give you a bit of background. Let me tell you a little bit about how family law works and how the Family Court looks at things. And then we can discuss the time you spend with the kids at great length. Is that OK?

Chris: Sure.

Lawyer: So, Chris, the most important consideration when making decisions about children is what’s in the best interest of the children. So, it’s not about what mum or dad wants, or parents’ rights, or anything like that. It’s about finding what arrangement work best for the kids so that all of their needs are met and they’re no exposed to any harm. This may be different for different children. It really is a consideration of what’s best for that particular child. Your youngest, did you say he’s about two and a half?

Chris: Yeah, almost.

Lawyer: So, for example, he may need slightly different arrangements to the other two kids just until he’s a little bit older.

Chris: OK, I understand that, you know, we need to think about what’s best for the kids, it’s what we’ve always tried to do. But aren’t there set times or recommended times that kids spend with their parents? I mean, I’m pretty sure that I heard that kids live fifty–fifty with their parents when they separate.

Lawyer: Every family’s different, so there are no automatic rules about the amount of times that kids spend with each parent. This really is a matter of you and Michelle thinking about what’s going to be best for your kids, and what you two can make work in reality. You’ll need to think about things like who works when, what arrangements can be made for the kids to go to and from school, and how changing these kinds of arrangements, that the kids have had in place for years, might affect the kids.

Chris: Oh, right, so things are just going to stay the same as they are? Well, I have to work late sometimes—I don’t want to just see the kids on the weekends. This is rubbish.

Lawyer: That’s not what I’m saying. It’s really a matter of being practical and finding out what will work and that you and Michelle can manage, that also works for the kids. You just need to figure out what will work in reality and, most importantly, what will work for the kids.

Chris: I guess that makes sense. If I’m honest with myself, it would be pretty hard for the kids to live half the time at my place, and a big change for them—even if I’d really like it. And Jasper certainly wouldn’t cope—he’s still pretty attached to his mum. But I would like to keep doing some of the things I did with them before the split, like taking Dylan to basketball but, um, what happens if Michelle and I can’t agree on what to do?

Lawyer: If you two have really tried and you’ve been to family dispute resolution and you still can’t work it out, you can go to the Family Court and ask the court to make a decision for you, based on what they perceive to be in the best interest for the children. Now, Chris, working on arrangements for kids after a separation can be a bit of a slow process. It’s a pretty difficult and emotional time for everyone, particularly the kids, and you and Michelle may not have the same ideas about what’s best for them. Don’t get discouraged, though—the majority of people are able to sort things out for themselves, or with a little help from the Family Relationship Centre or a counselling service.

Chris: So, we don’t have to go to court then?

Lawyer: No, not at all. In your circumstances court would really be the last resort. Going to court can take a lot of time and money and many people find it very stressful. If you go to court, your matter will be heard by someone who’s trained in the law and they’ll do their best to make the right decision but, at the end of the day, the decision is imposed upon you by someone who doesn’t really know you or your family. You and Michelle are the best judges of what’s best for your kids.

Chris: OK, so, what about things like who makes the day–to–day decisions? I don’t want to be cut out.

Lawyer: Now that you and Michelle are living apart, obviously there are some day–to–day decisions that you’ll each need to make by yourself when the kids are with you. But the more major decisions—things like what schools the kids go to, if they follow a religion, or whether they go on an overseas holiday—these are the sorts of things that you and Michelle will need to discuss and try and work out together. This can be a little difficult, or in some cases a little unsafe. In that case those sorts of decisions might be handed over to one parent. Doesn’t sound like this is the case for you and Michelle though.

Chris: No. I mean, we’re not getting on great at the moment but I’m pretty sure things will settle down and we’ll be able to work together to work out what’s best for the kids.

Lawyer: That’s great. OK. We can look at the details of how that works later. For now, let’s spend some time looking at what arrangements you think might work.

Chris: OK, sure.

[Gentle piano music plays]

[Vision shows Chris sitting against a black background, addressing the camera.]

Chris: Well, I was coming at it from the mindset that we were still together. I just remember being so angry about her speaking to someone else without telling me. Because that’s the moment I realised it was over. She did the right thing speaking to someone.

[The scene changes to Chris wearing casual clothes and knocking on the front door of Michelle’s house. Hayley opens the door.]

Hayley: Hi, Dad.

Chris: Sweetie…

Dylan: Dad!

Chris: [Laughs] Hey, mate. I’ll meet you in the car. There’s my little man.

[Michelle passes Jasper over to Chris.]

Chris: How’s it going?

Michelle: OK, thanks. So, you’ll bring them back from your dad’s at five on Sunday.

Chris: Yeah, no problem. I’ll have them home in time for dinner.

Chris [to Jasper]: Come on, mate.

Chris [to Michelle]: See ya.

Michelle: See ya. Bye!

[Gentle piano music plays]

[Chris sits in the car with Hayley next to him in the passenger seat. He smiles, starts the engine and drives off.]

Text: The information in these films is a general guide to the law. You should not rely on these films as legal advice. It is recommended you talk to a lawyer about our particular situation. © 2012 Legal Aid WA. This film has been adapted from resources produced by the Legal Aid WA When separating project. Victoria Legal Aid thanks Legal Aid WA for permission to reproduce this content. This information is copyright. All persons or organisations wanting to reproduce this material should get permission from Legal Aid WA.

Text (next screen): Where to get help.

Victoria Legal Aid

Legal Help

Tel: 9269 0120 or 1800 677 402 (country callers)

www.legalaid.vic.gov.au

For your nearest community legal centre:

Tel: 9652 1500

www.communitylaw.org.au

Family Relationship Advice Line

Tel: 1800 050 321

www.familyrelationships.gov.au