Trying to resolve childcare disputes is stressful for everyone.  Whether the dispute comes right after a separation, years later, or when there is a need to renegotiate previous arrangements, things can get rocky.  When it comes to trying to sort out day-to-day care (custody) and contact (access) the approach you take can have a huge influence on how easy or difficult things get.  Generally speaking, the easier things are the less stressful, time consuming and expensive resolving problems will be.

To help out people going through these situations, we have put together a list of helpful hints and tips which should help keep things as simple as possible.

1.    Keep in mind you’re in for the long haul

Being a parent or caregiver isn’t a short-term deal.  The Family Court can be involved (usually) until a child turns 16 (or 18 for guardianship issues).  But even after that there can be graduations, 21st parties, engagements, weddings, baby showers, grandchildren and all sorts of events which mean parents/caregivers should be in the same room together. 

Given you’re going to need to be involved with the other party or parties for an awfully long time, the sooner you can start to work together (or at least not against each other) the better.

2.    Always think of the children first

It seems obvious, but it is very easy to get carried away with your own feelings and to start to lose sight of what is actually best for the children.  Just because you feel angry, upset or hurt by the other party doesn’t mean the children do as well. 

Don’t put the children in the middle, put them and their needs before you and what you need.  If you can do that the children will benefit, dealing with the other party or parties can get easier, and life usually gets simpler.

3.    Never invent allegations or exaggerate issues

All too often people make up allegations against the other party or exaggerate the issues.  Sometimes this is because they want to try and strengthen their case, sometimes to get back at the other party, sometimes for other reasons.  This can cause major problems for the other party, and often has a flow-on effect on the children.  It also creates anger, hurt and distrust, which makes the future that much harder.  Plus, if you’re found out it isn’t a good look for you, and can sometimes backfire spectacularly. 

If you have a concern, raise it by all means, but don’t present it as fact unless you know it is.

4.    Don’t get involved in tit-for-tat

It is very easy when the other side is making up allegations, or exaggerating what has been going on, to do the same.  Don’t.  If they want to risk looking bad if they get caught making things up or exaggerating, that’s up to them. 

If you’ve made mistakes, you’re better off owning them and doing something to address them rather than going on the offensive to distract everyone from your own problems.

It’s not always easy to take the moral high ground with this stuff, but the more often you can, the better off you’ll likely be.

5.    Don’t make assumptions

When you’re already in a dispute with another person it’s always easy to think the worst of them.  Distrust, anger and hurt can make it very easy to think the worst of someone.  Always keep in mind, however, that you’re probably only getting one side of the story.  Do a bit of fact checking before you assume something is true.

This is especially true when you hear something from the children themselves.  To put it bluntly, children are not good yardsticks of the truth.  Children can exaggerate, invent, bend the truth, and outright lie to a surprising degree.  This might be based on what they think a person wants them to say, something they misheard, misunderstood, saw in a movie, had a nightmare about, or just daydreamed.  Always take what they say with a pinch of salt, and always do some checking before taking their word for something.  Being able to talk to the other party without making assumptions is a great way of preventing children from successfully manipulating you to get what they want.

6.    Be open and honest with your lawyer

Lying to, misleading, or missing things out with, your lawyer is never a good idea.  If you want your lawyer to be able to do the best job they can for you, they need to know everything.  It’s not at all wise to have the person you’re trusting to argue your case blindsided by something you didn’t tell them or lied to them about.  Especially given these sorts of things usually seem to come out at the worst possible time.

7.    Don’t try and hide problems

This fits in with a lot of the points above.  There are few things that cannot be addressed or mitigated one way or another.  But first of all you need to be honest about it, and secondly you need to be willing to do something about it.  If that involves addressing problems in your life, whether that is addiction, mental or physical health, your environment, your supports or anything else, then that is going to help the children, but it is also likely to help you personally. 

You’re much better to be seen owning your problems and dealing with them, rather than hiding them away and hoping no-one finds them.  Because chances are they will.

8.    Think practically

Don’t just ask for what you think is fair, or what you think should happen, without considering the consequences.  Always consider whether you can actually manage the proposal you’re putting forward.  For example, if your work schedule won’t allow you to have week-about shared care, don’t ask for it.  If you have a work schedule involving long nights on roster you’re not likely to be available to look after children while you’re on nights, and you’ll probably need a day or so after you go off roster to recover before you’re entirely up to dealing with children. 

Keep thinking of how any proposal will actually work for you.  Is it practical?  If not, look for something that will work better, even if it doesn’t quite fit in with your view of what is “fair” or “right.”

9.    Always communicate politely with the other party

Sometimes the first response to a provoking message is not the most productive, even if it may seem satisfying to say it at the time.  Being obstructive, abusive, or just rude, to the other party will not help you in the long run, especially if they have made a reasonable request. 

Remember that your text messages and emails can end up as part of affidavits before the Court.  If you wouldn’t want your Grandmother to read the message (or your kids for that matter), the chances are you don’t want a Judge to either, and you should avoid sending it.

As a starting point we think if you can keep these 9 points in mind as much as possible you’ll be in a much better position to get things sorted out as quickly, easily and smoothly as possible.

David Tyree
Family Lawyer
Wellington