Men's Centre North Shore Inc

Rex McCann's speech to Family Court Conference August 2002

Family Court Seminar: At least two Parents

A one-day seminar for the Family Court community attended by 900 Family Court workers from Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch August 5 - 9 2002.

Panel: New Zealand client perspective on the family court
Fathers' perspectives - presented by Rex McCann

Good morning. I am here today to bring forward a fathers' perspective on the Family Court on behalf of children. In speaking about fathers and men's perspectives these days there is a danger of it being seen as a men versus women kind of thing. I want to say at the outset that I do not want to at all diminish mothers and motherhood, but I want to bring forward the story of men and their place in the lives of children. In speaking about fathers' perspectives there is a danger of generalising in a way that ignores the diverse cultural and other experiences of men. Finally, it seems the New Zealand Family Court system enjoys a fine international reputation as one of the better systems in the world, with many countries having to deal with family disputes in the criminal court and I don't want a critique of it to be taken as a negation of the advances that have been made so far. Yet there is still more world leadership we need to show in relation to the Court's understanding of the position of fathers.

Today we are addressing the question of how do men experience the Family Court and how could things be improved. At the morning break I got talking with a man in the foyer who it turns out is on security to ensure that protestors don't interrupt us today. It got me thinking that it mustn't be easy for those of you who work under intense scrutiny from the critics of the family court. However, it is worth remembering that men and women are driven to protest by anger and a sense of powerlessness.

Anger at authorities for separating them from their children is not a new thing as this poem by Percy Bysshe Shelley 200 years ago reveals. He was denied custody of his children by the Lord Chancellor (due to atheism and immorality!).

I curse thee (the Lord Chancellor) by a parent's outraged love,
By hopes long cherished and too lately lost,
By gentle feelings thou couldst never prove,
By griefs which thy stern nature never crossed...
By all the happy see in children's growth
That undeveloped flower of budding years
Sweetness and sadness interwoven both,
Source of the sweetest hopes and saddest fears...
O wretched ye if ever any were,
Sadder than orphans, yet not fatherless!

Percy Bysshe Shelley, 1817

It might be worthwhile us pondering on what is today's version of "atheism and immorality" that we find makes men unacceptable as parents.

There is pain in that poem. There is pain under the anger of the men who are protesting at the Family Court today; there is pain in the children who are losing contact with their fathers. We feel pain when something important has been lost and it is worth taking note that this is what is trying to reach our attention - our children are losing something important.

I know something of this pain because my father died when I was nine and I know very well the challenge and struggle of growing without a father. Believe me, the void created by an absent father doesn't go away -- it becomes an imprint on life and one learns to live with it and shape one's identity around it. My early biography as a youth and young man reveals a personal face of the negative statistics associated with father absence, from anger and rebellion, trouble at school and struggles with authority to fitting into society.

Today I would like to briefly take a broader look at fatherhood and then focus on some specific challenges to the Family Court being presented by fathers' groups.

Fatherhood is a cultural treasure

Fatherhood is a cultural treasure, passed down by previous generations, shaped by the current generation, and passed on for better or for worse to the future generation as a legacy. I can remember it being said at my father's funeral "...he was a good father, he provided well for his family". It was said and received in good heart and summed up succinctly what was expected of him by society of the time. The fatherhood story of his generation was that dad was the provider. Men expressed their family love through providing for them financially and society supported them in that role.

What is the cultural story of fatherhood we will pass on to the next generation? I see two different stories emerging. One story society is telling itself these days seems to be that fatherhood is superfluous. The father is the media is often portrayed as a figure of ridicule; we act in families separating as if he is replaceable and we largely ignore the positive aspects of fathers in social research and policy making.

At least a third of the children in NZ will go to bed tonight in a home their father doesn't live in. These children are facing a challenge no other generation has had to face to such an extent -- maintaining a relationship with their father who lives in a separate household. We have heard this morning of many of the problems associated with this such as poverty and difficulty of developing a relationship that is meaningful and able to be nourished in the way a parental relationship needs to be nourished.

As a society we are not facing the challenge of supporting children in families who separate by helping men to stay in touch with them through that difficult transition of relationship breakdown. We are not doing a good job of hearing, seeing, or reaching for what men and their children need from us in order to maintain their relationship from different households.

The negative consequences associated with absent fathers are well established and research indicates a strong association with significant disadvantages. The data are alarming. Surveys of child well-being repeatedly show that children living apart from their fathers are far more likely to be expelled or suspended, display emotional or behavioural problems, have difficulty getting along with peers and get into trouble with the police. Fatherlessness is linked to a wide range of childhood and adolescent character problems such as lower achievement motivation, problems with self-control and insecure male identity.

Another story of fatherhood in our times is that there is a quiet but steady revolution going on in the hearts of men as fathers. My fulltime work and study over the past 12 years has been with men's personal development groups and support services, which means I have been listening to men and paying attention to an emerging men's narrative. I have learned from this that there are significant changes taking place in the hearts of men and a renaissance happening in fatherhood.

Over the last 30 years as women have moved more into the public sphere and the workplace, space has been created for men to consider other choices. Men are increasingly choosing to have more time inside the home and more involvement with their children. The nature of masculinity and how we express ourselves as men is embracing more of the gentler and hands-on aspects of raising children that wasn't available to the previous generation of men.

Institutions haven't kept up

Why is it that as men's desires shift towards more involvement with children we have fewer children than ever living with their fathers? Specifically in relation to the Family Court, why haven't we kept up with the reality of maintaining children's connection with fathers when faced with the challenge of living in separate households?

There could be three possible reasons.

One of the good things about being at this conference as a man is that you don't have to queue for the toilets. At the break I could sail past the long queue of women to an empty men's block. But it shows up something as well doesn't it? It seems a fair reflection of our cultural assumption that children and families are considered women's business. Most of the staff are women. The only part of the family law that pays much attention to men is that which pursues them as financial provider or targets them as potential abusers.

Where are the men in the Family Court system?

The fact is that a man coming for services from the Family Court is going to run into women, who are likely to not understand his needs. The men who come for your services are often going through a relationship breakdown and are having difficulties with the female side of things. Where are the men they can talk to and feel understood by as they try to access your services?

I had a call from a man yesterday who was extremely angry. He had been beaten by his wife a number of times, had tried to take out a protection order that hadn't been served and was sheltering at his parents' house. He had called the Family Court for help and advice and spoke to a woman there and some of the things he reported her saying were really inappropriate to be putting to someone in as vulnerable position as he was. It served to fuel his anger at women and add to his sense of powerlessness when what he needed was to be heard and understood for what he was going through. The fact is it is difficult for many women to sit with men who are distressed and angry and acting out when their life is falling apart. I think this puts fathers and children of fathers at risk. The association of men with statistics of depression, addiction, and suicide at family break down are high. (E.g. separated males between 30 - 54 years old are 12 times more likely to suicide than separated women) ref: Macdonald (2002). These are the sorts of statistics we would associate with an oppressed people. We should be asking ourselves hard questions about them but instead we take them for granted and ignore them when it comes to men.

A survey conducted by the office of the Commissioner for Children found that 92% of the people surveyed agree "society should expect fathers to take an equal part in parenting" yet 45% supported the statement "women are better looking after children". ref: Julian (1999), and Birks (2001)(p43). It shows that most of us agree that parenting should be a shared job, but nearly half of us don't think men are up to it. This points to a confidence gap in fathers, felt by both men and women. The Family Court should be playing a role to fill this confidence gap, but instead is seen to be exacerbating it.

Maybe there is nothing new to you in what I am saying or maybe some of these challenges are striking home. As I look out here I see a lot of committed and able people, hardworking and thoughtful people who would like to do the best job you can. But what can you actually change in the way you are dealing with clients and creating policy that actually helps the children you serve maintain connection with their fathers.

Why the Family Court Protests?

You might be wondering exactly what is the problem fathers have with the Family Court. There are a number of fathers' groups who have been lobbying the courts and media on the issues and I am sure those of you who have been on the receiving end of this have not found it comfortable, walking past chanting and placards and men pushing empty prams. However, I have been doing some listening to these groups and the issues they have been putting on the table about the functioning of the Family Court.

In a nutshell their experience can be summed up in one word: a sense of EXCLUSION. Fathers' groups feel that the court acts to exclude fathers from meaningful contact with their children. They say that aspects of family law create incentives to promote family breakdown, parental alienation and fatherlessness.

Terms and definitions

There are some terms and definitions that activists in the area are identifying that you should know about.

Maternal gate-keeping.

This refers to the social assumption of women's ownership of children and things to do with family and relationship. Due to the fact of childbearing and early childcare and gender conditioning, women often are the emotional switchboard of family and this gives them immense power. The assumption and practice of women's ownership of children shuts men out.

Parental alienation

This refers to the process of a child being alienated from one parent by absorbing negative opinions about them from the other. A parent can create an atmosphere about the other parent that undermines the child's relationship with them (usually the non-custodial parent.) It is encouraged by policy that sets interim custody, usually with the mother while the father has minimal access. This can be a subtle process as well as overt and purposeful and it is apparent that the court process is powerless to take this into consideration.

Primary caregiver

The Family Court works for what it considers the best interests of the child, which often boils down to considering the least detrimental alternative. In practice, this is interpreted as what would mean the least disruption to the child in terms of their home and who has been their primary caregiver. This most often leads to the child staying in the home with the mother and the father moving out.

The assumption of placing the child with the parent identified as the primary caregiver is flawed. It forces us immediately to have to make an either/or choice between the parents, (as does seeking who has the closest psychological bond as basis for choice).

Forty per cent of fathers of young children work 50 hours or more to provide for them. ref: Birks 2002 (p76) ref Census 1996 When it comes to identifying who should have custody of the child, the provider of financial support is not considered as important as the at-home parent. The fact that fathers have sacrificed time with their children in order to support them reduces the chances of children being given into their custody. The children are disadvantaged in the long term by the provider role their father held in the past parenting relationship. 

When two parents are living together, the roles are often divided along traditional lines (better income and division of labour, that's how our parents did it, etc) because it works more effectively that way. But separation is an opportunity many men want to take to have a more active role in parenting, and they often flourish in it and discover new sides of themselves. I know of many men, and I am sure you do, who have reshaped their priorities after separation to make space to have their children at least half the time. The child is enriched by this new and loving experience of the father, which he was not able to get when his father was solely the breadwinner of a nuclear family. This must surely enter into our thinking about the best interests of the child. It gives fathers the opportunity of being more engaged and children the opportunity to grow a relationship with the father. 

The idea of primary caregiver sets the stage for awarding sole custody and is linked to assumptions of the idealised nuclear family with mum as caregiver and dad as provider and weds women more strongly to care giving and institutionalises men more strongly as "just a pay-packet".

Sole parent family

This is a common expression even if children actually have two parents who are highly involved but happen to live apart, and it makes fathers' contributions invisible. It is reinforced by data collections such as the Census, which doesn't identify parents who no longer live fulltime with their children, or even families where children spend equal time in two households. It would be more accurate to use the phrase "two home children" to describe children whose parents have separated.

Shadow of the law

The position of the Family Court seems to be that the law only affects those whose cases are resolved at a full hearing. It is argued that only the difficult people end up in the Family Court at a full hearing and that what happens there doesn't have any effect on the majority of situations. However, there are wider consequences of judges' decisions which send a signal and affect behaviour all the way down the line. This goes for both decisions made against the child's relationship with their father as well as those made for the relationship that are not enforced (such as access orders), as well the lack of will shown by judges to stop false accusations of abuse used to remove a father from the family. The lack of support for fathers in the Family Court undermines the position of all fathers.

Issues and Action

Groups who want the Family Courts to become more inclusive make some suggestion as to how it could be fairer to the children's relationship with their father. ref: Father's Group Suggestions They suggest:

1) Gender bias

The courts are highly educated and aware of women's needs and perspectives, but not so about men's and are unwittingly delivering one-sided service. The court has a cultural blindness to the needs and aspirations of men as fathers and doesn't support men with the kind of resources they need to deal with the difficult stage of relationship separation. Men are running into an invisible glass door that screens them out of family services similar to the glass ceiling women have talked about in the workplace. The front line staff, the coordinators, the counsellors and the lawyers involved, in the overwhelming majority, are women. They "don't know what they don't know" about men and the male way of seeing the world and can resort to simplistic assumptions causing men to be sidelined. Men who need a man to talk to are alienated by the process.

Suggestions for action:

2) Early intervention

There needs to be early intervention to help both parties prioritise the needs of the child and develop cooperation. Minimising the cases going to court through more effective mediation, support and education for the parents as to the importance and role of both parents in bringing up the children, and support services for men to help them through the challenging time of breakup when they are more at risk. The primary objective should be to evolve a viable parenting plan.

Suggestions for action:

3) The slow speed of the court

Under the current system where if there is conflict access has to be won, the legislation is contributing to the prevalence of paternal deprivation. The slow speed of the court in dealing with conflicts and protection orders means the father parental relationships breaks down at a crucial time and the pattern of a distant father is established. There is a cumulative effect of small changes, starting at the initial decision of who has custody/access at the beginning of a family separation. This sets a template that is later adhered to because it is seen as best to stick with the status quo.

Suggestions for action:

4) The practice of choosing a major caregiver

The law has it that parents are equal guardians and that a guardian should lose custody only if there is a good reason. Current application of custody and access gives most effective power to one parent (usually the mother) and doesn't support the development of child's relationship with the father. Resorting to this simple either/or formula for choosing where the child should be, means the father loses effective guardianship for no good reason. When families divorce or separate, children are forced to divorce their father.

Suggestions for action:

5) The Domestic Violence Act

The goals of the DVA are laudable in protecting women and children. However, the way it works is also isolating children from loving fathers because the child is automatically included in the order. It doesn't follow that if a parent is violent to their partner they will be violent to a child. Supervised access is often unnecessary and is degrading and not father friendly, taking place in an impersonal agency in the presence of a stranger, usually a woman. Most cases challenged by fathers who want to maintain contact with their children are turned around when looked at by the court but by then a lot of time has passed.

There is also a huge sense of injustice in men about being assumed guilty until proven innocent (no wonder we see some angry critics) because an order can be taken out with no supporting evidence. There is also no ability in the process to discern what violence is contextual to the stresses of separation and what is longer term and systemic.

Suggestions for action:

Most of you in this hall will have heard of examples of lawyers playing wind-up on the issue of alleging violence from their client's partner in order to improve their client's chances of winning the case. The Family Court community needs to be talking more openly and challenging this because it is in the way of our purpose of maintaining the children's right to both parents.

6) Broaden the conversation on violence

The way we have focused on domestic violence and child abuse solely on men has served to pathologise fathers and pave the way for easy removal of them from their children. It is now time to widen our conversation about violence to include an analysis of women's contribution to domestic violence. (This is a challenge for courageous women to step forward). By putting all the focus on to men we are making them a scapegoat to carry an unrealistic blame for all human violence and also are not challenging the violence done by women in the family nor giving support to women to stop it. Men are reluctant to lay complaints against women who are violent to them or their children and they are not so easily believed by the authorities.

7) Closed Court

The court's activity being closed to public scrutiny means that activity doesn't feel transparent and accountable and justice isn't seen to be done. The courts have an expectation that the public should take the court's own assessment and reassurance that they are doing well without the accountability of visibility. It would also help those in society generally to know what to expect from the Family Court rather than it coming as a shock and surprise when they run into it, and it may serve as an incentive to sort things out before they get to court.

Suggestions for action:

8) Research base

Research projects generally on social issues from a female to male perspective run at 20:1 and usually prove what they set out to prove. Much research on men is carried out by women.

Suggestions for action:

9) Inertia

The court displays a lack of will to change in response to repeated and sustained challenge.

Suggestions for action:

Many of the problems I have raised here could be easily addressed in the way the Family Court operates. Others should be taken into account when considering reforms. To a large extent, the problems are ones of a lack of awareness and sensitivity to the issues and the challenge is now act in a more father/child friendly way.

Closing words

It can be hard to take on critical feedback. We can feel personally attacked and want to defend ourselves and justify what we do, and especially in the case of the Family Court it is easy to find fault with how our critics are less than perfect themselves.

But who is the enemy here? Who is standing in the way of a larger consensus of the way to enable children to maintain a better relationship with their fathers? It isn't simply down to evil people, or stupid people in the institutions or the community, or "the system" itself. Nor is it the protestors outside the courts with placards and loudspeakers or men pushing empty prams.

The real enemy is good intelligent people whose instincts and gut feelings and analysis tell them that something needs to change, yet they don't take action. At the moment the power is within each of you to take action within your sphere of influence. My challenge to you as good intelligent people who would wish to leave a legacy to future generations is to connect with your will to make change and take on the hard and high-risk task of building a better institution in an imperfect world. More of us need to see the problem as being "in here" and not "out there". In short the enemy is people who have the potential to lead and act and who do not do so.

The way to defuse the polarisation between the critics and the Family Court is for each of us here to look within and find our own sense of disquiet about current policy and practice and outcomes and therein find the leadership that will make the change for the children of the future.

Thank you for listening.

Rex McCann
Box 48-169
Blockhouse Bay

About Rex McCann

Rex is well known and widely respected for his work in the area of men's awareness in New Zealand with 15 years active experience in men's groups both in New Zealand and internationally. He is the founder of the groundbreaking Essentially Men programme which over the last 12 years has become an important focus for men's self-development work in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch. He is also a founder of the New Zealand Heart Politics Gathering and the New Zealand Men's Leadership Gathering.

Rex has a Masters degree from the School of Social Ecology at the University of Western Sydney Hawkesbury, focusing on men's and boys' issues. He is author of Fatherless Sons - the stories of New Zealand men (reviewed here) released by HarperCollins (In Australia under the title On Their Own by Finch Publishing). He lives with his partner Maggie, on the edge of Auckland's Manukau Harbour and shares the parenting of two young men.

He conducts seminars and talks throughout New Zealand and Australia to conferences and to the public on men's issues, raising boys, boys' education and the importance of men and fathers in the lives of boys.


Birks, S. ( ed) (2002) Inclusion or exclusion II: Why the Family Court Protests? Issues paper 12. [page 76 ref Census 1996] Palmerston North, Massey University Centre for Public Policy Evaluation.

Birks, S. (Ed) (2001) Children's Rights and Families: Proceedings of Social Policy Forum 2000, Issues paper 10. [page 43] Palmerston North, Massey University Centre for Public Policy Evaluation. 

Julian, R. (1999) Fathering in the New Millennium. Wellington, Office of the Commission For Children.

Macdonald, J. (2002) Separated Fathers: men in crisis University of Western Sydney Media site or -

McCann, R. (1999) Fatherless Sons: the stories of New Zealand Men. Auckland, HarperCollins. ('Fatherless Sons' reviewed here).

McCann, R. (2000) On their Own: Boys growing up under fathered. Sydney, Finch.

Father's Group Suggestions:
Among the sources are Birks (2002) (2001) - see above (especially minutes of a meeting of fathers groups with Judge Mahoney in Auckland August 2001 chaired by Warwick Pudney).

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