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Pre-divorce programmes a possibility for divorcing couples

Couples seeking divorce may be asked to attend counselling even before they file for court proceedings, under a move to put their children's needs first.

SINGAPORE: Couples seeking divorce may be asked to attend counselling even before they file for court proceedings, under a move to put their children's needs first.

The Law and Social and Family Development Ministries are considering what is described as "pre-filing" programmes, under a review of the Family Justice System.

"It's good for someone to come in and focus on the child because if not, there will be a lot of resentment not only to your parents, but on yourself,” said 28-year-old "Amanda" (not her real name), who was only 12 years old when she eavesdropped on her grandma's phone conversation and found out her parents were divorced.

“There'll be a lot of trust issues, commitment issues, social issues that a lot of parents don't foresee. They just think about it when it comes and I think it does affect a child who's growing up when you don't let him or her know (about the divorce) in advance.

“I would have liked for them to actually sit me down, talk to me, tell me and explain nicely that things aren't going to work out for mum and dad. If the both of them are not vocal, it's good for the child and parents to go through counselling together."

Under current divorce proceedings, issues concerning the child are often discussed only during or at the end of the divorce process. Observers said that such a situation is not ideal.

"You've filed your papers, you've given your replies and then you go for this counselling and mediation. It's just too late," said Rajan Chettiar, director of Rajan Chettiar LLC.

Various observers that Channel NewsAsia spoke with said that pre-filing sessions would be helpful in ironing out a range of issues related to the child.

They added that the state should provide the necessary resources at no cost to families facing separation -- something which they said is lacking now.

"In my research, what I have found is that they do desire some resources, some form of support, pre-divorce and post-divorce. It's just that it is not readily available and accessible to them,” said Dr Sharon Quah, sociologist at the National University of Singapore’s Asia Research Institute.

“They have expressed a desire for some form of structured programme, where they could send their children for counselling, where they can deal with difficult emotions or even process some of the issues, some of the fears they have about the divorce.

"But right now they don't know where to go and how to get them and there's not enough publicity and information available to them.

“We know that some of these family service centres run programmes but when I was talking to the divorcees, they have no idea where to get them."

Such pre-filing sessions could cover anything from the child's living arrangement, to the choice of school and even visitation arrangements.

"For example, if we look at maintenance we need to look at the child's financial needs,” said Mr Chettiar.

“If you look at housing, how to divide the HDB flat, we need to think about the housing for the child, so if you look at it from the child-centric point of view, then we will have a more holistic way of solving the problem."

Dr Quah added: "I think this discussion before filing for divorce is important. It's vital for the child and it's important for divorcing couples to consider the needs of the children before they file for divorce."

Today, most single parents are divorcees.

Since 2007, there has been an average of 7,000 divorces each year, with more than 8,000 children affected annually.

Family experts are now asking for "the voice of the child" to be heard in such proceedings.

"If there is such a support system for the child, it would be good, pre-divorce and post-divorce, whenever it is necessary if you have a third-party counsellor, to mediate or to solicit the opinion of the thoughts of the children,” said Dr Quah.

“It would be really helpful to talk to the child or even to get parents to be involved in the session."

However, there are mixed opinions on whether a pre-filing programme should be made mandatory.

Mr Chettiar added: "I think pre-counselling and pre-mediation should be mandated because if it's not mandated, I'm just wondering how many people are going to use these services.”

“It's just going to be one of the services that we have that will not be well used. If it's mandated then people will have to go through this and it will definitely help them go through their emotional issues.

"I'm not going to say it will solve all the problems, but it will minimise the issues of divorce and child custody and maintenance and all those issues... If we have this pre-filing programme and mandate it perhaps, it will really help Singaporeans."

Dr Quah however, expresses some doubts. She said: "We see it as a support system rather than legislation (and divorce is already so complex.) Everybody has their own set of circumstances when they file for divorce or when they are going through their post-divorce.

"Their journey is different and to insist that we have a one size fits all approach, we are really not being sensitive to the unique challenges that they are facing."

Plans are also underway to roll out a whole suite of support programmes for families going through a separation.

These include programmes for children whose families have already completed divorce proceedings as well as programmes for parents to work out their emotions as well as overcome co-parenting difficulties. 

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