Mandate counselling for children in divorces

Experts call for measure to help the children cope with trauma as their numbers rise


With the number of children caught in divorce cases rising, experts have called for counselling to be made compulsory for this vulnerable group, who often are the most affected when their parents split.

According to Family Justice Courts figures released to The Sunday Times, 4,728 children below the age of 21 were involved in divorce cases last year, up from 4,634 a decade ago. In those 10 years, more than 50,600 children saw their parents file for divorce. Seven in 10 were aged below 14.

More marriages are hitting the skids now. There were 5,471 non-Muslim divorces finalised in 2013, making it the second-highest annual figure on record.

The Family Justice Courts were set up last October with a special focus on shielding children, such as appointing child representatives from a panel of seasoned family lawyers to be the child's independent voice in court. But this does not happen in all cases.

From this year, it also became a must for divorcing parents of children aged below 14 to undergo the Parenting Pact programme, which aims to help them understand the impact of divorce on children and learn about co-parenting.

And while the four divorce support specialist agencies appointed by the Government this year offer counselling services to children, these are optional.

Family lawyer Rajan Chettiar, who handles 1,000 divorces a year, said: "The law mandates parents attending parental workshops and counselling. But how about the children?"

Another family lawyer, Ms Mabel Tan, suggested that counselling be made mandatory for children aged below 16. And the help should be provided early - "from the moment their parents decide to go through divorce", said the senior partner at Joseph Tan Jude Benny LLP.

"They need someone who can understand what they are going through and provide advice."

Even a simple explanation of how divorce proceedings happen will help, she added.

Ms Cindy Loh, programme head of Care Corner Centre for Co-Parenting, said this will make the children intentionally set aside time to pick up coping strategies of managing the stresses of being caught in between parents in conflict.

"If not, they will be occupied with other distractions and though some may feel that they already know all these, many are not aware of the fuller picture of how divorce may impact them," she said.

Ms Michelle Woodworth, a family lawyer with RHTLaw Taylor Wessing LLP, believes any counselling, for both parents and children, should continue even after the divorce is finalised. Currently, she said, "there is no formal follow-up".

Divorce leaves scars on all children, though its marks may show immediately or surface decades later, said counsellors and family lawyers. Local studies by the authorities in 2000 and 2001 even found that 54 per cent of male and 30 per cent of female juvenile offenders had divorced parents.

But more commonly, the impact is seen in the child's social, emotional and intellectual development.

"When left alone to struggle with the losses and changes, they may develop academic, social and emotional problems such as difficulties in developing relationships and forming families in future," said Ms Nooraini Razak, centre manager at PPIS As-Salaam Family Support Centre.

Some teenagers choose to act out their anguish. Said Reach Counselling head Chang-Goh Song Eng: "Teens may indulge in smoking or gang behaviours, miss school and become extremely defiant."

Others hide their pain. "They feel that they have been abandoned and left to face the world by themselves, and some may hide it from their friends or withdraw from their social circle, leading to depression or behavioural issues," said Ms Yassemin Md Said, senior counsellor at the Association of Muslim Professionals' Marriage Hub.

Experts said that counselling could help mitigate the traumatic effects of divorce on children, equipping them with the necessary skills to manage their feelings and develop resilience.

Despite the clear benefits of counselling, there are parents who do not buy into it - another reason for making it compulsory.

Said family lawyer Lee Terk Yang of Flint & Battery LLC: "We have clients whose kids clearly need professional help, but the parents just do not seem to see a need for it."

Ms Loh also said that most divorcing parents who do send their children for counselling stop the session when school holidays end as "they don't want their children to miss lessons".

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 26, 2015, with the headline Mandate counselling for children in divorces. Subscribe