Child-psy­chol­o­gist short­age caus­ing pro­longed mis­ery

Sunday Star-Times - - NEWS - HAR­RI­SON CHRIS­TIAN

An 8-year-old Auck­land boy caught in the mid­dle of a fight be­tween his par­ents will wait about two years be­fore the Fam­ily Court reaches a de­ci­sion on his case.

Auck­land fam­ily law bar­ris­ter Cather­ine Townsend says that’s just one ex­am­ple of a child be­ing left in a trou­bled home for years while their cases drag through the court sys­tem.

‘‘They’re in limbo,’’ says Townsend. ‘‘This boy’s mother keeps mak­ing al­le­ga­tions against the fa­ther, and then with­hold­ing the child from the fa­ther.

‘‘And the fa­ther is con­cerned the mother is ba­si­cally mak­ing it up, and psy­cho­log­i­cally abus­ing the child by coach­ing him to say things, and not giv­ing him per­mis­sion to love his fa­ther. He’s liv­ing in this ter­ri­ble, con­flicted world, the poor lit­tle guy.’’

Townsend says a short­age of psy­chol­o­gists is one of the main rea­sons for the chronic de­lays.

In the case of the young boy, the court di­rected a psy­chol­o­gist’s re­port in November last year, and a psy­chol­o­gist has only just been ap­pointed. It will take at least a cou­ple of months to pre­pare the re­port.

‘‘Be­tween November and now there’s been all sorts of dra­mas be­tween the par­ents re­gard­ing the child, and we had to get a war­rant be­cause the mother was with­hold­ing the child,’’ Townsend says.

‘‘The first ap­pli­ca­tion was filed in Jan­uary last year. So it took from Jan­uary to November to even get a psy­cho­log­i­cal re­port di­rected. And then we’re not go­ing to get that un­til Au­gust. And then we’ll have to wait for a hear­ing, which will be December if we’re lucky – two years since the case be­gan.’’

In another of Townsend’s cases, an Auck­land teenage girl with a his­tory of self-harm has also been in the sys­tem for two years; the court is cur­rently wait­ing on an up­dated psy­cho­log­i­cal re­port which won’t be started un­til Septem­ber.

Fam­ily Court psy­chol­o­gist Dr Sarah Calvert says there is a gen­eral short­age of psy­chol­o­gists in New Zealand, and only a small frac­tion of them have the ex­per­tise re­quired for Fam­ily Court work.

‘‘The con­se­quences for chil­dren are enor­mous,’’ she says.

The cases in­volved were ‘‘ex­tremely com­pli­cated and dif­fi­cult’’.

‘‘It’s not work that a new psy­chol­o­gist, for ex­am­ple, could go into. You need to have wide­spread ex­pe­ri­ence with chil­dren; adults; men­tal ill­ness; do­mes­tic vi­o­lence; sex­ual abuse. You have to know all of those ar­eas.’’

She con­ducted a sur­vey three years ago that found the pri­mary rea­son psy­chol­o­gists won’t go into Fam­ily Court work is the num­ber of com­plaints from peo­ple dis­sat­is­fied with a court rul­ing. Each com­plaint can take up to 80 un­paid hours of writ­ing re­sponses and meet­ing lawyers.

In April, the Govern­ment or­dered the third re­view into the over­bur­dened court in un­der a decade.

Fam­ily Court re­forms were brought in un­der the for­mer Na­tional Govern­ment in 2014, but Jus­tice Min­is­ter An­drew Lit­tle says he is con­cerned about what he has heard about how the courts were run­ning, and the im­pact that was hav­ing on fam­i­lies and chil­dren.

Townsend says the changes brought in by Na­tional were aimed at turn­ing the court into a kind of dis­putes tri­bunal. The changes ap­peared to have been fis­cally mo­ti­vated, re­strict­ing ac­cess to le­gal aid.

It’s not work that a new psy­chol­o­gist, for ex­am­ple, could go into. You need to have wide­spread ex­pe­ri­ence with chil­dren; adults; men­tal ill­ness; do­mes­tic vi­o­lence; sex­ual abuse.

Dr Sarah Calvert, Fam­ily Court psy­chol­o­gist

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