SINGAPORE: Divorced parents who are denied access to their children by their ex-spouses will be able to get more help, under a pilot project by the Family Justice Courts set to kick off in the second half of this year.
A total of 24 lawyers who have gone through training to be parenting coordinators were taught softer skills like techniques to identify the source of the conflict and prevent it from escalating, to help warring couples come up with a parenting plan.
The number of divorces has been on the rise, according to figures from the Department of Statistics Singapore (SingStat). In 1980, there was one divorce to every 13 marriages but in 2015, there was one divorce to every four marriages.
While most divorces are settled amicably, an increasing number turn acrimonious, especially when children are involved.
For instance, a divorcee said he has not been able to spend quality time with his daughter for close to two years. Mr Lee added that he is only allowed access to his child once a week. Even so, he runs into roadblocks when he tries to pick her up at his ex-wife’s home, he said.
According to law firm Gloria James-Civetta & Co, 35 per cent of the divorce cases it handles involve problems with child access and this number has been going up over the years.
It is hoped the parenting coordinators can help facilitate access arrangements provided in a court order. The intention is for the court to appoint a Parenting Coordinator for suitable cases.
"The parenting coordination lawyer will have the opportunity to sit down with the parents, come up with the proper parenting plan and listen to what he or she has to say,” said Ms Gloria James-Civetta, managing partner of the law firm.
The lawyers would also listen to outside sources, such as the teachers or the grandparents on how they would want to be involved in the parenting of the child, Ms James said.
“As a co-parent, your child is very important, and you should be focusing on your child issues, and you should work together hand in hand, so that the relationship between parent and child would be very strong,” she added.
Ms James is one of the lawyers who have gone through basic training in parenting coordination, which included lessons, interactive exercises and quizzes. They learnt more about the roles and responsibilities of a parenting coordinator, ethical challenges and issues when working with high-conflict families.
The three-day workshop also hones in on psychological aspects. Subsequently, in phase two of the project, social science and mental health professionals will be trained as parenting coordinators.
LEGAL FEES SHOULD BE CONSIDERED
Other lawyers also said factors like cost should be considered when designing the scheme. Ms Rahayu Mahzam, a member of the Government Parliamentary Committee for Home Affairs and Law, said: "There's usually a spectrum of people seeking legal service. There are those who may be able to afford it, and those who may not.
“Some of the things that have been available have been uniformly accessible to all, so it is definitely a key thing as it involves families who may not have very high income, who come from a lower-income background.
“Legal cost is already a significant factor, so if there are costs imposed in relation to parenting coordinators, this definitely will be an additional concern. An aspect to look at is really about balancing the appropriate remuneration for the services of the parenting coordinator because I suspect the role can be quite challenging and extensive."
Ms Rahayu added that the rights and powers of the coordinators should also be made clear.
As for Mr Lee, he said he hopes the project can help him gain access to his daughter. "Eventually, the main objective is to let the children meet both parents,” he said. “At the end of the day, it is to ensure that the court order will happen.”
While measures by the Family Justice Courts are aimed at reducing the conflict between divorcing couples, lawyers and counsellors said that ultimately, parents themselves need to realise that their bitterness will affect their children, who may suffer from mental stress and developmental issues.