Recently, the Australian Catholic University in Melbourne hosted a National Forum on Family Relationship Centres, convened by the Australian Psychological Society - a timely event considering the Federal Government's recent amendments to the Family Law Act, and the largest reform seen in Australian family law since 1975.
The Australian family law system has been in need of an overhaul for some time, and the Federal Government's reforms announced this year are, in principle, a significant step in the right direction.
Extensive research and consultation with the community has shown that children suffer greatly in relationship breakdowns, and that their welfare is not given due consideration.
Community consultation also has revealed that separating couples found the Family Court adversarial, but tended not to use relationships services, instead relying on lawyers and the court to resolve their differences.
To address these problems, the Government has made changes to the Family Law Act to encourage couples to seek help from counsellors and mediators, and to ensure that separating parents give utmost priority to the welfare of their children before approaching the Family Court. It is hoped that these changes will make the separation process less painful and adversarial for all involved.
One of the key mechanisms being introduced by the Federal Government to facilitate these changes is Family Relationship Centres.
The first 15 of 65 centres (FRCs) have been running for nearly six months, with the tender process well under way for the remaining 50. But while the Government's attempt to make the Australian family law system more equitable and less adversarial is welcome, it's not clear that these centres are the way to do it.
One problem is the key role of these centres has never been made clear. What outcomes are counsellors trying to achieve when couples approach them with dysfunctional relationships?
The government has never clarified whether FRCs and their staff are meant to make separation and divorce easier, or make peoples' relationships work and keep marriages together.
Even employees of the centres are confused. A sign on the outside of one FRC reads "Keeping Families Together", while signs inside suggest the centre is about "Helping Couples Separate".
The services being provided by the centres are nothing new, and FRCs are being run by organisations that already provide these services, such as Relationships Australia and Centacare.
There are several dangers in this, the most significant being the loss of identity for the voluntary sector.
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