This was a parenting case in the Federal Circuit Court in Melbourne. The facts were that final parenting orders were made by the Court in October, 2016, in relation to two children who we will call Xerxes and Yolanda (not their real names, and we can forget about Yolanda as she does not feature again in this story). At that time, Xerxes was aged 15 and had been diagnosed with autism and gender dysphoria (the distress a person feels due to their birth-assigned sex and gender not matching their gender identity – such people are typically transgender).
There was a long history of both parents breaching previous Court orders. The 2016 orders were very strict – the father and his partner – the children’s step-mother (who we will call Ms Wikked), were not allowed to communicate with the children by any means, including telephone and social media. The Orders extended to the father and Ms Wikked’s “servants and/or agents” which included their children and family members.
In April 2017, Xerxes turned 16. Two days later, he ran away from his mother’s home, and went to the home of Ms Wikked’s mother (who we will call Mrs Helpful) and refused to return to his mother. The mother then got an Order that Mrs Helpful deliver Xerxes to the Court for collection by his mother. Normally, the Court would not make such an order for a 16 year old child, taking the view that a child of that age was old enough to decide where they wanted to live. However, there were special circumstances in this case because of Xerxes’ autism and gender dysphoria.
The plot thickens. Since the October 2016 orders, Mrs Helpful had continued to communicate with Xerxes (which the Orders forbade, as she was a “servant and/or agent”), saying she did not know about the Orders. The day after Xerxes ran away from his mother, Ms Wikked took Xerxes Birth Certificate and his clothes to Mrs Helpful, who then took Xerxes to a bank to open an account in his name, to Centrelink to apply for Youth Allowance and to Medicare – all actions prohibited by the Orders.
Ms Wikked (who must certainly have known about the Orders) was a member of Australian Step-Mother’s Support Group. She had made social media contact with other members of the Group which showed that she had actively encouraged Xerxes to run away from his mother’s home.
Things escalated from there – Ms Wikked told the Group that Xerxes’ mother was taking the case back to Court to try to get Xerxes returned to her. Ms Wikked asked the Group, “Who wants him?” Members of the Group offered to take Xerxes in and a crowd funding campaign was launched to pay the legal costs of deposing the mother’s case, which campaign included a photo of Xerxes. Members of the Group offered to send Xerxes interstate, which Ms Wikked allegedly supported.
The saga continued – members of the Group arranged for Xerxes to travel by bus from Melbourne to Canberra and from there he flew to Queensland, where he stayed with a Ms Silley. It was clear from the evidence later given in Court that Ms Wikked was behind the whole operation of Xerxes leaving home, going to Mrs Helpful and then to Canberra and Queensland. While with Ms Silley, Xerxes spoke to his father and to Ms Wikked on the telephone and he got text messages from them, telling him what to say if the Police questioned him all in breach of the Orders.
Ms Silley then began to get worried about the whole thing and she obtained a copy of the Court Orders which prohibited the father, Ms Wikked “the servants and/or agents” from communicating with Xerxes in any way. Whether she realised it or not, Ms Silley was a “servant or agent”, as were all the other players in this drama. When the penny dropped, Ms Silley took Xerxes to the local Police, she bought a plane ticket and sent him back to Melbourne. Just before the flight, Xerxes received a phone call from Ms Wikked telling him to leave all his things given to him by his father and by Ms Wikked – his mobile phone, laptop, documents and clothes in Queensland and to delete all messages from his phone. She told Xerxes how to avoid detection on arrival in Melbourne and gave him the address of a shelter to go to. That didn’t work, as one of the members of the step-mother’s Group phoned the father’s lawyers who called the Federal Police. Xerxes was met by the Police at Melbourne airport and returned to his mother – end of saga? Not quite.
The mother and her partner (Xerxes step-father – we won’t give him a name – there are already too many players in this drama) filed a Contempt of Court Application, (contempt being a deliberate, wilful disobedience of a Court Order) and, as an alternative, a Contravention Application (breaches of the Orders, but not as serious as contempt) against the father and Ms Wikked.
The Court’s decision – apart from Ms Wikked conceding that she had communicated with Xerxes on two occasions, she and the father pleaded not guilty to all of the charges which, being breaches of Court Orders, carried criminal penalties if convicted. Because of that, the charges had to be proved “beyond reasonable doubt.” The Judge found that four of the eight contempt charges were proved. One of the main charges that were upheld was that Ms Wikked and Xerxes father had conspired with other members of Ms Wikked’s Group to secrete Xerxes out of Victoria for the purposes of frustrating the carrying out of the Recovery Order the mother had obtained to get Xerxes returned to her. Ms Wikked’s Group were not penalised, the Judge saying they were misguided and misinformed by the father and Ms Wikked and that, once they were aware of the order, they took action that led to Xerxes being returned to his mother.
And, sorry to disappoint you, but the outcome to the submissions to the Court on the question of penalties to be imposed on the father and Ms Wikked are not known.
The moral of this extraordinary story? Take Court Orders very seriously – and read the fine print.