Custody dispute turns nightmare

JACQUIE WEBBY
Last updated 05:00 29/11/2013

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A South Canterbury grandmother wants her family reunited after a four-year custody dispute she describes as a nightmare.

The grandmother, who cannot be named for legal reasons, can no longer visit her daughter or granddaughter as they have fled overseas. She claims the courts are not protecting the child.

It is a case that has seen Child, Youth and Family (CYF) make an unreserved apology to a counsellor and one where a judge's outburst was described as "shrill and unprofessional" by a judicial conduct commissioner.

The unreserved apology from CYF was written by CYF Timaru and Ashburton site manager Chris Burke.

It concerned a letter written by a counsellor to the child's parents in October 2010, which had been given to CYF and which was edited and used out of context before the Family Court.

The counsellor complained to CYF that the misuse of her report was a moral breach of both trust and respect for the writer, claiming her concerns about the child's safety were misrepresented.

In his apology, Mr Burke said CYF "unreservedly apologised for the way we used your material in a court document".

"It was clearly taken out of context and at no time did the social worker discuss the information with you and/or clarify its subsequent meaning in the light of the context in which it was written."

He went on to say: "As discussed with you, we never intend to shut down the voice of a child.

"Our focus, like yours, is to advocate for the safety and wellbeing of children and young people."

A copy of the CYF apology to the counsellor was released to the family after an Official Information Act request, but the grandmother said this did not happen until late last month. The grandmother said even this was not straightforward as the family was forced to fly a lawyer from the South Island to Auckland to collect it, even though the grandmother holds a power of attorney for her daughter.

The second complaint, made by the family, was against Judge Emma Smith and relates to a Family Court hearing into the terms of a parenting order in 2010.

An outburst by Judge Smith during the hearing was described as "shrill and unprofessional" by judicial conduct commissioner Sir David Gascoigne.

Sir David subsequently referred the matter to the "head of bench", Chief District Court Judge Jan-Marie Doogue, saying there was a "significant and troublesome aspect of judicial conduct present".

Responding to Judge Doogue, Judge Smith said she was genuinely apologetic for any and all distress caused.

The case dates back more than four years, to when the child was first assessed by the independent counsellor.

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The father of the child had access rights to his daughter and a custody dispute was in progress when the mother fled the country with her daughter.

For the grandmother, the chapter of events has been "like a nightmare".

"We have a wonderful family and we just want (them) back home with us," she said.

"They currently live in a country not covered by the Hague Convention, but we want them home."

The grandmother said the family wanted either a complete mistrial to be declared or the whole matter wiped from the record.

"We also do not want him to have any contact whatsoever with his daughter," she said.

- The Timaru Herald

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