NEW ZEALAND PARLIAMENT
WEDNESDAY 11 NOVEMBER 1992
By NICK SMITH, MP TASMAN
In my work as a constituent MP, I have often been emotionally shocked at the dilemmas that some constituents get trapped in. However, none have matched the trauma and plight of a young married couple in my electorate who have been fighting for over two years without success for the return of their children.
We have heard much in the news in recent weeks of children who have been physically and sexually abused and the failure of the State to remove them from dangerous home environments. It is ironical that I bring to the attention of the House today the case of two very caring and competent parents who cannot get the custody of their own children.
It is a sad tale of a family destroyed by the tyranny of a church and the inability of our legal system to properly protect them. Family law does not allow me to mention names, nor the circumstances in such detail so as to identify them. But their story is one which any loving parent would rather not hear and perhaps, without names, I can present it a little less emotionally.
At the heart of this case is the Exclusive Brethren Church. The public face of the church is a group of hard working, honest people who keep very much to themselves and do no harm. But there is a more sinister side of the church which is involved in extreme forms of psychological blackmail that is used to rip families apart in the name of Christianity.
The couple I speak of were both born and bred in the Exclusive Brethren Church, were married at a young age and had three beautiful children. The trouble began for the family when the wife strayed from the strict doctrine of the church and dared dress her children in bright colours and, shock horror, denim. The husband was put under tremendous emotional pressure to control his wife and mend her “ Godless ways.” The church ostracised the couple and the resulting stress caused marital problems. To give themselves space to help resolve these problems, they innocently allowed their children to stay with their grandparents.
Despite having worked through their differences together, church leaders insisted he leave his wife and, when he refused, they were both excommunicated. This meant that no fellowship members, including their grandparents, were to talk, eat, meet or have anything to do with the couple. The power of this extreme form of emotional punishment can only be appreciated when you realise that all their friends and family are part of the church.
In the days, weeks and months that passed, the couple dealt with their trauma and overcame their feelings of guilt and the label the church had given them of being evil. They then began the long hard haul to get their children back and now, almost three years later, they still have not succeeded.
I am not a lawyer and am certainly no expert on family law, but I would have thought that the natural parents of children would have automatic right to custody unless it be shown that they pose some risk to the welfare of the children. That is common sense but it has turned out not to be the law.
The first attempts to regain their children were completely ignored, then refused by the Exclusive Brethren Church. In their frustration, the parents consulted a lawyer and this resulted in formal correspondence requesting custody. The lawyer failed to properly advise his clients of their rights and his involvement only served to delay the couple four months. In desperation they travelled to the town where the children were staying with their grandparents to pick them up. The church organised a mass turnout of cars and church people to intimidate the couple and prevent them from taking back their children.
By that stage almost two years had passed, and the couple did not know where to turn. They had been refused access to their children and the opportunity to talk to them by telephone, even on their birthdays. Presents they sent were not opened and the couple were even denied photographs of their young but rapidly growing children. Even more upsetting was the knowledge that the children had been brainwashed that their parents were evil, that their parents hated them and that if they ever went to live with their parents they would die.
Unbeknown to the parents, the fathers brother, who had also been excommunicated from the church, decided to take matters into his own hands and threatened a senior church person with a firearm. Thankfully, no one was hurt. However, on the basis of evidence presented solely by the church and the grandparents on this incident, and without giving the parents the chance to put their case, the Family Court granted ex parte interim custody to the grandparents.
The parents have employed a family lawyer who is doing her very best to help them. She has sought an interim access arrangement but that has been denied by the court. The court requested an independent psychologist’s report, that delayed proceedings a further four months, but which strongly recommended the children be returned to their parents. But now, almost two months later, the courts have still failed to set aside time for a hearing. Written pleas from myself to the court registrar have been fobbed off and I’m told the court is unlikely to hear the case until next year.
I am well aware of the niceties of our legal system and the principles of separation between Parliament and our court system, but I cannot remain silent when the justice system has so obviously failed this family. Justice is not served when it is so delayed that the aggrieved party suffers endless months and years of separation. As William Gladstone said “ Justice delayed is justice denied.”
I raise this issue this afternoon for three reasons. Firstly, the House must be made aware of the failings of our Family court system and particularly the excessive delays. The delays in this case are not exceptional and the system is becoming legendary for its snail-like pace. Delays in family court proceedings causes excessive and unnecessary stress and uncertainty for both parents and children.
Secondly, I wish to expose the Exclusive Brethren Church for destroying families. This case is one of the worst, but in the course of my work with this family, I have come to know of other similar cases. Many relationships between parents, children, brothers and sisters have also been jettisoned by the Exclusive Brethren Church. The church’s obsession in keeping these children from their parents is on the surface driven by the desire to raise them in the Exclusive Brethren faith. But there is also a more sinister underlying agenda. This case is very well known in the sect, both here and abroad, and the threat of losing one’s family is a very powerful force that can be used to maintain discipline in the church.
A British MP was so moved by the public outcry caused there by the psychological warfare of this church, that he introduced a Family Preservation Bill and if the church does not tone down it’s tactics, such legislation may be required here in New Zealand.
Finally, my hope is that someone will find the humanity to give this family a long overdue break. This family has already endured three Christmases apart. It would be a truly Merry Christmas if they could spend this year’s reunited.