Disputes between adults as to who should care for a child are sadly often marked by intractable hostility – for family judges, however, the overriding focus is always on the child’s welfare. A good example of that principle at work was provided by the case of a little girl whose mother died when she was just six years old.
Following her bereavement, a judge ordered that the girl should live with a couple who were family friends of her deceased mother. They lived on the other side of the country from the girl’s father, who was implacably opposed to them bringing up his daughter. He considered that the girl should live with him, as his ‘biological kin’, and that their separation violated the human right to respect for family life.
A family judge had put in place detailed arrangements for the father to have regular contact with his daughter during weekends and school holidays. The deeply destructive divisions between him and the couple had, however, resulted in the almost immediate breakdown of those arrangements.
Due to the stress of the dispute, the father had suffered depression and had made a serious attempt at suicide. His daughter, an articulate, intelligent and thoughtful girl, had suffered emotional harm through repeated exposure to the intense hostility between her father and the couple.
After the case was brought back before the same judge, he observed that the father had many good qualities and that his love for his daughter was clearly reciprocated. However, the couple were justifiably exasperated by his behaviour. They had given the girl good quality care and had helped her through the grieving process.
In making fresh contact arrangements, tailored to meet the girl’s best interests, the judge directed, amongst other things, that the father should have monthly contact with his daughter and that handovers should take place at a neutral venue. He was also permitted to telephone her once a week, but was prohibited from removing her from the county in which the couple live.
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