For several years, lawyers and the Family Court were very present in my life.
I became a single mother over ten years ago when my house was raided by the police and my husband (now ex) went to jail for convictions relating to child abuse material offences. I had no idea about his activity online and was horrified at what he’d been involved with. My ex-husband was placed on the sex offenders register for life and although he could see our four kids, access was supervised due to a child protection order.
My ex-husband advised he wanted to halve all assets and have joint custody of the kids without any lawyers involved. Due to the child protection order, this would be difficult and impractical. I was very concerned about the situation and didn’t think joint custody was an appropriate arrangement to ensure adequate child protection. As communications had broken down and mediation was impossible, I sought legal advice to clarify options including custody.
I did not know where to start to find a lawyer and began the search online. All were expensive and it was difficult to understand if any financial assistance was available, which turned out not to be an option for me as I had income from working full time. In the end, I chose a family law firm close to my workplace for the convenience of fitting in appointments while trying to hold on to my job.
After several appointments and correspondence between both parties, there seemed to be no progress, and time went by waiting for responses and further appointments.
The law firm changed ownership and restructured, and I was fortunate to then have an excellent lawyer who provided great support. Due to the stigma of being connected to someone convicted of child abuse material offences and feeling traumatised after the police raid, I found it difficult to even speak about what had happened without becoming emotional. Having to face the situation at each appointment or to complete paperwork was exhausting. It was extremely important to have a lawyer who was non-judgmental and able to guide decision making at a difficult time.
The lawyer was very upfront about letting me know that I might not succeed with an application for sole custody even with my ex-husband’s criminal record. However, I wanted to do everything I could to protect my kids. Even if I didn’t get sole custody, I would always be able to tell my kids that I tried. I was worried they would ask questions when they were older about why I had let them spend so much time with a sex offender. I felt the Family Court was the only avenue for making this decision and that I had no choice but to continue legal proceedings regardless of the expense.
The first session in the Family Court was overwhelming. Even when the lawyer explained everything, it’s hard to imagine until you are there. This session was to set a further hearing date and I hadn’t realised that other cases would also be in the room at the same time. It was an odd experience to hear the details of other cases and for them to hear ours. The Judge asked for a family psychological report to be prepared and listed the matter for a later date of around six months’ time.
Once the matter went to court again, I had to have a barrister which was an extra expense. At this session I had to give evidence and although it was just our case being heard, there were still lots of people in the court room and I was nervous. At the Family Court there weren’t many private rooms or spaces to have discussions and I kept running into my ex-husband and his family which was very intimidating. I hadn’t realised how formal or daunting the entire experience would be.
Although the custody matter was not finalised during this session, a financial reconciliation session was organised for three months later where money from our house sale was released which helped me make some decisions. As well as the legal expenses, a further financial implication from the lengthy legal proceedings was that property prices increased significantly during that time. My options for housing became limited but fortunately I could still afford an apartment. I may have missed this opportunity had there been further delays.
The final hearing for custody was scheduled four months after the financial reconciliation, but was delayed a further eight months after the scheduled date. The final hearing also required a barrister at an additional expense. As I was becoming more familiar with the Family Court environment, the experience became less daunting. I was surprised by the support I received from the Judge and was granted sole custody as well as some additional helpful safety measures beyond my expectations. It was the first time since I became a single mother that I felt really empowered and able to move forward in a positive way.
From the time I first contacted a lawyer, through to the final hearing in the Family Court, it took around four years to resolve. It was a weird mix of feeling paralysed as big decisions were on hold but at the same time feeling overwhelmed by the fast pace of day to day life. I remember lots of paperwork and running around to fit in appointments and signing documents. I was extremely busy keeping up with day to day care of the kids and going to work every day while the Family Court outcome hung over everything.
Although the Family Court experience was stressful, lengthy and expensive, I can’t put a price on the empowerment, confidence and reassurance the outcome gave me. I’m grateful that I was able to live with my mother and continue working full time until the court proceedings were finalised. This was the only way I could afford the legal expenses. I don’t know what would have happened without the Family Court making the custody decision or what the implications were for the child protection issues involved.
I hope there can be better options for single mothers to achieve outcomes that ensure all kids at risk are safe and protected regardless of their financial situation.
*Name has been changed.
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