When marriages end...

Protecting children caught in divorce

ST ILLUSTRATION: MANNY FRANCISCO

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.

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.

FOCUS ON THE CHILD

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.

MORE AWARENESS, EARLIER

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.

OR FOCUS ON ABUSED SPOUSE?

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."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on March 06, 2016, with the headline 'When marriages end... Protecting children caught in divorce'. Print Edition | Subscribe