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Otago-UK research may bring 'radical overhaul' to family court system

St Clair Beach

Monday 29 June 2009 12:11pm

Mental health support required to help children most at-risk during hostile family conflicts.

In a major funding coup, the University of Otago's Centre for Research on Children and Families has been jointly awarded $424,000 from the UK's prestigious Nuffield Foundation. The Centre, in collaboration with the Department of Psychological Medicine at Cardiff University, Wales, will examine why some children caught up in hostile family conflicts are more resilient than others, and how these findings might improve the lives of children most at risk of serious emotional and psychological harm.

Currently, 10,000 New Zealand children are affected by divorce each year. And while children under threat of violence can be protected by court orders, the family justice system is only now giving more recognition to the potential psychological damage inflicted on children as a result of hostile inter-parental conflict. How best to help these children is at the heart of research being led by Professor Gordon Harold, the University of Otago's Alexander McMillan Professor of Childhood Studies.

"Conflict between parents is normal. But what is extremely important to understand is what we mean by conflict," says Professor Harold, who describes harmful conflict as being frequent, intense, child-related and poorly-resolved. "It's how it's managed that determines whether a child will be badly affected. From never speaking to each other to witnessing violence - children can be adversely affected in different ways by the way parents manage conflict across this spectrum."

The project's main objective is to identify the specific features of conflict between parents that explain why some children experience little or no difficulties as a result, while others develop long-term and serious emotional and behavioural problems.

The aim of the two-year study is also highly practical: to provide objective research results that have direct application in training programmes for court workers, and to ensure the specific needs of individual children are met through targeted support services.

"We need a mental health focus in the family justice system when working with children and parents rather than just focusing on the legal process per se," Professor Harold argues. "If researchers can determine why some children develop certain negative responses earlier, more targeted intervention can be possible thereby reducing the prospect of long-term psychological harm.

"This could see a radical overhaul of the family justice system in support of children.

And it could see more at-risk children getting off that trajectory of suffering from severe emotional and social problems."

Professor Mark Henaghan, Dean of Otago's Law School and an internationally-recognised expert in family law, is an advisor in the research programme. The interdisciplinary research team also includes Cardiff University child and adolescent psychiatrist and expert in the area of human genetics Professor Anita Thapar as co-principal investigator and Professor Gillian Douglas, Head of Cardiff's Law School and one of the UK's leading Family Law specialists.

In terms of recent developments in the New Zealand family justice system, Professor Henaghan says the study is coming "at exactly the right time".

"Under the Domestic Violence Act of 1995, we have recognized psychological violence - such that it is recognized as a form of violence against children," Professor Henaghan says. "But while we can protect children from violence with a protection order, we've never dealt with how to undo the psychological damage that's been done to children."

Currently, children can receive therapeutic counselling under the Care of Children Act or the Domestic Violence Act, but under the Family Courts Act, Professor Henaghan explains, New Zealand has only recently begun to deal with these issues. A recent provision only extends counselling support to a 'small' number of children in 'exceptional' cases who have been psychologically or emotionally damaged by inter-parental conflict. For the most part, the courts have focused primarily on providing support to the parents only.

"Traditionally, there has been this attitude of children being seen but not heard, but children do see and hear the violence, and they can suffer long-term effects."

Family Court judges, Professor Henaghan predicts, "will be delighted" by the prospect of having much more sophisticated, yet practitioner friendly, tools to identify what an individual child needs in terms of support and counselling.

"We want to break the cycles of violence and help children go on with their lives. But we need to identify at-risk children early so that they don't harbour long-term negative effects."

The innovative study will draw on an array of large-scale, longitudinal and genetically sensitive sets of data that are part of an overall programme of research conducted respectively by Professor Harold and Professor Thapar. "What is unique about this project is that the combination of studies will allow a more nuanced examination of specific processes that explain why some children appear more at risk from the effects of inter-parental conflict compared to others," Professor Harold explains.

Researchers will examine the relative roles of both negative parenting and children's own interpretations of the conflict in influencing how children adjust and react to that conflict so as to identify where best to target support. Children's reactions may include both internalising symptoms (i.e. blaming themselves, poor self-esteem, depression) and externalising problems (i.e. acting out, doing poorly in school, aggressive behaviour). The children's responses will then be analysed looking at both genetic and environmental factors - the only study of its kind to do so within a single research programme with the goal of informing practice within the family justice system.

Professor Harold says it is "crucial" to examine the role of genetic and family environmental factors together, as well as their interplay, if it is to be understood why some children react negatively to adverse conditions in the home. Once understood, court officers will have the objective information they need to identify at-risk children earlier, and to arrange targeted support programmes for those children.

"The bottom line message is that this is real-world application of rigorous scientific research, putting evidence into the hands of practitioners in a manner that is both accessible and of practical use so as to improve the lives of children."

Founded in 1943, the Nuffield Foundation is one of the UK's best-known charitable trusts. Its aim is to advance social well-being through supporting rigorous research and practical experiment that has the potential to influence policy or practice.

For more Information

Professor Gordon Harold
Alexander McMillan Chair in Childhood Studies and
Professor of Psychology
Centre for Research on Children & Families
University of Otago
Tel 03 479 5038

Professor Mark Henaghan
Dean, Faculty of Law
University of Otago
Tel 03 479 8856

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