Tuesday 8 March 2016

Changes to Women's Charter 2016: When marriages end...

Caught in the middle: How changes to Women's Charter can help families affected by divorce
By Priscilla Goy, The Sunday Times, 6 Mar 2016

Around one in five marriages here ends in divorce.

When couples break up, the children are often hardest hit.

The latest changes to the Women's Charter, approved by Parliament last week, aim to better safeguard their welfare. These changes seek to help parents on the brink of divorce come to an agreement on matters concerning their children.

They will also help divorced women secure maintenance payments, and compel a small group of women to support their incapacitated former husbands.

Insight looks at what this means for children, women and men affected by divorce, and whether other changes may be needed.

Protecting children caught in divorce
When couples split up, their children's welfare can get lost amid the feuding. Insight looks at a law change aimed at addressing this problem.
By Priscilla Goy, The Sunday Times, 6 Mar 2016

A young girl, caught in the middle of her parents' divorce, was told by her paternal grandmother that if she really loved her dad, she should stop thinking of her mum.

"The little girl grieved over this, but hid it from her dad and grandmother. She didn't want to disappoint them," Social and Family Development Minister Tan Chuan-Jin said last Monday in Parliament.

He was making the case for changes to the law to better protect children caught up in divorce.

In a key amendment to the Women's Charter, couples who want to split up, and who cannot agree on matters such as co-parenting plans, will have to attend a mandatory parenting programme - even before filing for a divorce.

Currently, parents of under-21s must attend compulsory mediation and counselling only after filing for divorce, under the 2011 amendments to the Women's Charter.

The new programme involves a two-hour session with a counsellor. To start later this year, it is initially for parents with at least one child under 14, but will later be extended to those with a child under 21.

But is a pre-divorce parenting programme really necessary? Some observers worry this makes the divorce process more onerous, and poses yet another hurdle for abuse victims desperately seeking to exit ugly marriages.


Latest figures show that in 2014, marriages hit a five-decade high of 28,407, while there were 7,307 divorces and annulments.

Divorces are becoming more common among recent cohorts, said Mr Tan, and that was one of the social trends that led his ministry to make the latest review of the Women's Charter.

By the 10th year of marriage, 16.1 per cent of those who married in 2003 had their marriages dissolved, double that of 1987.

Court figures also show that there were 6,017 divorce cases in 2014, a 45 per cent rise from 2000.

Among the cases in 2014, half of the couples wanting to split had at least one child younger than 21 at the time of divorce.

Research shows children can get depressed when their parents split. There are also repercussions on society. A local study in 2000 found 54 per cent of male juvenile offenders had divorced parents.

The Women's Charter, enacted in 1961, has been changed a few times to improve the well-being of children of divorcing parents.

Since 1997, such couples have had to file a parenting plan which includes arrangements on custody, access to the child, and provisions for the child's education needs.

But most couples seemed unable to agree on the parenting plan at the point of filing for divorce.

Then, from 2011, parents were required to go for mediation and counselling after filing for divorce.

Among the 2,000-plus couples who went for this from 2012 to 2014, four in five couples could agree on parenting plans.


But even then, the situation is not ideal, said Mr Tan last Monday.

This view was echoed by counsellors and family lawyers, including Jurong GRC MP and family lawyer Rahayu Mahzam. "Most times, the parties are too caught up in their emotions to be able to think rationally. They are angry and hurt. It is important to put them in the right state of mind before they begin divorce proceedings," she said.

Principal counsellor Larry Lai of Focus on the Family Singapore agreed. He said: "Some feuding couples assume that by breaking up, they will spare their children the pain of their frequent disputes.

"But the children's opinions are seldom sought; the couples have neither know-how nor ability to ascertain their children's reality."

Having the parenting session pre- rather than post-divorce helps the children's needs come to the surface as early as possible, he said.

Lawyer Leslie Foong of Lawhub said having the session pre-divorce compels parents to consider the effects on children - not just after, but also during the divorce process.

One key topic to be covered in the pre-divorce parenting session is how best to break the news of divorce to the children, noted Ms Cindy Loh, programme head of Care Corner Centre for Co-Parenting.

"This is currently addressed in post-divorce counselling, but should be moved upstream for it to be more effective," she said.

Lawyer Koh Tien Hua of Harry Elias Partnership said the parenting session can also help couples be more aware of issues relating to singlehood and single parenthood.

"With the knowledge on hand, they should be able to make a considered and informed decision as to whether to proceed with the divorce, and be able to manage their expectations," he said.

But as the session is for parents who disagree on divorce matters, lawyer Rajan Chettiar suggested that the session be conducted by qualified mediators. "They can help couples resolve their parenting and divorce issues amicably," he said.


But experts, and at least two MPs, have raised concerns that the pre-divorce parenting session could delay divorce proceedings, which need to be expedited in some cases.

Nee Soon GRC MP Louis Ng called for special consideration for cases of domestic violence. Usually the abused spouse wants out, the abusive spouse resists, and both cannot agree on divorce matters, he said in Parliament. "The abused spouse could end up being trapped in a legally perpetuated situation of domestic violence. This will not be in the interest of the child as there may also be child abuse," he said.

This view is echoed by lawyer Gloria James of Gloria James-Civetta & Co - who has had at least 20 clients asking to file for divorce before the changes kick in, to avoid the chore of having to attend the sessions.

"Many divorce matters are filed on the basis of one party's unreasonable behaviour. For those filing on this ground, divorce acts as a way out of an abusive marriage," she said.

There may be some leeway in such cases, as hinted at when Mr Tan responded to Mr Ng's point in Parliament.

Mr Tan said: "Where it is beneficial to the family and child for divorce proceedings to be expedited, (the clause) empowers the courts to allow divorce proceedings to continue even when the parent has not completed the programme."

Experts say steps should be taken to make it easier and more desirable for people to attend.

This is important, given the rise in cross-border marriages, said lawyer Michelle Woodworth of RHTLaw Taylor Wessing.

Mrs Chang-Goh Song Eng, head of Reach Counselling, said: "Explain the need for this, that even if the marriage doesn't work, this could better help the child."

Reluctance to speak up at post-divorce counselling session
By Priscilla Goy, The Sunday Times, 6 Mar 2016

One divorcee mother sent several text messages on her phone during the two-hour Parenting PACT session led by a counsellor. Then she checked her fingernails.

Meanwhile, the counsellor talked about the impact of divorce on children, co-parenting with the former spouse and how parents should care for themselves after divorce.

After the session, the mother left behind the clipboard and pencil supplied - as well as the brochure on divorce support specialist agencies (DSSAs) and the 37-page slide handout that had been provided.

"Did someone leave this behind? Oh, she's left? Oh, okay," said the counsellor, sounding slightly disappointed.

Perhaps the mother attended the session only because she had to. The Parenting PACT programme is compulsory for divorcees who have children under the age of 21 and who have agreed on all divorce matters. The session is conducted after the divorce is finalised.

The programme is run by counsellors from DSSAs, appointed by the Government last year to better assist families with divorce-related issues.

I sat in on a session last year, hoping to get an unvarnished view of the Parenting PACT, as part of research for a story on children affected by divorce.

Perhaps due to guilt or the sensitivity of divorce, none of the eight participants said anything during the session. One spoke up only to ask how to fill up a questionnaire given out.

There were no self-introductions, no discussions - not even after a moving 15-minute video in which children spoke of how they had been affected by divorce.

"Think about your children as you watch the video," said the counsellor.

The children made statements such as "Please don't make me choose" and "My parents don't talk to each other, but they talk to me about the other person".

Then, as if to allay participants' concerns about sharing their personal experiences, the counsellor told them that they need not say what they thought of the video.

The counsellor was the only one talking, but he certainly was not the only one thinking about the issues raised.

Except for Ms Disinterested, the parents paid attention, keeping their eyes on the counsellor or the slides. It helped that the counsellor was engaging and the class was small, held in a room the size of about two parking spaces.

After the session, three parents stayed behind to ask the counsellor more questions in private.

Under a new amendment to the Women's Charter, couples with children under 21 and who cannot agree on divorce matters must attend a parenting programme even before filing for divorce. As with most mandatory schemes, some participants might be reluctant to go and might even feel resentful.

But I believe most parents will attend willingly and listen keenly - I hope they will recognise that the focus is not on saving a marriage they don't feel worth saving, but on making a head start in helping their children cope with divorce.

No hiding now for deadbeat dads
Appointment of maintenance record officers seen as big help for ex-wives
By Charissa Yong and Priscilla Goy, The Sunday Times, 6 Mar 2016

Men who refuse to pay their former wives maintenance will now face more pressure to do so.

The Sunday Times looks at the roles maintenance record officers empowered by changes to the law might play, as well as stepped-up protection for vulnerable women in crisis situations, and what more needs to be done.


The law was last strengthened in 2011, to better enforce maintenance orders by giving the courts the option of imposing more sanctions on defaulters. But the Government recognises that the problem is a hard one to eradicate.

Enter maintenance record officers, introduced in the latest round of changes. These officers can get information on parties' finances. This will help the courts identify recalcitrant defaulters and impose harsher penalties against them.

Since 2011, the number of applications to get former spouses to pay up has fallen slightly, but remains high. In 2011, there were 2,979 such applications. This number fell by about 7 per cent - or 226 cases - to 2,753 last year. The majority of these cases were filed by former wives. The rest include women who are still married and their children.

The defaulters' recalcitrance often stems from deep-seated anger and bitter acrimony, say family lawyers who deal with such cases.

Lawyer Malathi Das, president of the Singapore Council of Women's Organisations, says it is sometimes a tit-for-tat tactic against wives who deny access to the children. "Or it could be that the children don't want to see their fathers, and the men blame the wives for that and refuse to give maintenance," she adds.

Lawyer Tan Siew Kim says: "It's sad that some men think that they are 'teaching their wives a lesson' by deliberately withholding and refusing to pay maintenance."

These men completely ignore the fact that maintenance is for their children - including for their essentials such as school fees, food and medicine - and that their act of "punishing" their wives will affect the lives of their children, she adds.

Some go to great lengths to avoid paying maintenance, with some men quitting their jobs to avoid paying, says Ms Das.

Ms Tan says she has seen men deliberately transfer all their shares in their businesses to their siblings and relatives and downgrade from director to manager, even slashing their declared income from five figures to around $2,000 - to avoid paying adequate maintenance.

The move to appoint maintenance record officers takes aim at these defaulters by reducing the burden of proof of women to show their husbands' or former husbands' finances.

This sends a very strong signal that the authorities are very serious about enforcing maintenance payments, says Ms Das.

It also saves the women agonising trips to the courts every few months to get the men to pay up.

Lawyers suggest that the Government go a step further and allow defaulting men's wages to be taken to pay their maintenance.

For example, a portion of their monthly salary can be mandated to be set aside like Central Provident Fund savings, says lawyer Gloria James-Civetta. Currently, a woman has to wait for her former husband to default on payments.


Separately, Parliament also passed changes that aim to better protect victims of family violence.

Some raised questions about the implementation, such as how to decide that someone is a "fit individual" to care for the victim.

The changes passed include allowing the Ministry of Social and Family Development's director of social welfare to place vulnerable females under 21 in the care of "fit individuals", and allowing married or formerly married people under 21 to apply for personal protection orders (PPOs), instead of requiring others to apply for it on their behalf.

Regarding the first change, Social and Family Development Minister Tan Chuan-Jin explained that this was a new community- based care option, in addition to existing options of residential facilities and shelters.

MPs and welfare groups were concerned about the "overly vague, broad and open-ended" powers given to the director to detain a girl against her will.

For instance, one clause in the new law reads: "Where a girl has been detained in a place of safety, or committed to the care of a fit individual, at the request of the girl's lawful guardian, the girl may be detained or committed for such period as the director determines is necessary for the girl's rehabilitation, despite any request made by the girl's lawful guardian for the girl's early release."

Nee Soon GRC MP Louis Ng said in Parliament on Monday: "It is problematic that girls can be detained against their will when they have not committed any criminal offences, and in fact are in vulnerable situations."

Ms Jolene Tan, programmes and communications senior manager at the Association of Women for Action and Research (Aware), says: "It is troubling that our response to girls in vulnerable situations is to provide for their open-ended detention against their will, rather than offering adequate options for support that they can voluntarily access."

In response to Mr Ng, Mr Tan said: "All cases which come to the attention of the director are thoroughly investigated. A girl will be admitted to a place of safety only if the director is satisfied it will be in her best interests."

When Mr Ng asked if the decision to detain is made solely by the director or a team, Mr Tan's reply was: "The director would be advised by the staff and that's the approach we're taking for this."

Mr Ng tells The Sunday Times that he was informed later that the decision will be reviewed every six months by a committee.


Another change is to allow married or formerly married people under 21 to apply for PPOs for themselves and their children. Previously, a parent or guardian had to apply for this on their behalf.

But experts called for the criteria to apply to be extended further, noting that everyone under 21 should be allowed to apply if they are victims of violence.

Mr Ng and Aware's Ms Tan also want the application criteria to be extended to victims of domestic violence, not just victims of family violence. Ms Tan says: "It should be possible for not just live-in partners, but also tenants or domestic workers, to obtain PPOs against anyone in their household."

Should more men be allowed to seek maintenance?
By Charissa Yong, The Sunday Times, 6 Mar 2016

Last year, Justice Choo Han Teck heard the request of a 48-year-old regional sales manager seeking $120,000 in alimony from her former husband, a 47-year-old senior prison officer.

She earned slightly more than him. But under Singapore's maintenance laws, which allowed only women and not men to apply for maintenance from their former spouses, she was eligible to seek maintenance from him.

Taking aim at this, Justice Choo questioned the right of every woman to seek maintenance regardless of circumstances.

This "unalloyed right" spoke to "patronising gestures" in the Women's Charter that "belie deep chauvinistic thinking", he said in his judgment.

The case resurfaced as an example cited in Parliament last week during a debate about gender equality in maintenance laws, as one of several changes to the Women's Charter.

With the changes to the law passed last Monday, men can now apply for maintenance. But, unlike women, they can seek maintenance only if they are incapacitated - that is, unable to support themselves whether due to illness or disability.

A small group of MPs - four of the 10 who spoke - called for this to go further and for maintenance to be based on need, not gender.

But their opponents countered that their call for gender neutrality comes in a society where the man is still expected to be the main breadwinner in many households.

Additionally, broadening the law to allow more men to claim maintenance might be a double whammy for ex-wives already struggling to provide for themselves and their children, they said.


Non-Constituency MP Daniel Goh argued that in the spirit of gender equality, all ex-husbands should be allowed to apply for maintenance. He pointed out that the call for this was first raised back in 1996.

But the Government's position has remained that it is the duty of a husband to maintain the wife.

Minister for Social and Family Development Tan Chuan-Jin reiterated this on Monday when he said: "Our society is not quite ready for gender neutrality in spousal maintenance."

But Dr Goh disagreed: "This is a double irony since the Women's Charter was enacted regardless of whether traditional polygamous society was ready for the modern nuclear family."

He was referring to the Women's Charter's outlawing in 1961 of poly- gamy outside Muslim marriages.

"Gender equality was enshrined in the charter despite tradition or the readiness of society," he added.

MPs and observers also cited the trend of more men staying at home to look after their kids these days, with wives going out to work.

In 2014, 10,200 male Singaporeans and permanent residents cited "family responsibilities", such as childcare, care-giving to family members and housework, as the main reason for not working - triple the number from 2006.

Of these, 1,600 cited childcare as the main reason for being out of the workforce. This was more than double the number in 2006.

Given their sacrifices for the family, Marine Parade GRC MP Seah Kian Peng said: "When it comes to recompense, men should not be unjustly denied."

Ms Jolene Tan, programmes and communications senior manager at the Association of Women for Action and Research, agreed as married individuals who take on domestic and caregiving work make economic sacrifices which boost their spouse's earning power.

"These effects last even if the marriage ends. Spousal maintenance is only fair in such cases, regardless of gender," she said.


The criteria for a divorced man to qualify are very strict, so only a very small pool of men will benefit. Only a man who is incapacitated before or during the course of the marriage, unable to earn a livelihood and unable to support himself, can claim maintenance.

He must also be unable to support himself at the time when the maintenance application is heard.

East Coast GRC MP Jessica Tan said she had seen several cases during her Meet-the-People Sessions of wives leaving their husbands after they were diagnosed with serious illnesses like cancer - leaving the men with no way to support themselves.

Lawyer Koh Tien Hua of Harry Elias Partnership said the change in the law will benefit those husbands in genuine need. "This is not 'window dressing' or merely symbolic as it addresses a real concern of a spouse who is incapacitated and has no possibility of earning an income," he said.


Five of lawyer Gloria James- Civetta's previous clients have already called her to ask what will happen to them as their aged ex-spouses are ill.

These are women whose husbands are penniless after being cheated out of their savings, having left them for younger, foreign women, she told The Sunday Times.

These women are now worried that their broke exes will now unfairly pursue them for maintenance.

MPs in Parliament spoke of this double whammy for women already struggling to support their families.

Mr Tan himself acknowledged this concern, but said that the courts will look at all the facts of each case.

Just because a man is eligible to claim maintenance does not mean he will get it, he added.

Another argument against extending qualifying maintenance to more men is that the reality is that the burden of child-rearing and caregiving in Singapore falls primarily on women.

The growing group of house husbands is still a small minority.

The 10,200 Singaporean men who cited family responsibilities as the main reason for not working in 2014 must be compared to the 190,900 women who in the same year cited the same reason for not being in the labour force.

"While many Singaporean women have made good progress over time, this has not been uniform across all groups of women," said Jurong GRC MP and family lawyer Rahayu Mahzam in Parliament.

"At this juncture, there is still some way to go in developing parity of financial status between men and women, especially across various income levels."

Others also argue that alimony should not be taken as an entitlement, whether for men or women.

Mr Koh said: "Maintenance for wives is not a free pass to be paid a 'salary' from the spouse.

"The law still encourages a wife to seek gainful employment where possible and the courts are enjoined to take into account earning capacity."

As such, the amendment is a pragmatic one, and does not signal a sweeping fundamental change in principle towards gender equality in maintenance laws - yet. As Mr Tan noted: "While attitudes may be gradually shifting towards gender neutrality, it's best to not rush and force the pace."

Getting to the heart of divorce
New parenting programme may help some parents realise that in waging war against each other, no one wins - least of all the child
By Theresa Tan, The Sunday Times, 6 Mar 2016

Growing up, I had friends whose parents had divorced, who felt torn and miserable, caught between warring parents.

They felt forced to take sides or to even cut contact with their father, because their mothers resented and blamed their dads for the marital breakdown.

Yet, they loved both parents, despite their flaws, failings and the failed marriage.

But their parents' feud left them with invisible scars - wounds that affect them in big and small ways, old hurts that flare up in the different seasons of life.

Hence, I was heartened to learn about the Ministry of Social and Family Development's (MSF) initiative to protect children from becoming the collateral damage in acrimonious divorces. Basically, couples with children who are divorcing will now have to attend a parenting programme, even before they can file for a divorce.

This is a bold move to tackle the fallout from a divorce early on, rather than after a couple has gone through legal proceedings, thrashing out contentious issues such as child custody, living arrangements and maintenance, which can cause conflicts to build up.

But what can a two-hour individual session with a counsellor really do to change anything?

At the very least, couples are made aware of how their divorce could affect their children and what they can do to minimise the negative impact.

Sometimes, this reminder is all they need to make a world of difference when it comes to post-divorce parenting, counsellors say.

The counsellor would also discuss how both parents can work together, called co-parenting, for the good of their children.

In addition, these sessions give counsellors the chance to spot parents who are overwhelmed by the divorce, and who might be sinking into depression or have suicidal thoughts. They can then offer them more emotional or practical support before things get out of hand.

Divorces have become increasingly common in Singapore and each year, thousands of children find their parents going separate ways. In 2014, 4,728 children under 21 years of age had parents who filed for divorce.

Each child - no matter how nonchalant he may appear - is affected by his parents' conflict, counsellors say. Some become angry and defiant, while others become depressed.

Hurt children can grow up into hurting adults. They carry their childhood baggage into their marriages and parenting.

Hopefully, the parenting programme will help some hurting parents see that waging war against the ex to win custody is a zero-sum game. No one really wins, least of all the child.

My hope is that couples find it in themselves, or at least find help, to work through their grievances to focus on what their child needs after the divorce.


The move to get parents to consider the impact of their divorce on their children will also, hopefully, go some way to reduce access issues, for example, when a parent blocks or makes it hard for the former spouse to spend time with their children after the divorce.

One spouse could have been unfaithful, or failed to pay maintenance, or is deemed to be a lousy parent. Hence, the other party feels he does not deserve to see the children, family lawyers said.

And where visits do happen, some kick up a fuss over the smallest matters, such as when a child is brought home late. In the most acrimonious cases, lawyers say the courts have ordered that such visits take place under social workers' supervision.

This supervised visitation means that the parent who has the child will drop him off at a social service agency specialising in handling divorce issues.

The other parent comes to the agency and spends time with the child there, supervised by counsellors.

Such arrangements minimise the potential for conflict between the feuding couple. Each parent is also counselled to help them see it is best for the child to have a relationship with both of them.

Minister for Social and Family Development Tan Chuan-Jin told Parliament last Monday that the appointed agencies providing supervised visitation services will be able to support more families who need such services soon. He did not give more details.

Such help for more families is good news. Lawyers say that without this supervised visitation arrangement, some parents are not able to see their children at all, eventually becoming estranged from their offspring.

The fight for access and custody has taken a tragic turn for some in the past.

In 2011, a woman killed herself and her three-year-old son. The mother was said to be fighting with her estranged husband over custody and had also been fined for not allowing him to see their son.

More recently, a Belgian expatriate was charged with murdering his five-year-old son last year. He is believed to have been fighting with his ex-wife over custody.

The initiatives to reach out to, and support, emotionally struggling parents even before they file for divorce may well prevent more tragedies from happening.

But the Government can only do so much. At the end of the day, it is up to couples to find it in themselves to bury the hatchet for their children's good.

As Mr Tan said in Parliament: "I know that co-parenting is not easy. But it is probably the best gift that divorced parents can give to their children - the certainty that they still have parents to love them despite it all. Then the children do not feel they have to take sides, they do not feel they are to blame and they do not feel guilty."


Divorce Support Specialist Agencies (DSSAs) were appointed last year by the Government to help families dealing with divorce-related issues, with an emphasis on protecting the interests of children affected by their parents' break-ups.


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