The Ozzy headlines that hit harder are about: deaths. Yes deaths. What can we learn about campaigning from one approach based in Australia that includes a revolutionary view: Family law doesn’t help. It harms the separated families who turn to it. It can even be fatal. Alternatives must be promoted.
If a hard-hitting headline and new rationale helps improve the system, then the wider benefit of the approach would be to prevent all kinds of harm to all separating families and children, not just the fatalities. They would all get reliable help instead.
What we needed and what we got
Family separation is mostly hard, often quite nasty, and in various ways it is fatal – fatal to loving relationships, fatal to lives too. General patterns are important to study and mull over. But sometimes a single event, a shocking news story, breaks through and grabs us.
Such a fatal tragedy happened to Aaron Cockman’s family (pictured). On 11 May 2018, his four children and their mother were murdered in the context of a difficult family separation. Of course you want to know the details. But it’s so tragic that the details can wait. The scale of the tragedy takes us straight to big questions about how to make sure this never happens again to anyone.
Aaron set up a fund-raising foundation aaron 4 kids foundation. His story carries a simple message about how family law is the fatal factor where other kinds of support could have helped.
“When my wife Kat and I split up, we needed help and support. We still used to go to the movies as a family or down to the beach at Margs after we separated. But it was a really difficult and vulnerable time and what we needed was a strong system of counselling, coaching, mediation and community support. What we got instead was lawyers and a frightening, unaffordable family court system. The moment Kat and her parents got a lawyer involved, everything changed. It was the lawyer system that drove events in our family and the terrible financial cost and long timescale of the family court made it so much more stressful for Kat’s family.”
The fatal focus dramatically splashes the essentials:
- how terribly serious this is,
- how vulnerable and harmful family separation can be,
- how family courts often make things worse,
- how innocent children are literally in the firing line of adults and systems,
- how separation is not so much a legal issue but a matter of child health, safety and welfare,
- how other help can work.
For Kids’ Sake
There are several arms to this approach in Australia. For Kids Sake is responsible for the campaign. It’s a nice touch that the photos of the For Kids Sake Board are of when they were children. They work in partnership with the aaron 4 kids foundation and Family Law Reform Coalition. Anyone can contribute at: bit.ly/aaron4kids. Orange is their colour – a positive, hopeful colour, the universal colour for safety and spirituality, the colour of lifebuoys that save lives.
Underpinning the shock headlines, there is a mountain of deeply dedicated work going on. The headline is not just flash in the pan journalism. Dr David Curl is CEO of For Kids Sake. Here he writes for a newspaper. Here announcing a proposal at Parliament House for a Minister for Children to get to grips with saving lives and improving services for separating families. Three months later Australia had their first Minister for Children and Families. Below are the words of For Kids Sake in a Senate Motion calling on the Australian Government to recognise that “thousands of children continue to be harmed by a family law system that is not fit-for-purpose”.
That triggered a national review with a policy paper, Childhood Matters (37 pages) and a big colourful version (100 pages with a graphic summary) that they handed out at Canberra airport to Government Ministers and MPs heading home for the weekend. One MP said it was just the right length to read on her flight. For Kids Sake has met with half of the 226 Australian federal politicians in person to lobby for a safer healthier approach to family breakdown. Plus they’ve done international TV programs and ads to help alert the public to what’s needed. For Kids Sake has a global reach. They contributed to the Scottish Government review of the Children (Scotland) Act 1995. The campaign is universally applicable.
This approach is revolutionary because, across the world, family law is seen as positively essential to help those separating families who struggle, especially those cases where risk and harm is a concern. But actually everyone agrees that family law could be improved. For Kids Sake‘s challenge is to be so blunt about family law being actively harmful as a reason to seriously develop the alternatives more urgently. Everyone everywhere wants families to find these other collaborative ways to resolve their difficulties. For Kids Sake makes a much stronger case.
Campaigns with family law as solution
Around the world, there are other campaigns about the worst that family separation and family law can do. Mostly the campaigns make their headline be about the harms called: ‘Parental Alienation’ (PA) or ‘Domestic Abuse’ (DA). And mostly family law – or improving it – is held to be the answer not the problem. Family law is indeed where last ditch contact and custody battles are fought out. To question this heroic work seems like choosing to throw kids back into the river to drown. That doesn’t seem right, does it? Given that severe separation problems get entrenched in the family law system, the label-heavy kind of campaigning seems a logical way to raise awareness.
But does it work as a campaign? At best you have to say: Myeh … massive efforts by a few and very slow progress indeed. Yes, the body of knowledge does grow slowly. Yes, there’s occasional intelligent press coverage here and there. Without the fancy words, most lay people already know that real risks need to be dealt with, and that a parent can turn a child against the other parent. Many have experienced these miseries and the nightmare of blind justice.
But it’s not the public who don’t get it. The energetic resistance and disinterest lies in the professional establishment. Yet the skilled professional assessment of each problem case is the essential core to skilful sorting out what is needed. Theoretical debate about general categories is valid, but mostly that turns into populist polarised ranting in public based on partial personal experience rather than reliable general evidence. That does not welcome thoughtful debate nor enough skilled practitioners to do the job.
So the usual kind of campaign faces steady opposition, controversy and public disinterest. Some use more neutral headings like ‘children who resist post-separation contact‘. But the usual campaign aims to: inform and prove PA or DA exists, learn more about PA or DA, why PA or DA fools people, why PA and DA are so bad, how family law is important, how family law needs to learn about PA and DA, only the experts know how to tackle PA and DA, and so on. Even that briefest summary is off-putting. And – that way focuses on a court of law as the only way to sort things out.
So the campaign locks in family law as the key to the system. As they fight to improve it, leading PA and DA practitioners have, in effect, joined up with the family law system rather than stood back to ask bigger questions about it. Family law becomes their stage and their livelihood. Yet everyone agrees that the specialist intervention and work would be far more effective if it happened much earlier, way upstream. Ideally that would be before anyone falls into the family law river.
Promoting alternatives to family law
For Kids Sake imagine a system like the diagram shows. Their argument goes: People think adversarial family law is the best and only place to get help for serious difficulties. But if it’s harmful, we urgently need to promote all the other ways that work or can be made to work better. We need a major programme to reverse the present system, to balance or challenge the monopoly that everyone gives family law, to build a system where family law does not dominate.
We’ve seen that’s not such a revolutionary view – everyone says they want families to find collaborative non-legal ways to resolve difficult separations. No one thinks spending months and years and shedloads of money on legal processes is good practice. But, in practice, lawyers and the rest of us don’t really put our money where our mouth is … ‘money’ in both metaphorical and literal senses. Desperate parents don’t know what else to do given the dominant culture. And that money is how family law professionals earn a living; even the best of them are not going to be keen to question or risk their jobs.
So For Kids Sake says much more loudly what everyone else says more feebly. Family law can be seriously harmful. It is not the best and only place to solve the troubles of separating families. So they aim to promote the alternatives much more seriously, getting the government to make it happen. The shocking headlines launch the idea powerfully.
On another occasion, we can explore how family law has come to be the way it is – so dominant even though everyone agrees that it is not fit for this purpose. We can unpack why it doesn’t work well, what improvements would work better, how it could divert the problems it takes too long to sort or actually makes worse just now.
For now, compare one radically revised system of family law – the Cochem or Consensus model developed in Germany -where a family court judge decided enough was enough. That’s an upstream model of family law that strives to get people out of the river at the point where they have fallen in. Another role for family law could be as ‘back-stop’. That is typical for school attendance problems. There is a law about school attendance but family law is the very last place you go to, not the first one.
Given how independent and powerful the law is, and how monopolistic family law is, how little transparency and research we have to judge what is happening inside them, it is hard to see effective change happening without a very strong push. A really powerful campaign like For Kids Sake‘s may be what it takes to get things moving faster. It will take governments to drive it forward.
So what kind of campaign will work best in the end for children and families? There cannot really be answers to that question without more data to measure and without trying all kinds of campaigns to see what they can do.
The standard campaign to raise awareness, based on patterns like Parental Alienation and Domestic Abuse, has been going for many years. Good intentions but we’re still waiting. Campaigners in some countries – Mexico, Romania – have got a law in place against PA. That makes family law even more important. Laws against PA may raise awareness and earlier assessment but they can also be criticised as too simplistic and belated in the process. Still, you would not be able to get a law in place in your country without some long hard campaigning.
Craig Childress’s campaign is another way that has been tried for a few years. That’s based on re-labelling PA with a rationale that forces professionals (and family law) to abide by their professed standards, to change their dismissive narrative, and to tackle it as emotional abuse, an Attachment disorder they already know well. Professionals assess cases and make recommendations to family courts. This campaign aims to hold them all to proper standards of practice and intervention without further ado. That sounds fair enough and it might be working. Understandably perhaps, Craig Childress’s tone is righteously aggressive. There may well be more subtle and surgical ways to do the same kind of thing effectively.
On this weblog you will find my own quieter contributions to the cause. Mostly I reframe what we’re dealing with in a way that I hope might engage a wider audience better. For example:
- switch on the right frame of mind by combining PA and ‘abduction’;
- the wide field of harmful abusive relationships that take you in and cut you off, especially
- the comparison of totalist cults and harmful coercive family relationships (including DA and PA);
- the theatre critic’s view of PA;
- how truth may be stronger in fiction (and in The Archers);
- how Attachment science is a good safe base for us;
- the many counter-intuitive hurdles to understanding PA;
- how ‘school refusal’ shows that family law is not fit for the job of dealing with ‘parent refusal’; and
- where family law does work better and why.
Of course my stuff is not really campaigning and I have not grabbed the world’s minds or hearts.
There’s not space here to analyse the various kinds of campaigns further. This is just to point them out for comparison with what For Kids Sake is doing. That campaign has been thoroughly put together in a serious way. It shows what any proper campaign requires – whatever the message may be. Their particular message is certainly a new way to go, to think about and to try out.
One thing that naturally happens is that the different rationales and campaigns provoke heated debate even though we all have the same bigger aims. The most heated debate is between those who focus on the risk of harmful physical abuse, neglect and sexual abuse to children (DA), and those who focus on the risk of harmful emotional abuse to children as a result of disturbed coercive relationships and being cut off from safe and loving relationships with one of their parents (PA). Focusing on improving or displacing the common element – family law – should help both DA and PA and unite them in a common cause. But it hasn’t yet.
The sides become so entrenched that opposing sides won’t be in the same room as each other, let alone listen and talk with each other to find the common ground we all share. The result is a precise replica of what happens with the couple and their dispute about the children.
It’s entirely reasonable to keep asserting straightforward evidence and thinking, but it hasn’t worked that well as a campaign. It would take forever to try to explain here why the standard approach makes things too complicated to engage people’s hearts and minds quickly and effectively in a campaigning way. You can try that out for yourself by reading all the material on this website and those linked on the Resources page. A few hours there will be sure to scramble your brains.
Of course no one is going to erase all that valid PA and DA work, the text books, the research, the conferences, the online resources, the heated debates about which particular label or evidence is right, which gender is to blame, what category of abuse or crime it comes into, what the right intervention is and is not. But, in the search for the best way to campaign, we should be keen to support and assess all reasonable ways anyone comes up with. Ideally we could all hold hands in a common cause rather than to fight about who is best. But arguing is part of the process.
Grey tarmac or yellow brick road?
To highlight the comparison between the For Kids Sake road in the Land of Oz – a yellow brick road maybe? or maybe an orange one! – and the more common grey tarmac road, there are three key features:
- The carefully crafted hard-hitting headline is plainly a powerful new way to get people engaged.
- But it would be a limited flash in the pan if there wasn’t also a dedicated underlying organisational campaigning strategy to follow it through. The headline is nothing without the reports, lobbying and face to face meetings with lots of the top politicians.
- And the headline and the lobbying depends on a competent rationale. For Kids Sake uses a rationale that portrays family law as not only unhelpful but actively harmful. We’ve seen that this is not that revolutionary. All round the world, those who do value family law are still critical of it, want improvements to it to reduce the cost and harm, to bring in informed and skilled professionals for the best, most child-focused, collaborative solution, as early as possible.
Rarely, big change can be started right where it’s needed. An example of that is the Cochem Consensus approach where the change was realised by the judge and his colleagues and they shaped the changes they wanted.
But mostly our campaigning is like a broad social movement indirectly seeking to get the judges or the government to influence the system to change. There three elements make things happen:
- Start locally at ground level and work up;
- Strong structure and leadership;
- Seek reform through government or democratic elections.
PA and DA campaigns start locally – ie ground level rather than geographically – because mostly it is the victims affected and the few open-minded professionals involved who become concerned with what’s happening around them. Getting that organised at all in such disturbing situations in hundreds of dispersed corners, creating a strong structure and leadership, is impossibly difficult. Finding a formula and ways to influence government takes very rare determination and skill. DA has had longer to build its now high profile success with a gender-based view of abuse and safety; PA follows slowly in DA’s footsteps but it has extra hurdles to jump.
For Kids Sake has ticked all six of the above boxes. But that doesn’t mean an effective campaign has to. Others could take parts of that approach – eg a hard-hitting story, a focus on the limitations of family law, and a simpler short cut rationale without the labels. You could use leaner methods to get it taken up by the public and government. Maybe a Childress-like strategy might work by nailing professional incompetence to their codes and standards as a quick way to make them all smarten up sharpish.
Go straight to the heart of it
Killing children so they don’t have a relationship with a parent is the ultimate harm, the most extreme cutting off of a relationship there is. Faced with this tragedy, you can’t start a round-about debate about it. It really is what it looks like. It’s not some fictional drama or some academic sleight of hand. Something awful has happened. Everyone wants to know what and why, what should have been done to prevent it.
The headline story stands for other kinds of fatality too. Extremes of family separation cause parental suicide; and the living or ‘invented death‘ of a loving parent and child for each other – there’s no funeral, normal recognition or support for the terrible grief.
Once the candid camera has thrown us into the scene of the crime, we find ourselves shocked and ready for fresh thinking, listening and talking together. We find a lot of the familiar stuff gets a new lease of life.
By going for the beating heart of it, For Kids Sake side-steps all the brain-scrambling that gets in the way. Detailed background work has created momentous follow through. The headline story pulls us in and grabs our hearts and minds. The details and discussion that open up from this new interest are the reward we’ve spent decades failing to engage enough. All the other children and families will benefit, those who are faced with other kinds of trouble, harm or fatality than in Aaron’s case – the relationship fatalities of the living.
Their campaign avoids the label controversy that triggers violent dismissal and in-fighting that gives us so many years of more of the same impasse. The heart of the Ozzy approach takes just those few sentences from a parent who has survived a horrendous family tragedy:
“When we split up, it was a really difficult and vulnerable time. What we needed was a strong system of support. What we got instead was lawyers and a frightening, unaffordable family court system. The moment a lawyer was involved, everything changed. The lawyer system made it so much more stressful and drove the events in our family.”
The point is made. The point is you don’t need any more words to get it. The point is you are caught up in a new way. The point is that, in whatever direction thinking and discussion then goes, we’re on a new road that we urgently need to follow … whether the road is yellow, orange or grey.