When parents divorce, the children suffer - sometimes to the extent of being spirited out of Singapore by one parent and never seeing the other again.
The authorities are now planning to introduce new legislation to stop such "parental child abductions" that happen when some marriages crumble, The Sunday Times has learnt.
It will empower agencies such as the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority (ICA) to stop a parent, who has been prohibited by a court order from taking the child out of the country, from leaving Singapore with the child, a Family Justice Courts (FJC) spokesman told The Sunday Times. Those who defy court orders will be caught by the authorities at the checkpoints, she added.
Currently under the Women's Charter, it is an offence for a person to take a child, who is under a custody order or a care and control order, out of Singapore, without the written consent of both parents or the court's consent. Those found guilty can be fined up to $5,000 or jailed for up to a year or both.
The proposed "stop order legislation" may involve amending several laws involving the custody of children and immigration laws or the enactment of a new law, the spokesman said. The FJC is now working with the relevant agencies on details, such as the timelines for legislative changes and implementation.
Of divorces under the Women's Charter last year involved at least one foreigner, up from 31 per cent in 2011
Those found guilty of taking a child, who is under a custody order or a care and control order, out of Singapore, without the written consent of both parents or the court's consent can be fined up to this amount or jailed for up to a year or both
This new law will effectively plug a current loophole in the system, family lawyers said.
Under today's system, parents can apply for a court order to prevent the other parent from leaving Singapore with the children without the consent of the applicant or the court.
Yet, there have been at least a few cases when parents still managed to leave Singapore with their kids, despite being prohibited by the courts from doing so, family lawyers interviewed said.
Lawyer Ivan Cheong said he has had three such cases in the past four years. The court order, he noted, is served on the parent who is obliged to obey it. But, it is not served on the ICA to stop the parent from leaving with the child.
Hence, the proposed law will ensure that all the relevant agencies are notified and empowered to stop the parent from leaving Singapore with the children, if there is a court order, he said.
An ICA spokesman told The Sunday Times that it is working with the FJC on the stop order legislation. The move comes as more Singaporeans are marrying - and divorcing - foreigners. Last year, 40 per cent of divorces under the Women's Charter, or about 2,500 divorces, involved at least one foreigner. This is up from 31 per cent or about 1,900 divorces in 2011.
While presenting the FJC's workplans in February, its Presiding Judge Valerie Thean highlighted the need to develop infrastructure to support the rule of law in cross-border disputes, given the growing number of divorces involving foreigners. She said: "The stakes for parents are extremely high in these cases. Whichever way the court decides, one parent would invariably be physically separated from their children across frontiers.
"With the ease of international travel, otherwise law-abiding parents often feel compelled to take the law into their own hands."
Lawyers say parents who snatch their child away do so for various reasons. For example, they may be abused by their spouses or they felt alone and miserable in their marriages and wanted to go home. Or, they were afraid they would lose their children after the divorce.
But the consequences of such a move can be "serious, long-term and irreversible" for the children, Judge Thean said. She cited overseas research that showed many suffered serious mental health woes such as depression, post-traumatic stress and psychotic episodes, even into their adulthood, as a result of being abducted by a parent when they were children.
Lawyer Poonam Mirchandani said: "Parental child abduction is the worst form of alienation of a parent from his or her child. It has adverse effects on both the left-behind parent and the abducted child."