Mediation works in kids' custody spats

Mediation works in kids' custody spats

SINGAPORE - Almost 5,000 divorcing couples have gone through a compulsory mediation and counselling programme aimed at helping them reduce the acrimony as they sort out disputes over their children.

About four out of five couples agreed on key parenting decisions after attending the sessions, a Family Justice Courts spokesman told The Sunday Times.

The courts had found that many couples fight over custody and care issues, such as which parent the child will live with after the divorce and how much time the other parent will get to spend with the child.

The mediation and counselling programme, which involves the couples' lawyers as well, aims to protect the child's welfare.

"This drastically lowers the risk of children being caught in the bitterness between warring and insecure parents," the spokesman said. "Children will be more secure and less traumatised by the breakdown of their parents' relationship."

Run by the courts' Child Focused Resolution Centre, the scheme was started in September 2011 for all divorcing couples with at least one child under eight years old. In July 2013, it was extended to those with at least one child under 14, and last October, to those with at least one child under 21.

The close to 5,000 couples who have been through the programme in the past three years had about 13,300 children between them.

The mandatory sessions are free. Depending on the complexity of the issues, couples attend between one and more than six sessions to work out their differences.

A survey of about 200 couples and lawyers last year showed that most found the programme helpful.

It was introduced amid a rising number of break-ups. The number of divorces rose by 17 per cent from 6,100 in 2003 to 7,133 in 2013, going by the latest available statistics.

Bank employee Joseph (not his real name), 29, told The Sunday Times that by the end of his three-year marriage, it was pointless speaking to his wife because they always ended up quarrelling.

The stress of their jobs, finances and parenthood had strained their relationship, and the communication breakdown alienated them further and eventually led to their split.

When his wife filed for divorce a few months ago, she initially wanted Joseph to have nothing to do with their two-year-old son.

But after their first compulsory mediation session last month, he was pleasantly surprised to find that they were both "on the same page" on major decisions concerning their child.

"We'd got so caught up fighting that we forgot our child's welfare was more important," said Joseph. "The counsellor guided us to place our son's needs first and her presence helped us to control our emotions and be more objective."

He said his wife was willing to share custody with him and give him sufficient time to be with his son.

More lawyers who handle divorces are also getting trained in mediation, to help warring couples ramp down the conflict, especially for their children's sake.

Mr Rajan Chettiar, a lawyer of 18 years who is trained in family mediation, said that the adversarial nature of fighting disputes in court often leads to more acrimony between a divorcing couple. Their children often get dragged into their fights, and are exposed to their pain and anger.

He said some parents may attempt to brainwash their children against the other parent or prevent the father or mother from spending time with the children, hoping to get the upper hand in their custody battle.

Instead of the parents fighting in court, Mr Chettiar said, counselling and mediation allow the parties to listen to and understand each other and negotiate solutions that are in their child's best interests.

When parents have opposing views, counsellors sometimes talk to the children and let the parents know how the marital breakdown is affecting the children. Lawyers say couples are more willing to listen to a neutral third party such as a court counsellor.

Lawyer Foo Siew Fong, who is also trained in family mediation, said that feuding couples are often too caught up in their own feelings of hurt and resentment.

They may want the best for their child, but their decisions may appear otherwise as they are in too much pain to think clearly and calmly. That is why counselling and mediation are useful.

Settling their differences through counselling and mediation can also save couples up to tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees by avoiding a protracted court battle.

Ms Foo said: "For contentious custody matters, it can cost from $10,000 to $20,000."

theresat@sph.com.sg

PUTTING CHILDREN FIRST

Number of couples who have been through the programme in the past three years: 5,000

Agreed on key parenting decisions after the counselling sessions: 80 per cent


This article was first published on April 5, 2015.
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