The most depressing part of family law

EACH week, he would turn up at his ex-wife's home, looking forward to seeing his little ones.

But his joy would always prove short-lived. The sight of him would literally make his two children, aged five and nine, sick.

The man soon realised that his ex-wife was sabotaging the weekly sessions he was allowed to have with their children by the Family Court following their divorce.

His lawyer, Ms Tan Siew Kim, said his ex-wife was so adamant about him not seeing the children that she would work them into such a frenzy each time he was due to visit that they would get physically sick and throw up once they saw their father.

Things came to such a head that they agreed the meetings would take place at her lawyer's office.

Family lawyers say such bitter custody battles are common when marriages break down.

"Custody is the most depressing part of family law," said Ms Tan, who has been a family lawyer for 17 years.

Such acrimony is also revealed in statistics from the Subordinate Courts. In the last three years, close to 90 per cent of parenting plans filed led to disputes between divorcing couples. (See table at right.)

Since 1997, divorcing couples have had to file a parenting plan to get them to focus on the welfare of their children.

The plan includes arrangements on custody, care and control, access to the child, and provisions for the child's education and financial needs.

In the case of Ms Tan's client, she saw for herself how far some parents go to cause trouble for ex-spouses.

Kids threw up

"When they saw their father, they acted like he had done something terrible.

"I don't know what she fed them, but it was like you had literally pressed a button, and the children just threw up in front of me," she said.

When they went to court, the children also threw up in front of the judge.

In the end, the man was given access to the children only once a year.

There have been cases in the past where one party would resort to extreme measures to keep the child from the other party.

On Sept 22, the bodies of Madam Tan Sze Sze, 31, and her son, Jerald Chin Le Hui, aged three, were found floating in Bedok Reservoir two days after they went missing.

Madam Tan was said to be distressed over a custody battle with her estranged husband.

She had feared her son would be taken from her after she was fined for not allowing her husband access to Jerald.

Her husband said he had been granted access to the boy on weekends, but Madam Tan and her family would not let him see his son.

In another case, in March 2009, a 52-year-old project manager punched his ex-wife in the left eye during a meeting to hand over their son at a neighbourhood police centre.

His ex-wife, 49, told him that their 14-year-old boy was running a fever and she did not want to hand him over.

The injury to her eye was so serious that she needed to undergo corrective surgery.

The man was jailed four weeks after he pleaded guilty to a charge of voluntarily causing hurt.

Family lawyer Sabrinder Singh said situations in which one parent tries to prevent the other from seeing the child usually come about when the children are very young and don't have a mind of their own.

"When the father comes to see the children, they'll say the child is sleeping or sick even if it isn't true. They do it just to get back at the ex-spouse," he said.

Last year, he acted for an airline executive in his mid-40s who went to his ex-wife's home to see their four-year-old son as part of his weekly access meetings.

Once his ex-wife, an administrator in her late 30s, opened the door, her sister would point a video camera at him and start recording. When he asked to see his son, his ex-wife said the boy didn't want to see him.

"Then she produced the child who said 'Daddy, I don't want to see you'.

"His ex-wife warned him to be careful about what he said and not to appear as if he was coaching the son because he was being filmed," said MrSingh.

The ex-wife also shot a video of the visit to show that she did not prevent the father from seeing the boy, which would have been contempt of court.

Spending time with both parents is important for children of broken marriages, said Dr Katijah Dawood, executive director of the Centre for Family Harmony, started by the Thye Hua Kwan Moral Society in 2007. (See report below.)

"Some parents may not be aware that contact with the other parent is important and that the child cherishes it," she said.

Lawyer N. Kanagavijayan said that he usually advises his clients not to make things difficult for the well-being of the children unless the other party is "of wayward character, abusive, a drug addict or an alcoholic".

"But sometimes, out of jealousy and envy, they will not allow (the other party to have) access," hesaid.

Brainwashing

While some parents fight for custody out of genuine love for their children, there are others who fight for custody "not because they truly love their children but because if they get custody, they will usually get a bigger share of the assets," Ms Tan said.

Some who were absent parents all along would suddenly start paying attention to the children.

"I have female clients who were the sole caregivers all along, but once the divorce papers are filed, the father starts brainwashing the child against the mother, and the poor boy, who has been craving his father's approval, falls for it," she said.

"Assets are about dollars and cents. You can work out who paid for what and how much, but when it comes to the children, they are living things. You can't make claims on them just like that."

ayong@sph.com.sg

This article was first published in The New Paper.