Child-psychologist shortage causing prolonged misery
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