Rising divorce rate: Ex-spouses must learn to co-parent

Rising divorce rate: Ex-spouses must learn to co-parent
Family lawyer Yap Teong Liang is one of 18 lawyers appointed by the Family Justice Courts as a child representative. Photo: ST

Ethan's parents split when he was three, but it was only at the age of seven, during contact time with his teacher, that he learnt the meaning of "divorce".

Until then, he thought his mother and father simply lived in separate homes. Said Ethan, now 13: "My mum never told me."

A year after he found out, he started to rebel by refusing to do his homework. When he was 10, he was arrested for shoplifting a game cartridge and was given probation for about half a year.

Counsellors from his school and the Singapore Children's Society said his actions were his way of seeking attention, and likely due to the lack of a father figure. Ethan's parents barely talk to each other, and the boy rarely sees his father.

See also: Mandate counselling for children of divorce

It is not uncommon for those in his situation to react the way he did, said experts, who urged divorcing parents to learn how to continue relating to each other and guiding their children after the separation.

Said family lawyer Leslie Foong of Lawhub LLC: "I always advise my clients - don't stop your ex-spouse from having access to your children, no matter how much you dislike or hate him or her. Do this not for your ex-spouse but for your children."

A recent study of 150,000 children aged 12 to 15 in Sweden found that children who lived with both of their separated parents showed fewer signs of stress than those who lived with just one.

A local study of 100 cases also found that the more parents fight during and after the divorce, the harder it is for the child to cope.

Said psychologist Tan Yih Sze: "We observed that the more couples continue to invest effort in maintaining a mutually respectful relationship as co-parents, the less the impact of the divorce on the children and the faster the recovery."

Many divorcing couples have been able to find common ground after going for mandatory mediation and counselling at the Child Focused Resolution Centre (CFRC). It was set up in 2011 under the State Courts to provide mandatory mediation and counselling for divorcing parents of children below age eight.

Since last October, this compulsory measure was extended to those with at least one child under 21.

Among the 2,000-plus couples who went to the CFRC for compulsory mediation and counselling in the past three years , about four out of five couples were able to agree on parenting plans. The matters agreed on include custody, care, control and parental access to the children.

Said Ms Catherine Maderazo, a senior social worker from Singapore Children's Society Family Service Centre: "For children who have good support systems, they can cope well, overcome their difficult situation more quickly, and lead a normal life."

Added family lawyer Koh Tien Hua of Harry Elias Partnership: "Divorces need not be a bitter pill to swallow. In some cases, it helps parties to start new lives and to have a fresh start because some parties ought not to have married in the first place, let alone have children.

"What they can then do in the journey ahead is to learn effective communication skills in order to work with each other and not against the other."



Heavy responsibility for child representatives

Mr Yap Teong Liang is one of 18 family lawyers appointed by the Family Justice Courts to be a child representative since the initiative started in October last year.

His job is to give the child a voice in court and provide the judge with an objective assessment on what arrangements are in the child's best interests. "But this does not mean that we end up listening to the child because the child may like ice cream but ice cream can be bad for him," said Mr Yap.

Instead, one of his main tasks is to understand the preferences of the child and discern if those were made under compulsion.

See also: Step-siblings a support system, says teen

Some children go along with their parents' instructions or wishes as they are afraid or hope to please them, he said. Others are inclined towards the less strict parent although that arrangement may not be best for the child in the long run.

Mr Yap must piece together the information in order to make a recommendation.

In one case, the mother of two boys - aged 13 and 16 - produced a letter they had allegedly written showing that they wanted to live with her after the divorce. But the husband claimed his wife was so lax their sons were not going to school.

The younger boy wanted to live with their mother while his brother wanted to stay with their father.

Mr Yap observed the 13-year-old and his father during home visits and interviews at his office, and spoke with the boys' grandparents and school counsellors. In the end, the judge ordered the younger boy to live with the mother and the elder boy with the father.

"It is a heavy responsibility but there is satisfaction in helping children because such decisions affect their future welfare," said Mr Yap.

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