The experience of seeing one’s parents split up, however amicably, can be difficult for a child to cope with. But divorces are not always amicable. The fact is that many split-ups are bitter and frequently involve protracted legal battles, including child custody cases. In the bitter battle between warring parents, children often end up becoming the prisoners of war. Parents often use children as weapons in their personal fights with each other, and according to legal experts specialising in family and divorce law, this behaviour is escalating.
The trend of brainwashing seems to be on the rise, whereby one parent who has more access to the child uses his or her proximity to influence the child and turn that child against the other parent. Some parents do not think twice even about using material bribes such as mobile phones, holidays and toys to ensure the child’s loyalty to them and to poison the child’s mind against the other parent.
There is another disturbing angle to this story – warring parents are also increasingly trying to withhold access to children, and exploiting children’s emotions is seen as a way to achieve this. There is a legal requirement in most custody cases that a child’s preferences and feelings be taken into consideration, and parents seek to use this to their advantage by alienating children from the other parent.
Another issue is the numerous cases in which mothers have used highly unethical tactics such as false reporting of the father’s name on the child’s birth certificate or not including the father’s name on the birth certificate at all.
Tim Loughton, former Children’s Minister, recently stated that a growing number of divorce cases are seeing one parent attempting to manipulate the family law system in order to keep an ex-partner out of the children’s lives. There are also more and more cases of parents who have legal primary custody ignoring court rulings about visitation rights etc. and preventing ex-partners from forming a significant relationship with their child or children.
The former Minister announced that changes to the family law system would involve tougher punishments for parents who attempt to twist the law and mislead judges. He also said that there would be stronger laws to ensure that children had the right to maintain contact with both their parents. This does not necessarily mean that both parents would have equal rights regardless of the circumstances; rather, it means that courts would have to make the assumption that children would benefit from having contact with both parents. Tougher penalties for parents who do not comply with court rulings would include unpaid work, fines, a ban from travelling abroad and even jail sentences.
The changes have been welcomed by some and seen as an important step in combating this disturbing trend among parents, especially mothers. But they have been deemed inadequate by some others who see the proposed changes as vacuous, insubstantial and incapable of achieving any real improvement. The campaign group Fathers 4 Justice would like to see fathers be given the same rights to visit children as mothers have and be recognised for their important role in children’s upbringing.
Yet another view is that courts already understand the benefits of children having contact with both parents, and that giving this a legal underpinning would not achieve anything. The Norgrove Review of the family justice system undertaken in 2011 did not see a need for such changes and was of the view that legal requirements for courts to assume the need for children to have contact with both parents would only result in confusion and misinterpretation of the law.
As for the large number of mothers entering incomplete or false information on birth certificates, this is something that needs to be handled separately; legislation needs to be put in place immediately to prevent this unethical practice in the future. No doubt many of us are dumbfounded over the fact that this manipulation of official records has been permitted to continue for as long as it has.