60 minutes saga: The emotional toll on Sally Faulkner

We have heard in the past days that the child abduction charges in Beirut have been dropped against Brisbane mother, Sally Faulkner.

In return she has given the father of her children, Ali Elamine, full custody rights to 5-year-old Lahela and 3-year-old Noah.

The child abduction saga has spanned two weeks, and highlighted issues ranging from the difficulties Lebanese women encounter when dealing with their country's complex family law system, the problems between countries when there is a lack of common commitment to the Hague Convention and, last but not least, the raw primal emotion of a co-parental struggle for the children post-separation.

The issue of the longer-term impact on the children of being in the centre of such a struggle is the fundamental one.

One can imagine the cocktail of emotions swirling around Ms Faulkner, as she prepares to leave Beirut without her children - the children who went to their father for what was to be a holiday.

Months, and 150 unanswered emails later, the bungled abduction was in place; followed swiftly by Ms Faulkner's terror at the prospect of a lengthy custodial sentence, and all that would mean for the baby in Brisbane, and the two young children she loves so much.

There is an old saying, that the only valid response to injustice is resistance. Both parents clearly felt it their right to resist what they felt was unjust.

The Family Court of Australia had ruled that Ms Faulkner be the primary custodian of the two children.

By comparison, Lebanese family law is extremely complicated (that country recognises 18 different religions, and has a total of 15 different sets of marriage laws). Ali Elamine knew that child custody law in his country is stacked in favour of men.

"The issue of maternal custody rights is a major one for Lebanese women in Lebanon today," says Dr Nelia Hyndman-Rizk, an expert in Lebanese culture, at the University of NSW, Canberra.

"What this case has done is drawn attention to this issue."

Conflicts over child custody are excruciating for all caught up in them; parents, children, grandparents.

Staying together, for the sake of the children, when conflict and unhappiness cannot be resolved, is no longer viewed in our culture as the right decision.

Sally Faulkner with Noah, 3, or Lahela, 5.
Sally Faulkner with Noah, 3, or Lahela, 5.

Separation, with parents determined to be cooperative, can leave children resilient and equipped to make a healthy adaptation.

And children will do best with both responsible parents in their lives, in an arrangement that works for the child's age and developmental stage.

Intercultural marriage, and unions producing children, is increasing. It's very hard to share the day-to-day care of children across two countries.

Little Lahela and Noah are children of two cultures, and have a right to a sense of identity and knowledge about their biological, cultural and social roots. As do all children.

Dr Linda Nielsen, an internationally recognised expert on children of divorce, last year provided video testimony in the Court of Alabama.

In it she referenced a groundbreaking article in Psychology, Public Policy and Law, by eminent professor and researcher, Dr Richard Warshak, University of Texas.

He had pulled together the findings of no less than 112 leading researchers and academics, that demonstrated that shared parenting is the research-based optimum outcome for children across all ages.

This is considered to be groundbreaking, because of the overwhelming scientific agreement of so many leading research specialists into post separation parenting.

In NZ, under the Care of Children Act, we have a presumption of shared care in an arrangement that fits the child's developmental stage and needs.

The principle governing this statute is "the welfare and best interests of the child".

In my work as a mediator in Family Dispute Resolution, the key task is to facilitate an agreement between parents. Put simply, children do best with both responsible parents in their lives.

So what of this rearranged family: Sally Faulkner and Ali Al-Amin, Lahela and Noah?

Mother took a risk and allowed them to travel to Lebanon with their father. A risk which backfired. And their father, speaking outside court on Wednesday, said: "The whole thing sucks. No one wins here - she is the mother - she can come and go as she wants. The only thing we can do is cooperate to give them a better future."

The exclusion of a parent from a child's life creates an irreparable injury. Identity, self esteem, and a sense of ongoing security is intractably tied up with one's history and lineage.

Somewhere in the cliff-hanging drama - an Australian Family Court order, a child recovery agency, an Australian current affairs crew, court appearances, and a Judge, we have two parents who were not, in the last analysis, blocking the children from contact with each other.

A conflict about how to share the parenting of much-loved children goes right to the heart of identity: who we are and what we want for the children we love.

Children have a fundamental right to experience their birthright. They simply cannot afford to lose their non-residential parent.

If these two little children can continue to see both their parents with consistency, and by utilising technology, then one can only hope that by the time they reach their age of consent, their childhood will not have been marred by this experience. Despite all the recent high drama.

Amplified by media because of the particular human drama and players, we can probably be nonetheless reassured that the stimulus for discussion about a common subject is no bad thing.

Legal descriptors will always lag behind social change. Children will increasingly be born to parents of different cultures. How this will play out over time, governed by principles and future treaties, is yet to be seen.

In the end, there is no legal order which can compare to the impact created when one parent is able to understand the position of the other parent, in relation to the same children.

• Jill Goldson is a Family Dispute Resolution mediator and counsellor, and Director of The Family Matters Centre in Auckland.

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