Helping kids caught between warring parents

It is not uncommon for warring parents to call the police during or after visitations, alleging all sorts of abuse by their ex-spouses.
It is not uncommon for warring parents to call the police during or after visitations, alleging all sorts of abuse by their ex-spouses. PHOTO: ISTOCKPHOTO

With divorce cases rising here, more children are caught between warring parents

More will be done to deal with an unhappy side effect of divorce - the angry bickering of divorced parents over access to their children.

With the rising number of divorces here - 6,861 last year, a 17 per cent rise from 5,850 in 2004 - more children find themselves caught between warring parents.

The parent with whom the child lives may block the other from seeing the children, the police are frequently called and accusations are hurled, all to keep the children away from the other parent.

To help safeguard the interests of children, the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) will have more agencies providing a supervised visitation programme by the end of next year.

Currently, only the THK Centre for Family Harmony offers such programmes for separated or divorced parents to see their children.

Some parents deny access to their children to get back at their ex-spouses for various failings. Where visits do happen, some kick up a fuss over the smallest matters, such as if a child is brought home late. Others allege abuse.

A ministry spokesman told Life the programme will be provided by some of the four non-profit centres designated as divorce support specialist agencies.

They will handle cases referred by the Family Justice Courts and Syariah Courts. No other details are available yet.

Welcoming the move, divorce lawyers said up to half the parents they see disagree over access to the children.

"The denial of access is a very emotional issue. It is messy, ugly and most intractable," said lawyer Stephanie Looi.

Lawyers said some parents deny access to get back at their ex-spouses for various failings.

Where visits do happen, some kick up a fuss over the smallest matters, such as if a child is brought home late. Others allege abuse if the child returns with an injury even from an accident while at play.

It is not uncommon for warring parents to call the police during or after such visits, alleging all sorts of abuse by their ex-spouses.

Lawyer Lee Terk Yang added: "Some mothers are over-protective. They genuinely feel that their ex-husbands are unable to care for their children properly."

And there are those who "brainwash" the children against seeing the other parent.

In the most acrimonious cases, lawyers say, the courts have ordered that the access takes place at the THK Centre for Family Harmony in Circuit Road.

For example, the parent who has the child will drop him off at the centre and leave. The other parent comes to the centre and spends time with the child there, supervised by the centre's counsellors.

Its divisional director, Dr Katijah Dawood, said the arrangement minimises contact and the potential for conflict between the feuding couple.

Both parents are also counselled to help them see that it is best for the child to have a relationship with both parents.

The centre, set up by the Thye Hua Kwan Moral Charities in 2006, handles about 180 cases a year, double the figure when it started.

Family lawyers said that without this service, some parents may not get to see their children at all.

Lawyer Yap Teong Liang said: "At the centre, without their mums around, the children may feel less stressed and less influenced by her and be more open to interacting with their father."

Lawyer Rajan Chettiar added: "It's no longer about you and me, but there's a neutral third party who will report the visits to the court."

Dr Katijah said many children feel torn between their parents and need help from counsellors to cope. "They may still want to have a relationship with their other parent, but one parent does not want them to," she said.

Since 2011, the Family Justice Courts have made it compulsory for all divorcing couples with children to attend counselling and mediation sessions at the courts' Child Focused Resolution Centre.

This is meant to help them work out care arrangements for the children, such as custody and access issues, instead of fighting over them in court.

Lawyer Tan Siew Kim said: "The counselling and mediation sessions are very good as they help parents focus on what's best for the child and help reduce acrimony right from the start."

Ex-wife tells child to call father 'uncle'

Peter's shotgun marriage unravelled almost as soon as it began. Less than a year into the marriage, the 33-year-old wanted out.

"We were fighting almost every day," said the private tutor.

"I felt she was too demanding, unreasonable and always imposing her views on me."

After Peter (not his real name) asked for a divorce, his wife took their baby daughter, returned to her parents' home and refused to let him see the child.

She also changed her phone number and cut off all contact with him.

Later, she moved out of her parents' home and Peter had no clue how to locate her or his child.

He said: "I missed my daughter so much."

With no contact for over a year, he sought legal help and is now in the midst of divorce proceedings.

The courts have ordered his estranged wife to take the child to the THK Centre for Family Harmony, where Peter gets 11/2 hours a week to spend with his daughter.

He said: "When I first saw my daughter after such a long absence, I was like a complete stranger to her. She would cry when she saw me and that was very hard for me."

But with weekly visits over the past year, his bond with his little girl, now four, has improved.

"My ex-wife told my girl that she doesn't have a daddy. She told my daughter to call me 'uncle'," he said. "When my ex-wife is around, my daughter would call me uncle. When she's not around, my daughter calls me daddy."

Peter says he is just glad for the time he spends with his child, but the cost of the supervised access sessions is a drain on his finances.

He pays almost $200 for a 11/2-hour session. The fees for supervised access cost $108 an hour on weekdays and $130 on weekends.

There are subsidies for lower- income parents, said the centre's divisional director, Dr Katijah Dawood.

Describing the work the centre does with families after a divorce, she said: "We help parents rebuild or establish a bond with their children so that the children don't feel abandoned or rejected by one parent."

Kids hid in toilet and refused to see mum

Mary's husband never forgave her for her infidelity.

He demanded a divorce, chased her out of their flat and prevented her from seeing their three children who were still in primary school.

Mary (not her real name) was granted access by the courts to spend time with her two sons and a daughter regularly after the divorce, but that did not happen.

The 47-year-old said in Mandarin: "He told my children I had an affair. He told me they didn't want to see me."

The former secretary got so desperate, she would go to the children's schools just to watch them from a distance.

Once, she got into a fight with her former mother-in-law at her daughter's school. Mary said she missed her daughter very much and wanted to take her home, but the older woman stopped her.

Her husband filed a police report against her. Shortly after that, he moved to a new house and cut off all contact with her.

Mary did not see her children for more than three years.

"I missed my children so much and I felt so helpless. I almost went mad," she said.

She finally turned to the courts and the judge ruled that she could visit her children once a week at the THK Centre for Family Harmony, for 11/2 hours each time.

"When I first saw my kids after so many years, they were very angry with me. They hid in the centre's toilet and refused to see me," she said. "Or they would ignore me. I felt terrible, but my counsellor encouraged me not to give up."

It took two years of weekly visits for that tension to ease. Although their relationship improved, the children still refuse to acknowledge her as their mother.

Mary, who remarried last year, said: "I'm just happy that our relationship is not severed and we are still in contact. I'm waiting for my children to grow up and build their relationship with me."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on September 20, 2015, with the headline 'No, you can't see your mum'. Print Edition | Subscribe