August 17, 2020 by Robert Franklin, JD, Member, National Board of Directors
In Australian Family Law, Augusto Zimmerman is a heavyweight. He’s a highly-respected academic, former Law Reform Commissioner and current President of Western Australia’s Legal Theory Association. When Zimmerman talks, people listen. I hope they do in this case.
The linked-to article is adapted from Zimmerman’s presentation to the current Joint Select Committee on Australia’s Family Law System that’s once again looking into how to make family law fair to children and parents (A Sense of Place, 7/27/20). He doesn’t mince words. His words positively seethe with indignation.
For example, the first section of his presentation is entitled “Child Support Payments, Parental Alienation and Adult Male Suicide – an Undeniable Link.” Strong stuff, and he backs up every word.
In a nutshell, child support levels are determined by Australian courts based on the number of days a custodial parent has the child in her care – the more days, the more dollars. Unsurprisingly, “it is entirely reasonable to expect that a primary carer may be very tempted to withhold access for solely monetary reasons.”
Stated another way, when we offer a person monetary incentives to take a certain action, we aren’t surprised when the person takes that action. Money can have that effect.
And, given those incentives and the fact that custodial parents (the huge majority of whom are mothers) often fight to keep non-custodial parents’ parenting time to a minimum, the expedient of parental alienation often becomes the weapon of choice. After all, why not get little Andy or Jenny to reject Dad outright and so reduce his parenting time from minimal to nothing at all?
The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare reports that the suicide rate for men aged 20 to 39 years has risen by 70 per cent over the last two decades.
This finding has been highlighted in an academic paper by Susan Beaton and Peter Forster. Published by the Australian Psychological Society, these two experts in suicide preventions explain that ‘suicide is the number one killer of men under 44 years’ in Australia, and that the dramatic increase in male suicide is at least partially due to marriage breakdown coupled with ‘poorer social support among divorced males’
According to sociology professor Augustine Kpsowa of the University of California at Riverside, divorce following the loss of contact with their children is undoubtedly a major factor of male suicide. ‘As far as the divorced man is concerned, he has lost his marriage and lost his children and that can lead to depression and suicide’, Professor Kpsowa says.
In short, child support law begets parental alienation that begets male suicide. Or sometimes it’s just the loss of a father’s children and his status as father that drives him to despair. Of course, fortunately few fathers actually take their own life, but the point is less that particular tragedy than the profound and powerful impact of the family law system on the emotional/psychological well-being of non-custodial parents. Is the devastation wrought on children who lose a father and fathers who lose their children truly the best Australian family law can do?
Augusto Zimmerman thinks not and he’s doing his utmost to wring sensible reform from a family law system that’s long been in thrall to the false notion that children having meaningful time with their fathers can only mean violence for mothers. It’s an absurd idea based on flaky data, but to date, it’s held sway. Maybe the Joint Select Committee will do better than the last effort at reform. We’ll see.
I’ll have more to say on Zimmerman’s piece next time.