WHAT IS A FAMILY REPORT?
Quite simply, it is a report about the needs and best interests of the children, and deals with the surrounding dynamics, which often include:
- the parenting capacity of each of the child’s parents, and significant others
- domestic violence
- drug and alcohol abuse
- mental health
- the child’s views and maturity
- any special needs of the child
- extended family, such as grandparents, and siblings or half-siblings
- cultural issues, including if the child is Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander.
A family report writer will typically interview both parents and, depending on their age and maturity, interview or at least observe the kids alone and with each parent. The report writer will typically have read the affidavit material (either before or after seeing the parties) and any subpoenaed material supplied to them. The interviews typically take most of the day. Most interviews will occur at an office, but occasionally, the family report writer may want to conduct a home visit.
The family report writer will then write a report, setting out the issues, then a narrative of each of the interviews, then commonly in conclusion sets out some recommendations.
WHEN IS A FAMILY REPORT PREPARED?
The timing varies. Often it is ordered at the beginning of a matter. Sometimes, it isn’t ordered then but is ordered before there is a trial or final hearing. It would be a rare parenting matter that didn’t have the benefit of a family report. When the court orders the preparation of a report- it either appoints a family consultant who is employed or contracted by the court- and pays for it, or another expert- and orders the parties to pay.
Sometimes they are organised by the parties before there is any court, to hopefully give the parties guidance and possibly prevent court proceedings, as the parties attempted in Packer and Irwin, for example.
Other times they are organised by an independent children’s lawyer.
WHO WRITES FAMILY REPORTS?
Typically they are written by expert social workers or psychologists, and occasionally by child psychiatrists.
THE POWER OF A FAMILY REPORT
A family report writer is the second most powerful person that a parent will deal with in their court case, after the judge. They are more powerful typically than an independent children’s lawyer. Their power comes from three sources:
- They, and they alone, are typically the only professional in the case to have met both the parents and the children other than in a court room, and interacted with them for a long period. Usually the judge does not have the ability to meet the children. When the judge or independent children’s lawyer meets the parties, it is normally in the even more artificial environment of the court room. Family report writers have told me that while they listen to the parents, they are often guided by listening to and observing the children.
- They are independent.
- They are experts qualified int he field of social science, who are able to assist the parents and the court with recommendations.
Family report writers are not Gods. In the words of one judge: “This court is not run by social workers. It is run by judges. Family reports will be assessed along with other evidence.”
The court is not required to follow the recommendations of a family report writer- but often will. If a report is prepared early in the proceedings, but the parties have to wait a long time for a trial, they may find themselves stuck with the (often unwelcome) recommendations for many months and in some cases years, by which time what is in the family report may have become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
PREPARING FOR THE FAMILY REPORT
When going along to an interview for a report, several things are important to remember:
- It will be assumed that you are going to be on your best behaviour- because you know what is being said will be channelled straight back to the judge.
- Therefore, dress the part, and don’t engage in bad behaviour. A woman who punched the family report writer, for example, did not do so well in the recommendations!
- Remember the old American TV saying: “Anything you can and say will be used against you in a court of law.” Whether it is in the room with the interviewer, or outside where your child is, be careful about how you act and what you say.
- Don’t engage in bad mouthing your ex. While your ex might have engaged in bad behaviour- such as domestic violence, and it may be necessary to talk about that, your focus should not be about throwing mud for the sake of it. I continue to be amazed by parents who cannot say one positive thing about their ex as a parent- and continue in that vein in the interview. Occasionally there will be a parent who is so bad that nothing positive can be said about them- but in the scheme of things they are a rarity. Most parents try and be good parents, despite their limitations.
- It’s all about your kids! Despite the pain between you and your ex, the focus is on what the impact of the breakup and other conduct has had on your kids, and what is needed to protect them and foster their welfare.
- Be honest and be yourself! Family report writers can usually pick a fake a mile off.
- Do not overload the family report writer with wads of paper. They may refuse to read any of it. In any event, social workers are much more inclined to observe you, rather than documents. Lawyers are much more interested in documents, as a general rule, than are social workers. Social workers are interested in people.
- Above all, make appropriate arrangements for your children. Don’t announce with drama that you have to leave early- to get the children somewhere, which with a bit of organisation could have been avoided. Make sure that your kids have adequate toys, games, food and drink to while away the hours.
- Don’t coach your children. Usually the least bit said about the interviews the better. The Family Court of Western Australia has a useful brochure about this- here. Of course, talking to your children in advance must be age appropriate.
- Consult your solicitor. Going in unprepared, without the benefit of advice from your lawyer, is foolhardy.