Parenting & The LGBTIQA+ Community during COVID-19 – Podcast Episode 10

In this podcast Rebecca Dahl, Sally Nicholes and Charlotte Wyles of Nicholes Family Lawyers speak with Rodney Chiang-Cruise about his surrogacy and IVF journey as a member of the LGTBQIA community and co-parenting his Rainbow family in social isolation during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Please note that during this pod cast we discuss the Victorian government’s suspension of elective surgeries in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, since recording the podcast, the Federal Government has indicated that certain elective surgeries (including IVF) will be able to recommence as of 25 April 2020.

 

Bec Dahl:

Welcome everyone to the Nicholes Family Lawyers podcast. My name is Bec Dahl and I’m a partner in Nicholes Family Lawyers. I’m joined today by my colleague Sally Nicholes, managing partner of Nicholes Family Lawyers and associate Charlotte Wyles. Today’s podcast, we’ll be speaking with our guest, Rodney Chianuris about parenting and co-parenting in isolation and surrogacy in light of the Victorian Government’s response to the COVID-19 crisis. In early April, Victorian Department of Health and Human Services requested the suspension of almost all elective surgeries including assisted reproductive treatment unless patients are already in cycle or require urgent fertility preservation for medical reasons. It’s understood this directive was made in order to minimize person to person contact where possible and to preserve the supplied personal protective equipment, the health professionals combating the virus. Thanks for joining us, Rodney, how are you going?

Rodney Chianuris:

Going well, thank you. Isolation has its benefits and also its disadvantages.

Bec:

Absolutely. Well, Rodney, let’s start with, I guess where you’re at in terms of things at the moment. Tell us a little bit about your house. How many adults? How many children? Who’s at school? Who’s at work? How are you going?

Rodney:

Well, at the moment, there’s six people in our house on a day to day basis, that includes myself and my husband, Jeff. We are both fortunate enough to still remain employed and can work from home. We’re in the study upstairs at opposite ends with our backs to each other, working. As I said, we’re very fortunate that we can still do that. We have four children in our house, three of them are children as in 13 year old, a 12 year old and a 10 year old. They’ve all just started back at school this week, and they’re all doing remote learning. We also have a 22 year old nephew who lives with us and he is started back this week at university, again, doing remote learning. We have four people plus two adults in the house, all using the internet, all using video conferencing, all requiring access to good speed internet, and all at the same time.

We are fortunate enough that we’ve got to have spaces in our house to accommodate everybody, so they’re not on top of each other. Except for Jeff and I, we work in the same room together, but that’s working okay. I should say that we’re a blended family, a blended rainbow family. So, Ethan and Jack, Jack’s our nephew, and Ethan’s our son via surrogacy, lived with us permanently. Justin and Aki, our two boys we co-parent with a lesbian couple, one suburb over in South Yarra. Now, when this COVID-19 situation occurred, we sat down and we had a chat, and we’ve decided how we’re going to proceed on the anticipation that we’re going to be doing school remotely. And because co-parent moms had jobs that couldn’t be done remotely, they actually physically have to go in and still do their job. It was just logical to put all the boys together, and we run it from our house. So, that’s what has happened.

We have a very strong relationship with our co-parents in the sense that we’ve been doing this since the kids were born because every weekend we blend the families anyway. Every Saturday with the families would all blend together at our house. The kids would do Chinese school together in the afternoons, we’d cook together. It was a habit that we already had for weekends. We’ve just really blown it out to cover the entire week now. It’s going okay. It has its challenges, one thing is that they’re all different schools, and I will have those different schools, different year levels. Some have very engaged school curriculums where they’re online talking to teachers all the time and others don’t quite have that level. There is a bit of management that we have to do around that. It’s going, we’re only a few days in. I’m touching a wood as I say it, but it does seem to be going okay, or be it is very, very tiring.

Bec:

I can imagine, I mean, Sal might throw it over to you, but I guess what Rodney is describing there is really the epitome of what the Chief Justice of the family court has been saying to parents. Isn’t it about how to manage co-parenting during the time that we’re in at the moment?

Sally Nicholes:

Absolutely. To think laterally, to be reasonable, to have open discussions with each other, I never forget sharing a panel with Rodney years ago, and learning a lot from him and really quoting you, Rodney, as a model for co-parenting. I remember you say to me years ago that you had a regular holiday with your co-parents. I just wondered how that was impacting on you actually, whether you can still in terms of revisiting that co-parenting arrangement that you had all those years ago, do you still actually do that and how has that affected the communication that you define?

Rodney:

We do actually do that. It works really well. We started off with a very formal co-parenting arrangement, something on paper, and we revisited it at the end of the first year, and we revisited the next year when the second child was born. Then, we stopped it, we didn’t actually go back to the paper tool, we wouldn’t even know where it is hidden now. Because a good co-parenting arrangement is one where you understand that it changes, it’s dynamic, and it’s one that is actually lead by the children. The children will actually give you the guidance of what contact they want and etc., and you have to listen to that. When you listen to it, gees, it’s easy, because when you listen to the kids, you stop listening to yourself and your own anxieties. Easier said than done., but it’s the thing that I talk to other parents about when you’re looking at co-parenting is not think about yourself in this, think about how the kids are going to go. Ultimately, that will inform you and help you make the best decisions. We do still holiday, we had actually, all gone over to Taiwan in January because Jeff and I were getting married in Taiwan because they now have marriage equality laws. We thought we’d go over there and get married in front of Jeff’s 80 year old parents.

Sally:

Congratulations. So, that happened?

Rodney:

Sorry?

Sally:

Congratulations.

Rodney:

Yes.

Sally:

What happened is wonderful.

Rodney:

Debbie and Lynn, co-parents and their children came over. Justin, Ethan, and Aki were all our page boys in the whole thing. Now, we’re intricately involved in not just our holiday, but in our wedding ceremony. We actually never intended to actually have a ceremony and big party and all that. We thought we just go in and do the paperwork for legal reasons, and then the kids say to us, but we want a wedding, we want to go to a wedding.

Sally:

I’ve heard this before. I’ve heard the kids after marriage equality. I heard a lot of kids were saying, okay, when’s it going to happen?

Rodney:

Yes. That’s what we did. We listened to the kids and we did that. We are holidaying together. We do see a lot more of each other than perhaps we’re used to at the moment, because we are spending almost every day together. We’re conscious of not getting on each other’s nerves because we all have jobs to do as well. We’re all in stress situations. We’re alert to it, how we manage it remains to be seen. It seems to be going okay at the moment, but it amounts to just checking in on each other. We take that as a starting point and say, “How you going? Are you okay? How did you cope today?” And then listening. Sometimes I think that’s the easiest way, because sometimes you can’t verbalize how you’re feeling, you’re just down, you’re exhausted, whole range of things. It’s like in any co-parent arrangement or even any arrangement where the parents have separated and there are two households going, if you can talk to each other and just not talk about yourself, start off conversation. Making it all about you, but finding out about how they’re going. Then, they reflect back and find out how you’re going, it just makes things so much easier.

We’re really fortunate that we have such amazing co-parents in Debbie and Lynn. I know one of the issues that comes up with co-parenting is that there’s always that, not always, there’s often a tension between one parent thinking that they should be parenting a certain way against another person who parents a different way. Where somebody thinks they should have a say in this aspect of the child’s life versus that. I totally get that, that’s a real point of tension, and conflict, and often ends up in your hands. We’ve got people having taking sides on that. It doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen with us, it does in minor ways. But again, it all comes down to, let’s ask the kids, find out what the kids really want. Because at the end of the day, that’s what we want, we want them to be happy. If we’re not listening to them and just listen to our own voices in our head, we’ll muck it up. I’ve seen many people who do that. They start off conversations with me saying, “But I should be able to and I have the right to and they’re my kids too.” I understand where that anxiety comes from, but it’s the wrong way to approach it. If people start saying, “Well, I want to find out what’s best for the child. I want to find out what my son or my daughter really wants. How they comfortable about it.” If people can start talking like that, co-parenting is easy.

Sally:

To move away from a wide space and really look through the eyes of a child as what you’re saying.

Rodney:

Yes.

Sally:

To be move to this traditional base and I would say you’ve had counselors and mediators too. If it does get to tension points where the parents can’t work it out or contain tensions between themselves, we can actually put at the end of this podcast, different links to different services. For example, if it does get to that stage, but it sounds as if you’ve been able to work out most issues by trying to look through the children’s eyes, which is just such a fantastic ethos really.

Rodney:

It’s not something I came to on my own. I mean, I had some very good mentors in the co-parenting space many years ago, who told me that that’s what you need to do. I listened because I didn’t want to bugger it up. I’d seen how this could go south very quickly, and I didn’t want to be part of that number. I have said to some couples I know who are really struggling at the moment because of the social distancing. They’re concerned that I’m not getting to see my son, I normally would see them every weekend. Now, I feel I can’t go. I said, “Well, I’ve refer to that.” I think, it was the family court judge who said, be sensible about it, think about it. If these are the arrangements that there, and I talked about in terms of, I listened to Jacinta Ardurne. I don’t just talk about it as a bubble of people. Every day, our co-parents come and drop their kids at 7:00 at our house and pick them up at 5:00, and take them home to their house. There’s still two houses going, but our bubble is between those two houses. As social distancing is still tight and controlled within that, but the girls need to get to work. They need somebody to look after the kids. Obviously, we’re the obvious choice and we have the capability because we are working from home.

As I say to people, think about what your bubble is, if you normally would see your child every single day, still try and do that. It may mean that you have to socially distance yourself from other people during the week. So, you’re keeping your bubble tight. When you talk to people like that they go, “I don’t need to see my mates from work. I don’t need to see my neighbours, but I do need to see my child.” If you can have that conversation and talk about it in terms of maintaining that bubble, even if it’s over two addresses, and I would say the same to a straight couple who would – any couple who had separated, and were co-parenting after a divorce or separation. Again, think about it from the child’s sense and how they would feel and create that bubble around them. It may mean you have to cut off other parts of your life to keep that bubble tight for it’s around your family and your child, it’s an easy decision you should write. I have had the alternative thing, whereas people have said, “Oh, you can’t now visit because of social distancing.” People are being excluded that way. I’ve had a few people raise that with me. That’s where it’s getting, there’s a conflict potential there, and it worries me. I don’t want to say this isolation thing be leveraged as a way of raising a conflict or asserting authority or power over a co-parent.

Sally:

Yes. I think that’s what the chief justice was trying to avoid through in his interviews, and also the statement that he was releasing. I think, it’s even extended into being perceived in summer in as a form of domestic violence to where some people being actually saying, “You may be putting the children at risk because you may be a health worker or something like that.” I think that if you really unpack it, children might actually be, they may be vectors. But they aren’t actually being impacted by the virus in the way adults might be being impacted. People think very long and hard about what their actual agendas are when they say things like that. I think that’s a very big course they actually trying to stop somebody from seeing a child. I mean, obviously, there’s a geographical issue in the moment, but the exceptions is to allow children to transport children between their residences. At that moment in stage three is appropriate. As you’ve said, that you’re coming to a sensible and compromise because the girls did work, so that’s really important. Lottie did you want to, I thought bundle things that we’ve – there was concerning was restrictive, and which is the parents could be quite dramatic. You were looking at today was the issue of IVF. Lottie, did you talk to Rodney and ask [crosstalk]

Lottie:

Yes, absolutely. Rodney, you’re obviously part of a family that has been positively impacted, I guess you could say by artificial reproductive technologies.

Rodney:

Absolutely.

Lottie:

Those now are obviously being restricted as they’re not being seen in most cases as essential surgeries or being seen as elective. As someone who’s been through it, how do you think these restrictions and delays will be affecting people?

Rodney:

Well, firstly, on the really top level, it’s really emotional. As we know, anybody who’s going through a surrogacy process or an IVF process, or even being a donor.

These are really emotional rollercoaster rides that you go on, and you invest a lot of energy and a lot of emotion on the lead up to them. Having them curtailed at the last minute is a huge emotional strain. There are other factors that come into it, sometimes it’s like, it’s a delay, but it’s not a medical critical delays, just a delay. In other cases, it may be a critical delay in terms of, you may be waiting for your IVF treatment and you’re 39 and you’re thinking, “I can’t wait for another twelve months before this all blows over, because I’ll be a year older.” And that’s not necessarily an ideal situation for me. There may be arrangements where you need to freeze eggs or embryos and you need to do that now. You may be suffering an illness, or cancer, or something like that. You’ve got this. This emotional layer that sits above often a medical priority.

Rodney:

Now, it’s not always a priority, but I guarantee you those people who it’s not a medical priority still feel it’s a priority, because the lead up to this to get to this stage is so engaging and intense. That having it stopped at any point, it’s almost like having a limb chopped off your body. It’s incredibly stressful and it’s a form of grief, if you’ve lost something before you’ve even gained it. It’s affecting a lot of people. There are those who are ready to go ahead with IVF or whether it be a lesbian couple or a gay couple doing surrogacy, and it’s all being stopped in its tracks. And for say the surrogacy couple, their big worries will their surrogate still be interested in twelve months’ time? What changes will have occurred? Will they be employed? Maybe, they’ll have to move, whole range of things will come into play that they just don’t have any control over. And then there’s this added level for particularly gay men who are doing surrogacy overseas is, if they haven’t started, there’s obviously like, they can’t travel to start it. But those who have started it are in a huge problem because their babies have been born as we speak and can they get out of the country? Can they get back into the country? Are they going to have to spend fourteen days quarantine either side? All these other issues and will they be able to get their children out of the, for example, the US. Will the Australian government issued them a visa? These are all unknowns at the moment.

They’re creating lots of stress for people who are already on the path, whether it’s IVF or surrogacy. If you’re on the path, it’s a real stress because you don’t know exactly how they’re going to play out. Very few people know the answers to it. If you haven’t started actually the medical treatment part of it, but you’re about to, it’s still a huge stress because there’s that question about “when”. It’s not something like buying a chair from Ikea, you just pop in and get it. This is something that takes a lot of energy and a lot of arrangement of people and medical expertise to actually get you to a point. When it’s all pulled a life from you, it can be incredibly stressful. I don’t know what the answer is to those people at the moment, give them a hug and say have a glass of wine. But that’s about it, because it really is an unknown.

Bec:

Well, I was going to say, Rodney, I mean, this is probably one of those areas where, if we’re talking about the LGBTQ community when they’re particularly impacted, obviously, there’s people outside of that community undergoing this. For people that have limited options for having children anyway, this is just an added challenge for that community as well.

Rodney:

It’s huge. It really is huge. I think, the biggest challenge at the moment is that nobody knows when it’s going to end and when they can jump back in to the process. Something that isn’t being talked about widely, but this is a delay that’s gone on a month or two and it’s likely to go on, say another six months. So, the backlog is going to be huge. There are a number of people who are going to want to rush in when the restrictions lift is going to be huge. There’s going to be a lot of competition for access to resources, medical resources, and IVF procedures. I don’t think when the restrictions lift, we’re going to see all sudden diseases. I think we’re just going to see a different problem occur. I don’t know is it going to be a competition of those who can pay more will get access? Will it be done on the order that you went in earlier, will you be treated in that way? Will it even be possible? Will donors still be available? Will the doctors and all the surrogates that you needed still be available that time? Once, this all comes up saying six months’ time, if we’re saying six months’ time, we’re going to have another new problem. That’s going to be a rush to access this. As I said, this is not buying an Ikea chair, where you can wait a week or two. This is something where people have invested a huge amount of time and it is time critical for many, many people, particularly women who are older, maybe their late 30s, or early 40s who want to access reproductive technologies. The longer this goes on the slimmer the chances are for them. It’s potentially heartbreaking for them. It’s going to be a very grief stricken process for many people, I think.

Bec:

I guess these are some of the hidden things out there that we don’t always talk about. These are some of the additional challenges that people are facing when the whole world’s facing challenges at the same time.

Rodney:

Yes, very true. I think the people who are intimately involved in it, who are waiting, who have been pushed back because they can’t actually access treatment at this stage, they all start have been going through this process and thinking about, well, what’s going to happen two months, three months, six months time? I’m not sure that the service providers have got to that stage yet. I suspect a lot of service providers and the support staff around them, and that includes lawyers, and counselors, and all that sort of cohort of people are also going to find themselves in a very difficult situation that they may not anticipate. They may be thinking what’s pretty light on at the moment because we can’t do face to face meetings, etc. If it’s all of a sudden the rush, will it be sufficient? Professional people and professional organizations there to assist? Or will there be delays in that regard? It’s always unknown unknowns. They pile up, and I think it’s incredibly scary for people who have started this path.

Sally:

Thinking about the impact of different catastrophes. Now, remember the earthquakes in Nepal, I remember that situation. There are a number of surrogacy’s that have started and then there were earthquakes and there are concerns about people who had started with embryos in Nepal, they had absolutely no idea what was happening. I think it just reminds me when they do have these types of processes, you have the vexed issue of international surrogacy is where there can be exploitation in developing countries too. We know that the developing countries will be very hard hit by the pandemic. Then you have, I think, really just that pragmatic call. I think our former chief justice called for it and formative justice for the family court and the Federal Circuit Court for some pragmatic legislation here for domestic commercial surrogacy. Much in line, I think, battles going through much in line with the Canadian model, just to try and counter that concern about international commercial surrogacy in those countries. Do you have any comment about that, Rodney?

Rodney:

Look, I’m a great supporter of the Canadian model. We already have the infrastructure here. We already have altruistic surrogacy where everybody else gets paid, except the surrogate.

Sally:

Yes.

Rodney:

We’ve got the framework, we’ve got the expertise, we’ve got a really good including yourself, we’ve got a really good cohort of legal practitioners who know how to run this system. We’ve got pretty good legislation in place already in most states, which is all very similar. There are some tweaks that could probably be made. We’ve got a good culture here that would facilitate people to participate. I think, we’ve got the right environment to do it. We just haven’t got to that stage of saying, “Okay, we should be compensating.” We don’t have to call it commercial, you call compensated. Compensating [crosstalk]

Sally:

That’s how the Canadians do they call it, and it’s a good model in that way.

Rodney:

I think, we’ve got an excellent legal framework, we got we’ve got excellent legal advice here, and that has grown dramatically in the last ten years. We’ve seen such a huge improvement in the quality and engagement of the legal profession, not all of them, obviously, there’s specialist firms who are really engaged with it. Also, with the support services around mental health and psychologists, etc. There’s a really good support framework there, which comes off the back of the IVF industry, as well. We’ve got all that, we’ve got first world, first-class infrastructure here, and intellect. We’ve got all the stuff there to do it. We just haven’t made that last move. But one thing that I wanted to comment on about with regard to COVID-19, is that and we’ve seen this today with Scott Morrison and various people talking about how they’re planning for our exit of reducing restrictions, etc., over the next month or two. That’s great, and because we’ve done a pretty good job in Australia as New Zealand has as well suppressing the virus. We’re not in a disaster situation like the UK or US, which just makes me shudder.

One of the thing is that we are likely to come out of this very early compared to the rest of the world. Certainly, compared to the rest of the undeveloped world or the federal countries, there is yet to go through that disaster, which is looming. Even though Australia will come out of it, we’re still going to have blocks on international, international travels still going to be restricted for a very long time. Even interstate travel, and that’s actually really quite important because parents live in to state from the donor can save children, etc. Surrogates often live across borders, and we still may see shutdowns between states. Obviously, Western Australia and Northern Territory are particularly sensitive because of the indigenous populations which must be protected. We may see restrictions alleviate here, but still, other barriers for some will continue because they may not be able to cross the border between Queensland and New South Wales, etc.

Even still, once all that is resolved, we still may have the blocks on people traveling overseas. I feel for and I know a couple of families who are in this situation who have children in New Zealand, and they have very strong relationships, they monthly hop across the Tasman is no longer possible because there aren’t going to following these quarantine either side. That worries me too because there are families who are being reached apart by this. Thank God, we’ve got technology like this where they can talk, but this is a long game. They talk about it, it’s a marathon, not a sprint. I think, it’ll be a marathon for Australia, but it’s going to be a bigger marathon for the rest of the world before we’re open enough to start breaking down some of those barriers.

Sally:

Absolutely. You see that how we’ve taken it for granted that we can travel in that way. I think when the government’s considering making exceptions and that grounds, that compassionate ground, and that bubble, as you’ve said, I think that’s a wonderful analogy. Maybe when we’re looking at family law, and continuing those family relationships, maybe that’s a great way of looking at it when lobbying for the lifting of restrictions, particularly as you’ve said with that New Zealand connection, as well.

Rodney:

Can I add one thing that is anecdotal, I don’t know the full details of it, but a couple of had a child in the US were wanting to come back during this process. The child still a US citizen, and they would apply for Australian citizenship, and of course, visitors from the US aren’t allowed in Australia. So, somebody had gone in and argued quite strongly that they should have a compassionate grounds or humanitarian grounds to allow this child to return. It did take some time, but I believe that they were successful. The family did fly back to Queensland. I believe they’re still in fourteen day quarantine, but they’re back here. As much as I’m not a fan of our federal government, in any shape, way, shape, or form, at least there is a sense of compassion in a real-world situation. How far that extends? I don’t know. But I do encourage people who may find themselves in similar situations, not to just give up hope and think I will want to ever do it. I do think the Department of Foreign Affairs and Immigration, border force, or whoever it is, do have a little bit of a heart. It’s worth speaking to them and seeing what options are available.

Sally:

It has been truly humbling to say that bipartisan, almost bipartisan approach to this virus. I think there’s been a real attempt by even though they are a federation, and I know some of the states have taken perhaps stronger or stricter approaches, but all in all, there’s been a real attempt to people be united, which I think is just absolutely fabulous and necessary compared to other countries. We can see that conflict. When it comes to children and families, that’s really, really important. I’m hoping in the future, that they can be, perhaps from a legal point of view or referral of pals federally perhaps, because that might really help in the area of surrogacy too. But Rodney, look, thank you so much for your time. It’s so invaluable and I think, it will be a real difference to people listening to the podcast to give them some hope and some guidance. Is there anything else that you might want to ask Rodney about according to the podcast?

Bec:

I don’t think so. We just really appreciate your insight, Rodney. It’s really great.

 

Useful links:

Gay Dads Australia: gaydadsaustralia.com.au/

Switchboard: Switchboard Victoria provides peer-driven support services for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and gender diverse, intersex, queer and asexual (LGBTIQA+) people, their families, allies and communities – 1800 184 527 – www.switchboard.org.au/

Q Life: QLife provides anonymous and free LGBTI peer support and referral for people in Australia wanting to talk about sexuality, identity, gender, bodies, feelings or relationships.
Webchat – qlife.org.au/

Queerspace: Queerspace is an LGBTIQ+ health and wellbeing support service established in 2009 by LGBTIQ+ communities for LGBTIQ+ communities. Queerspace has a focus on relationships,www.queerspace.org.au/contact/and young people and offers

Minus 18: Minus 18 lead change, building social inclusion, and advocating for an Australia where all young people are safe, empowered, and surrounded by people that support them.
www.minus18.org.au/about

Thorne Harbour Health: Thorne harbour provides support for sex, sexuality and gender diverse communities.
www.thorneharbour.org

Rainbow Families: Rainbow Families Victoria is a volunteer community organisation based in Victoria, Australia. RFV supports and promotes equality for ‘rainbow’ families: pridecentre.org.au/resources/rainb…ria/etropolitan

Kids Helpline: A free, private and confidential telephone counselling service – 1800 55 1800 or kidshelpline.com.au/

Parent line: A state-wide counselling and support service for all Victorian parents – 13 22 89 or 1300 272 736

Safe Steps: A domestic violence hotline service for women and children – 1800 015 188 www.safesteps.org.au/

WIRE Helpline: A free support, referral, and information for all Victorian women (non-binary and gender diverse inclusive) – 1300 134 130 www.wire.org.au/

Relationship Space: An online program to help parents manage divorce – www.relationshipspace.com.au

Relationships Australia: www.relationships.org.au/

 

Disclaimer: Nicholes Family Lawyers intends the information provided in this podcast as general information only, please contact Nicholes Family lawyers if you require specific information and advise in relation to any family law matter.

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