Letter to Family Court

by JANE CUZENS

Jane wrote this statement as a 17 year old following a corner’s inquest into the murder-suicide of her mother and two sisters following a protracted custody battle and unaddressed mental health issues. She now lives with her loving father.

The Family Court of WA has been a part of my life as long as I can remember.

My parents separated when I was a toddler and were both actively involved in the Family Court until Dec 5, 2011.

It ended only because I lost my sisters and my mother.

Throughout this period of my life, from 2001 when I was 3 years old to 2011 when I was a 13 year-old I was interviewed by more social workers, counsellors, and psychologists/psychiatrists than I can recall, had consistent contact (and sometimes no contact) with my father and was placed in the care of my mother who loved me greatly but could never separate herself from the Family and SC cases.

My overall experience of the Family Court has been one of immense negativity, distress and trauma

The social workers, counsellors, and psychologists who interviewed me throughout my childhood caused me to develop a deep mistrust of mental health care workers, a mistrust that lasted until I was well past 14 years of age.

This mistrust former for a number of reasons, but in my opinion can be refined to the following points.

• Those who interviewed me always had an agenda outside of ‘checking up’ on how my sisters and I were feeling, both emotionally and physically. We just never knew whose agenda we were supposed to be serving in our interviews
• Many repeatedly suggested scenarios that they believed to have happened (but never had) were put to us and pushed on us in the interviews in what felt like an endeavour to give certain answers to their questions. Sometimes in the end we agreed with whatever they were putting to use because we were tired and fed up of being there and just wanted to stop being asked those questions and get out
• There was absolutely no one who felt I was consistently and objectively there to act as support for me or my sisters without any form of bias.

Growing up I witnessed events that in hindsight and now that I am older and able to see things from a different perspective may have been considered to have been of interest to those assessing my mother’s mental state and ability to parent us.

These events included for examples situations in which mum refused to get out of bed for days. On these days I would try and get my sisters and I ready for school and look after us, including my Mum, but then there was no one to drive us to school so we simply didn’t go and amused ourselves at home.

She often cried herself to sleep (if she did sleep at all as she would sometimes go for days without any sleep at all). Mum would show me the court documents and tell me all about the proceedings and would talk about how the Family Court was trying to take us away from her and go on rants about my father that would either involve her breaking chairs in the house or crying uncontrollably.

Mum never really worked full time as her days were consumed by the court battles.

We constantly moved around with me being told for example on a Sunday to pack my bags as we were going and would be starting a new school on the next day. I had seven school changes in eight years.

I thought this was ‘normal’ as it was the only life I knew.

I now know that this is not and that Mum would move when someone disagreed with her or, as I now know, sought to question her beliefs and thoughts more deeply.

I never spoke to anyone about these events until very recently (late 2015) and I did this for a number of reasons. The first was that I felt there was no-one that I felt I could tell.

Mum’s family never felt approachable on the subject, and in the early stages of my life I rarely saw Dad’s side of the family (which I did not understand then but now know it was because of Orders made by the family court?

When I did eventually see my Dad on a more regular basis I just didn’t know how to raise it without getting Mum into trouble (an inaccurate belief but one that my 13 yo self held)

The social workers, counsellors and all the other people I was forced to see never felt right either. I didn’t trust them. They were strangers to me who interviewed me for a few hours at the most, almost never more than once, believing that this was enough to get an accurate honest and in depth assessment of me and my sisters, and our home life

It begs the question how many children in my situation stuck in the Family Court, would talk honestly to a complete stranger about something they believed would get their mother, who they loved, into trouble.

I also felt it would have been disloyal to her and this belief is one I have had to struggle with even after the events of 5 December 2011.

How many children can answer questions which effectively force them to choose one parent over the other without this having a deep and long lasting impact on their relationship with the other parent?

Having been a child who was involved with the Family Court from a very early age and who has come out of it with one of the worst possible outcomes, I feel that I am uniquely positioned to comment on what I felt would have made a difference to my own personal experience of the Family Court process, and that could potentially help other children who are still going through the Family Court process.

Although a custody battle is about determining what is ‘best for the children’ it never felt as though there was someone present who only had Jane, Jessica and myself as their focus.

I feel that the Family Court completely failed us.

My parents loved my sisters and I to a point that is beyond words but they were not in a position to act as a support for us during the Family Court process as they themselves had their own interests in the matter.

What I feel I needed was a person that was appointed to us by the court from the very beginning to act as a counsellor to each of us. A person that never met either parent and that reported solely to the court and would be available for regular contact that would allow for the establishment of trust.

The current practice of sending a psychologist or social worker into the home of children for a few hours is flawed; children lie, withhold the truth, have been coached by a parent and have been led to believe they will not see a parent again if they told the truth, all of these are things that I have done, been told and accepted as truth throughout my childhood.

As a child I did not have a person who I could talk to about mum’s ‘bad days’ who could make the decision as to where I wanted to live because they knew where I was happiest from hours of conversation over an extended period of time.

A person that I felt was present with the sole responsibility of acting as a support to Jane, Jess and myself and I believe that such a person could have made a world of difference as to how I feel about the Family Court process.

The Family Court asks questions of children that they may think they can answer, in my case questions that I thought at the time that I could answer, but that was not the case.

I did not have all of the facts, I did not have the situation explained to me in a truthful and unbiased way and no child should be asked to choose between their parents. I wish someone had explained to us why we never saw dad, explained that he did love us and wanted to see us but we never got that.

We were only ever told what mum wanted us to think of him and it was never positive and never unbiased.

In writing this I wanted to encompass the positive and negative elements of the Family Court but I have come to the realisation that there was no positive for me, only trauma and suffering.