Saturday, 3 October 2015

Children get a voice in cases of divorce

Family Justice Courts hopes to use dispute resolution model to help more families
By Theresa Tan,The Straits Times, 2 Oct 2015

Till now, they have often been the silent victims caught between feuding parents. But children whose parents are divorcing now have a voice as they are being consulted by the Family Justice Courts (FJC) on how the separation is affecting them.

The FJC hopes that this Child Inclusive Dispute Resolution model can help parents hear and understand what their children are going through, and consider their feelings and wishes as they thrash out custody and other parenting issues.



Madam Sophia Ang, its director of counselling and psychological services, told The Straits Times: "We find that parents don't really know what their children are feeling. Some kids may not want to tell their parents, as they don't want to upset them."

But children - despite how nonchalant they may appear - are hurt by their parents' conflict, she said. Some become depressed, while others become angry and defiant.



In the past year, the FJC piloted this child-inclusive mediation model on a group of 20 families, involving 35 children aged from seven to 18.

The results of this pilot study were encouraging, Madam Ang said. Three in four of the couples managed to agree on all the children's issues, such as who the child would live with and how often the other parent can visit, instead of fighting it out in court.

Three months after the mediation ended, the children surveyed said their parents fought less. The couples said it made them more mindful of how their behaviour affected their children.

The FJC hopes to expand this to include more families. This is how it works: Trained counsellors work with the children to find out how they are affected by their parents' divorce. They share with the parents what their children have said and offer suggestions on how the parents can help their children cope better with the break-up.

With this knowledge in mind, and counselling support at hand, parents attend mediation sessions to work out custody and other issues involving their children.

Madam Jaslyn Ng, a senior court counsellor, said: "Many children feel they are caught in between their parents and they have to take sides. They worry about upsetting their parents or they fear their parents will abandon them. So they may not tell their parents what they really feel."

Take, for example, two teenagers, a boy and a girl, whose parents are divorcing. The father, a professional, cheated on his homemaker wife. Both parents, who are in their 40s, are fighting for their children to live with them after the divorce. The teens told their father they wanted to live with him. In fact, they preferred to live with their mum, but did not dare to tell him this.

Madam Ng, who dealt with such a case, said: "I had to help the dad understand that his children were not rejecting him, but they felt more comfortable living with their mother. He was afraid of losing his relationship with them."

The man decided to stop fighting with his wife and allow the children to live with her.

Lawyers said what the child suffers or hopes for is often left unsaid or lost on warring parents.

Lawyer Foo Siew Fong said divorcing couples are often too caught up in their own hurt feelings to be able to really listen and understand what their children are going through.

Lawyer Rajan Chettiar said: "Parents just do what they think is best for their child. If we are talking about acting in the child's best interests, then the child's voice must be heard more often."

Since 2011, the FJC has made it compulsory for all divorcing couples with children to attend counselling and mediation sessions at its Child Focused Resolution Centre. This is to help them work out care arrangements for the children, instead of fighting over them in court.

Madam Ang said: "We want to shift mindsets away from their marital conflicts to really thinking about their children."









Reducing divorce conflict, easing kids' insecurities
By Theresa Tan,The Straits Times, 2 Oct 2015

One in three children caught in an acrimonious divorce could face a mental health problem, such as anxiety or depression, that requires professional help.

Professor Jennifer McIntosh, an Australian child psychologist who has investigated family trauma for almost three decades, discovered this from her research on over 300 Australian children with feuding parents.

"The worse the conflict, the worse it is for the child, who has to constantly deal with all the hostilities the parents inflict on each other," she said. "Some children become so vigilant to what's happening that they stop being children and start being a caregiver to their parents."

Prof McIntosh, 51, pioneered the Child Inclusive Dispute Resolution model, as a way to give children a voice in a fight that affects them.

Parents are often so caught up in their own pain and anger that they overlook how their acrimony is affecting their offspring, she said.

Her research on the Child Inclusive Dispute Resolution model showed that it made couples fight significantly less, and children felt closer to their parents.

Prof McIntosh is in Singapore to train the Family Justice Courts counsellors on how to engage families using this approach.

She said it was important for trained professionals to find out the children's feelings, as they may not tell their parents the truth.

She said: "Children love both their parents, and depend on both of them. So they need to keep things sweet between them, and they spend an awful lot of time weighing how the information would affect their parents. So what the parent hears from their child could be a sanitised version of the truth."

However, she noted that this child inclusive engagement will work only for those who are willing and able to consider their child's point of view, and reflect on their own behaviour.

She said: "It doesn't mean they walk away as perfect parents, but they are motivated to do better."









Family Justice Courts moves some services to new office
Divorce-related mediation and counselling services shifting to MND Complex
By Amir Hussain,The Straits Times, 2 Oct 2015

A year after the Family Justice Courts (FJC) was created, its premises in Havelock Road can no longer house all its services because of its expanding work. Starting next week, its divorce-related mediation and counselling services will be situated on the fourth floor of the MND Complex in Maxwell Road.

The new office will also house its probate services, as well as the mental capacity and adoption registries. There will be two court rooms, three hearing chambers, nine mediation chambers and 14 counselling rooms in the FJC's second office.

The FJC, set up in October last year, integrates the Family Division of the High Court, the Family Courts and the Youth Courts through a single Registry. Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon announced the relocation at an event to mark the first anniversary of the FJC yesterday. He said: "Our mission at the FJC is unique because we deal with the extremely delicate matter of distressed family relationships. This is the core business of these courts, and our role will assume even greater importance in the years ahead."

He noted that the annual ratio of marriage to divorce today is 4:1, compared to 13: 1 in 1980.

The weakening of family and community bonds has also had an adverse impact on children, he said, citing the number of youth as a proportion of all offenders. About 4,000 youth were arrested annually in the past few years, representing around 22 per cent of total crimes reported each year.

The Chief Justice highlighted three areas for improvement. First, more specialist family mediators will be trained early next year, to allow families to have a viable alternative method of dispute resolution.

The FJC accredited its first 24 specialist family mediators - comprising mainly of FJC district judges and senior lawyers - between November last year and January this year.

Second, the FJC will expand its pilot of the Child Inclusive Dispute Resolution model, which saw 75 per cent of 20 families - 40 parents and 35 children - reach an agreement on all children's issues.

The model incorporates an interview with children, to better understand their feelings and perspectives on their parents' disputes.

Finally, more court volunteers will be trained under the Court Friends scheme - in partnership with the Community Justice Centre and National University of Singapore law faculty's pro-bono office - to support the increasing number of self-litigants. The FJC has already trained 23 volunteers through the scheme, to not only provide information on court procedure and processes, but also give emotional and moral support to self-litigants.


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