Recently, A Voice for Men published an article of mine entitled Altobelli’s Dilemma: The failure of Australian Family Law (Blueface, 2012).
The dilemma Federal Magistrate Tom Altobelli faced was that a mother had turned the children against their father with accusations of sexual and physical abuse. So the children, Altobelli felt, would have been distressed if placed with their father; but to deny the children access to their father would cause them long term harm and deny the children their right to a relationship with both parents (Altobelli, 2012).
Altobelli’s answer was to ban the father from seeing the children, but to also write a letter to the children asking them to see their father. The children are to be given the letter by a counsellor when they turn 14.
The case uses the surnames of Gaylard for the mother and Cain for the father, but these are not their real names.
If you were to read the press coverage of this case, you would understand that this reached the attention of the media because of the letter. The Herald Sun called the letter an “extraordinary step” (Murphy, 2012). The ABC quoted the former chief justice of the Family Court Alastair Nicholson’s praise for writing the letter (ABC News, 2012).
The fact that the father is banned from seeing his children, but has done no wrong, is treated as unfortunate, but not unusual. The fact that the mother was criticised for harming her children by the authorities, but gets sole control of the children because of that same behaviour, is not remarkable at all.
The fact that false accusations, when found to be false by a court, are not sufficient reason for prosecuting Gaylard for this crime is completely ignored.
Contrast this verdict with another recently made in the same state, but not quite the same jurisdiction, as Altobelli’s court. Magistrate Graham Blewitt in the New South Wales Children’s Court, according to Vanda Carson of the Daily Telegraph, banned a mother from seeing her four children after they had been in her care for three years since splitting up with their father (Carson, 2012).
To avoid confusion between the two cases, let us call the mother in Blewitt’s case Smith, and the father, Jones.
This verdict is called, by Carson, “extreme” because Smith is no longer allowed to see her children. But, is this simply a matter that Altobelli favours mothers, whilst Blewitt evens things out by favouring fathers?
Hardly! Blewitt’s reason for banning Smith was because she was a serious danger to her children, particularly the eldest boy aged nine. So, how much of a danger does a mother have to be before she gets banned?
Smith, it seems, showed “signs of Munchhausen syndrome by proxy — a form of child abuse where parents repeatedly invent illnesses for their children because they crave attention and sympathy.” Because of this, she “openly declared the boy had only a short life expectancy and discussed arrangements for his funeral in front of him.”
But is this enough to ban a mother? Again, hardly. We’ve just got started! Smith, with her conviction of his illnesses took the son hospital. Not once, not twice, but 115 times in three years. On many of these occasions the hospital trip was completely unnecessary; on other occasions he showed signs of asthma attacks. He has not had an asthma attack since being removed from his mother’s care.
Carson highlights two incidents of note:
“She… encouraged staff to perform an invasive bronchoscopy on her son when it was likely unnecessary. In another incident at Wollongong Hospital after the boy began hitting his head due to distress over her behaviour, the mother allegedly encouraged him to hit himself harder.”
Overall, hospital staff “…became concerned the mother was inventing or lying about the ill health of three of her children after she repeatedly tried to have them admitted to hospital.”
All of this caused the family to be reported to the Department of Family and Community Services. Again, not one, not two, but 26 reports of the mother’s abusive behaviour were made.
What of the other three younger children? The court heard the experts had referred to them as “the forgotten children” and that “while obsessing on her eldest child she neglected the others.”
But, it seems that until the boy “attempted to commit suicide at the hospital, saying that he had ‘had enough’,” the count of abuses was simply going to keep going up and up. It was only when things got this bad that “the Director-General of FACS made the extraordinary application to ban the mother.”
This is how bad things have to get before the courts consider the “extreme” step of banning a mother. Nonetheless, this also shows that banning mothers from seeing their children is an option that is open to magistrates when mothers are abusive.
Yet, in Altobelli’s mind, Gaylard is not there yet. Altobelli writes “Their mother has indeed alienated them from their father. The once good and meaningful relationship they had with him no longer exists.” But it goes further than that. She has convinced her daughter that she was sexually abused by her father. She has convinced her son that his sister was abused by Cain and he should be both contemptuous and afraid of his own flesh and blood.
Heaven knows what this does to the children’s psyche! The court expert, Dr. K. conceded “But there’s no doubt that I would agree with the professional opinion of JIRT [Joint Investigation Response Team that investigates child abuse] that in this area, the mother is not helping her kids and in fact is creating developmental damage.”
What is clear is that the only practical way for the children to have a relationship with their father would be to ban Gaylard from the scene she created. Otherwise, she would only continue to make these false claims of abuse and do all that she could to alienate the father and the children.
What is also clear is that Altobelli did not even consider this “extreme” step as a possibility, and so, instead took the unfortunate, but not unusual, step of banning the father. Indeed, Altobelli’s justification for banning the father was that he “could not convincingly articulate” how to deal with the situation. This, of course, was because the situation consisted of “…the children, the mother, and himself [the father].”
The interesting thing to note here, too, are the similarities between the mothers both cases, which also show the failings in Altobelli’s decision.
According to Altobelli, Gaylard “sees the father through a distorted lens”. This view originates from Dr. K’s testimony where he states “most of the inaccurate conclusions [by the mother] were accurate observations wrongly interpreted through a sort of distorted lens”.
This interpretation of an individual’s reasoning would similarly apply to Smith. The view through the lens for Gaylard showed sexual abuse, for Smith it was illness. Yet, surely everything that Smith did, given her distorted view that the child was ill, was correct.
Where Altobelli and Dr. K’s get it wrong is highlighted when Altobelli writes “She [Gaylard] is not being malicious or malevolent, she is quite simply shackled by a distorted frame of reality.”
Regardless of the intent, Gaylard’s behaviour was, and will continue to be, harmful to her children. For Smith, irrespective of her motivations, her affection for the children, and the children’s affection for their mother, she was banned because her actions were harmful. The only difference in Gaylard’s case is that the harm being done to the children hasn’t openly manifested in this manner.
At least, not yet. It seems that to Altobelli and Dr. K, like those at the Department of Family and Community Services, the Gaylard-Cain children are only at hospital visit 75 and report number 18.
There was one more similarity in these two cases worth a mention, just in case you get a warm feeling that Magistrate Blewitt is the first anti-misandry champion of the Australian courts.
Carson informs us that the court banned any physical contact or written communication between the children and the mother. She goes on to say:
“Once they are in their teens, it is agreed that no court order can actually stop them from seeing their mother if they want to.
But if this happens, their father may end up losing custody of them and they may be placed in care.”
The court can’t be held responsible for the mother’s misbehaviour; the mother can’t be held be responsible for the mother’s misbehaviour; but the father… well someone’s got to pay.
ABC News. (2012, June 7). Magistrate praised for kids letter on custody call. Retrieved July 4, 2012, from ABC News: http://www.abc.net.au/news/2012-06-07/magistrate-praised-for-letter-to-kids-on-custody-call/4057526
Altobelli, M. (2012, May 30). Gaylard v Cain. Retrieved June 7, 2012, from Australian Legal Information Institute: http://www.austlii.edu.au/au/cases/cth/FMCAfam/2012/501.html
Blueface. (2012, June 24). Altobelli’s Dilemma: The Failure of Australian Family Law. Retrieved July 6, 2012, from A Voice for Men: http://www.avoiceformen.com/mens-rights/family-courts/altobellis-dilemma-the-failure-of-australian-family-law/
Carson, V. (2012, June 27). Mother loses all rights to ‘sickly’ children after showing signs of Munchhausen syndrome by proxy. Retrieved July 6, 2012, from The Telegraph: http://www.dailytelegraph.com.au/news/mother-loses-all-rights-to-sickly-children-after-showing-signs-of-munchausen-syndrome-by-proxy/story-e6freuy9-1226409611274
Murphy, P. (2012, June 7). Sorry I took Daddy – Federal Magistrate Tom Altobelli. Retrieved July 6, 2012, from Herald Sun: http://www.heraldsun.com.au/news/true-crime-scene/sorry-i-took-daddy-judge/story-fnat7dhc-1226386802260
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