29 Jan 2009

Trauma claim in sect custody battle for two children

The Australian - January 29, 2009

by Matthew Denholm

TWO children at the centre of a custody battle between their Exclusive Brethren mother and ex-Brethren father would be traumatised if sent from the sect to live with their dad, a court-appointed counsellor has found.

The children's father, excommunicated from the Christian sect after he left in 2003, is seeking custody of his two youngest children, a boy aged 15 and girl of 10.

He has told the court the children are "brainwashed" by the Brethren, whom he accuses of influencing his ex-wife to flout court orders providing him fortnightly access to the children.

However, yesterday counsel for the mother, Melbourne-based QC Noel Ackman, referred to a report by a court-appointed "family reporter" advising against granting the father custody.

The report by psychologist Ineke Stierman concluded that the two children, who had been raised in the Brethren, were "likely to suffer long-term emotional trauma" if removed from their mother's custody.

Ms Stierman's report, while supporting some form of agreed access for the father to his children, urges the court to place the children's "emotional needs" above those of their dad's.

However, the father attacked aspects of Ms Stierman's report, accusing her of being unwilling to visit his home, and of having "made up her mind" on the issue in advance. "I don't agree," the father told the court, sitting in Launceston, insisting the children would get "long-term emotional support and counselling" if allowed to live with him.

Ms Stierman concluded: "A change of residence (from the mother's home) at this time is unthinkable."

However, the father told Justice Sally Brown that the report was written at a time when his ex-wife was not expected to live much longer.

Since then her condition had improved and her oncologist now expected her to live between one and five years.

He told the court that while the Brethren shunned, or "withdrew from", people who left the sect, this did not apply to children.

"They have a dispensation of grace towards young children -- they are not withdrawn from; they are not penalised," he said.

He conceded that the children could potentially be "devastated" by leaving behind their six older siblings, who were also in the Brethren, but that he would not prevent them seeing each other.

The father, representing himself, said he would accommodate the children's religious beliefs by removing TVs, CD players, radios and mobile phones from his house. However, he said he would not allow them to attend Brethren ceremonies because church elders would use these opportunities to indoctrinate his children against him.

The mother told the court the two young children did not want to spend time with their father and denied the Brethren had influenced them in this. "I attribute it to what you've done," she told her ex-husband across the courtroom as he cross-examined her yesterday.

The case continues.

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