Order on kids' supervision set aside in custody battle

A High Court judge disagreed with the Youth Court that two children at the centre of a custody battle should be placed under the supervision of the Child Protective Service (CPS), finding the alleged "emotional injury" they suffered was not of the extent to justify such state intervention.

In setting aside the order, Justice Debbie Ong said the Family Court was well equipped to safeguard the children's interests without the need to seek care and protection orders from the Youth Court.

"In general, in matters relating to the parent-and-child relationship, family life is kept within the private sphere unless there are legitimate reasons for the state to intervene, such as where parents have plainly failed in their fundamental responsibilities to the child," said Justice Ong in decision grounds last week.

The parents of the two children, now aged 14 and 10, were wedded for about 13 years before the mother obtained an interim judgment for divorce in July 2013.

In October that year, a district judge granted the parents joint custody, with care and control to the mother and access for the father.

The children were first referred to the CPS in August 2014 but the claims of ill-treatment by the mother were not substantiated and no further action was taken. At about the same time, the children began to live with the father and regular contact with the mother ceased.

By February 2016, the father was given care and control, with access prescribed to the mother via phone calls and Skype twice weekly.

This continued based on the ruling of a district judge who also ordered that from Nov 4, 2016, the parents were to have joint care and control of the children, with the mother having overnight access as well as school and public holiday access.

But on that day, the children refused to leave the father's car for the mother to have overnight access to them. The father took them to KK Women's and Children's Hospital, where they showed post-traumatic stress symptoms and were referred to CPS. CPS applied to the Youth Court where the district judge last September found the children were suffering from "emotional injury" and ordered that they be placed under the supervision of CPS.

The mother appealed in March this year and Justice Ong, after considering the parties' submissions and evidence, allowed the appeal and set aside the order. The judge noted CPS did not allege physical abuse or ill-treatment, but premised the case on emotional injury allegedly suffered by the children.

She referred to the Children and Young Persons Act provisions and parliamentary debates in 2001, which recognised parents' primary role and the state's more limited role in parenting. She made clear that while help was needed to improve the relationship between the mother and her kids, their conflict stems from "the difficulties in carrying out the access orders, which hardly warrants state intervention".

Both parties have separately applied for sole custody and care and control of the children, which will be settled by the Family Court.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 02, 2018, with the headline 'Order on kids' supervision set aside in custody battle'. Print Edition | Subscribe