Prioritising your child’s future: legal paths with Family Court Lawyer Christchurch

Statistics from 2022 show that 20% of families in Aotearoa are solo-parent households, with the majority being mother-led homes. Living as a lone parent is tough and challenging, both physically and mentally. Coming to terms with the breakdown of a relationship and the loss of bringing up your child as a couple evokes a range of emotions. You may switch between feeling hurt and angry, through to relief and pride at your capacity to cope with raising and caring for a child or children alone.

It’s not just the child’s basic needs of food, clothing, shelter, medical treatment and making sure they receive an education that must be met, it’s their emotional needs too. Parenting is hard work; being a single parent is especially hard work. 

But when the other parent is absent, hard work hits a new level. 

Why do parents become unwilling or unable to care for their children?

People withdraw from their parenting responsibilities for a variety of complex reasons, often stemming from personal, emotional, social, and circumstantial factors. While each situation is unique, there are some reasons commonly given in the family court:

  • Personal issues: struggles with mental health issues, substance abuse problems, or emotional instability. 
  • Lack of preparedness: overwhelmed by the demands and responsibilities of parenthood and so they withdraw rather than confront the challenges. 
  • Relationship issues: strained relationships between parents, such as conflicts, divorce, or separation; disputes over custody arrangements, child support, and child care disagreements.
  • Financial instability: struggles/ lack of will to adequately support and meet the financial demands of raising a family.
  • Unplanned parenthood: uncertain about their ability to parent effectively with someone they may not know very well. 
  • Geographical distance: relocation for employment opportunities, family reasons, or personal preferences can cause a logistical challenge and make it difficult to maintain regular contact with their child.
  • Trauma and past experiences: individuals who had trauma or adverse childhood experiences may grapple with unresolved emotions and have difficulty forming attachments and establishing boundaries.
  • Cultural and societal factors: cultural norms, societal expectations, and gender roles can influence individuals’ perceptions and behaviours regarding parenthood. 
  • Legal issues: prison, deportation, or involvement in the criminal justice system can lead to parental absence for extended periods, limiting their ability to participate in their child’s life.

What is an absent parent?

In this article, you will read the word ‘absent’ with reference to a parent. But what does it mean? There is no single definition, and the level of absenteeism varies between families; from parents without primary custody, with or without visitation rights, to those making minimal effort to support or communicate with their child, through to leaving a child without provisions or regular communication for extended periods. When a parent disappears from a child’s life completely, it is called abandonment.

How does having an absent parent impact a child?

The impact of an absent parent on a child can be profound, affecting emotional well-being, self-esteem, and social development, leading to feelings of abandonment, insecurity, and identity struggles. Research findings and studies consistently highlight the long-term effects of parental absenteeism on children’s development. These effects extend across various domains, including academic performance, social relationships, and emotional well-being. Children experiencing parental absence may exhibit lower academic achievement, struggle with forming and maintaining healthy social connections, and experience heightened emotional distress. 

Early intervention and support are crucial in mitigating the negative impact of parental absenteeism, offering children the resources and guidance needed to navigate challenges and build resilience. Providing a supportive environment and access to therapeutic interventions can help children cope more effectively with the complexities of parental absence, fostering healthier outcomes in the long term.

Safeguarding your child: legal measures from the family court

Safeguarding your child involves understanding the legal measures available through the family court. The primary determinant of an absent parent’s legal standing is whether they are named on the birth certificate. Every child in New Zealand has a mother on their birth certificate who gains automatic guardianship rights and responsibilities for the child, but not every father is registered. 

A father is a guardian (and gains the associated rights and responsibilities) if:

  1. He was married to, or in a civil union with, the mother at any time from conception to the birth of the child.
  2. He was in a de facto relationship with his mother during the same period.
  3. Later approved by a family court with permission of the mother as the child’s father. 

As a named guardian, an absent father can:

  • Have contact with the child or children (unless a family court order removes the right).
  • Have input into the child’s life and day-to-day care decisions: what school they attend, where they live, medical decisions and whether they have a religious upbringing.
  • Have full-time custody arrangements in the event something happens to you.

What’s the difference between guardianship and custody?

Under New Zealand family law, guardianship entails making significant life decisions for a child, while custody primarily involves physical care. Guardianship extends beyond daily care, it gives legal authority for critical decisions to be made. Understanding these legal nuances is crucial for protecting your child’s well-being and ensuring their best interests are upheld.

Full-time custody – even with an absent father

Just because your ex-partner is named on the birth certificate, does not mean you will remain legally vulnerable. Each situation is unique, so seeking legal advice from a family court lawyer in Christchurch early in the process is recommended – do not attempt DIY family law, the consequences are too important. Family lawyers help people to access legal aid and apply to the family court for direction and solution. It may feel counter intuitive to apply for full custody when the other parent makes no contribution to your child’s life, but under New Zealand family law, obtaining full custody is a way to legally establish and solidify the interests of your child. 

Here’s why full custody is an effective family law tool:

  • Legal Authority

Full custody grants you legal authority and decision-making power regarding the major decisions of the child’s life. With full custody, you can make important decisions without needing to consult the absent father.

  • Stability and security

Full custody provides your child with a stable, consistent and predictable environment in which to grow and develop. Routine and stability are essential to nurture children’s emotional well-being and overall development.

  • Protection from harm

Full custody serves as a protective measure and gives you the power to limit or restrict the father’s access to the children, should you consider him likely to expose them to harmful or unsafe situations.

  • Legal recourse

With full custody, you have legal recourse to enforce custody and visitation arrangements, as well as to seek remedies in cases of non-compliance or violation of court orders. This gives you legal protection under New Zealand family law to assert your rights and protect your child’s interests. 

  • Financial support

Full custody also facilitates the receipt of child support payments, even from an absent father. You do not have to carry the financial burden of raising children alone. You can have access to the resources they need to thrive.

Finding common ground: family lawyers and alternative dispute resolution

Family lawyers can also play a pivotal role in mediating between ex partners through alternative dispute resolution methods. By facilitating open communication and negotiation, they help parents explore mutually beneficial solutions outside of court. Through mediation and collaborative law approaches, family lawyers strive to preserve relationships and prioritise the well-being of the children involved. They guide parents in understanding their rights, responsibilities, and options, fostering constructive dialogue and problem-solving. Family lawyers also advocate for fair and equitable outcomes, promoting amicable resolutions that address the unique needs and circumstances of each family. Through skilful mediation, they empower parents to navigate challenging situations with empathy, respect, and civility.

Navigating the complexities of family law in New Zealand is pivotal to safeguarding your child’s well-being, particularly in cases of absent parents. Understanding legal measures from the family court, including guardianship and custody distinctions, empowers parents to secure their child’s future. Seeking early legal advice from a family court lawyer in Christchurch ensures access to resources and solutions tailored to individual circumstances. Despite the emotional challenges, pursuing full custody can provide stability, protection, and legal recourse for your child’s best interests. With a firm grasp of family law dynamics and the unwavering commitment to the child’s welfare, parents can navigate the legal terrain effectively, upholding the fundamental principle of prioritising the “best interests of the child” in all legal proceedings.

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