What we know about child abuse and family violence for sure is that it does not discriminate in terms of age, status, wealth or other socio-economic backgrounds. Anyone in any walk of life could be placed in a difficult or life threatening situation involving the other parent of their child and it can have damaging and lasting effects on children.
Women particularly are often faced with having to protect themselves and their children from their spouse when they leave the relationship. With personal safety a priority, I often advise clients on both sides about the steps that should be put into place to ensure that a child is protected from experiencing harm or the risk of harm before and after separation.
For some families, this means ensuring that a child’s time with one of their parents, or some other important person in their life, is supervised. This is known as supervised time and the Courts can put orders in place to ensure that all time, if necessary, between a child and another person is supervised at different stages of a matter.
What is supervised time?
Supervised time means that some other responsible adult is present at all times that a child spends with the person in question. The supervisor should be someone either independent of the parents, or someone that would not cause conflict with the parent being supervised or place the child at risk of being exposed to conflict.
Supervised time can take place in the presence of a mutually trusted friend, family member or some other person. It can also take place within the context of a privately or publicly funded contact service at a cost. The publicly funded Children’s Contact Centres often have long wait times and restricted availability, but are much more cost-effective. On the other hand, privately funded contact services can facilitate supervised time almost immediately and frequently, but they can be expensive.
What does the law say about this?
It is important to know from the outset that the paramount consideration for the Courts in making parenting orders is the best interests of the child. It is legislated that way and should be at the forefront of what every parent and family lawyer does when negotiating and proposing parenting arrangements.
Whilst the benefit to a child of having a meaningful relationship with both of their parents is a primary consideration for the Court, this must be balanced with the need to protect the child from harm or exposure to abuse, neglect or family violence. The latter is also a primary consideration. If these two primary considerations are at odds, the Family Law Act 1975 (Cth) is clear in that the Court must give greater weight to the need to protect the child.
That said, the Act and the Family Law Courts place a high value on the child’s right to know and be cared for by both their parents. If at all possible, parties should try to agree on an arrangement that maintains the child’s relationship with the other parent, if it is safe to do so. Sometimes, measures like supervised time must be put in place to allow this to occur.
What situations can give rise to supervision?
The situations where supervised time may be appropriate and ordered by the Court include a risk of violence to children (physical or emotional), a risk of child sexual abuse or a risk that a parent may not conduct themselves in a way that is in the child’s best interests.
Such conduct can be related to a parent’s struggles with drug or alcohol issues, or mental health issues experienced by a parent, which impacts on their capacity to properly parent the child and meet their needs. There may be other reasons.
In some cases, although less common, supervised time may be necessary in an effort to protect a parent against further allegations being made against them.
Before matters get to a final hearing, the Court often does not have all of the evidence it needs on an interim basis to make certain findings. The Court is then faced with the difficult task of balancing the primary considerations, having regard to the additional considerations set out in the Act and having reference to the undisputed facts before the Court at the time of the interim hearing. The conduct of the party seeking to protect the child can also be relevant, and it is important that any concerns are acted upon appropriately.
Can the Court make a final order for supervised time?
It is relatively uncommon for the Courts to make final orders for a parent’s time to be supervised until the child turns 18 years old. However, this can and does occur if the facts of the case warrant it.
One such recent matter was Aston & Gregory  FCCA 318 where issues of alcohol abuse and family violence by the Father were involved. In that case, the Mother asked the Court to make orders that the Father’s time with the child be supervised until the child reached a certain age two years down the track. The Court recognised the difficulty in making such orders, as there was no guarantee that the Father would improve his behaviour in the future, and it may cause issues for the Mother down the track if she had concerns and wanted the orders changed.
What else can be done, if not supervised time?
In addition to, or in place of, supervised time if appropriate, there are other measures that the Court can put in place to seek to protect children during their time with their parents or other significant people. This includes making orders:
- Restraining a person from consuming illicit drugs or alcohol for a certain period prior to, or during, the children’s time with them
- Restraining a person from being under the influence of any drugs or alcohol at all during the children’s time with them
- Restricting a person’s time to day time visits, if some of the concerns relating to risk involve a person’s conduct at night
- Restraining a person from doing certain things with the children, such as discussing family law or other specific matters with them as it has been demonstrated to cause distress in the past
- That they ensure that a child is properly fed and clothed during times that they spend with them, and that they ensure that their car is fitted with appropriate safety restraints
- That they ensure that a child is not left in the unsupervised care of some other person that poses a threat to the child, or that they ensure that the child does not spend time with such person at all
For some people, the decision to propose supervised time is an agonising one. These matters are often not always clear-cut, particularly when a person is still in the cycle of domestic violence. An experienced family lawyer can assist you work through the issues and give you options on how to put your child first and reach a resolution.
With pragmatic and sensible lawyers on both sides, agreements on supervised time or other necessary measures can be reached without having to institute proceedings. This assists in not only diffusing the conflict where possible, but saving everyone a lot of money in costs.