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Divorce: what about the children?

Some statistics relating to divorce and the impact on children have the power to shock.

We are all familiar with divorce statistics in today’s information ridden world. But some statistics relating to the impact on children from a divorce have the power to shock.

  • In 2004 in the UK nearly 150,000 children were affected by their parents divorcing.
  • 21% of these children were under five.
  • 50% of children of separating parents lose contact with their father after the separation.
  • In any one week in the UK, another 5,000 children become part of a single parent family.

There is no reason to think that these statistics would be any different in Jersey given that the divorce rate here is probably higher than in the UK.

In the UK, there are increasing concerns that the voice of the child should be heard in family proceedings. The UK government has recently announced that children caught in the middle of court battles between warring parents would be allowed to express their feelings and wishes personally to the judge. This proposal is controversial, but the UK government is convinced that children who are old enough to express their views should have a direct voice in cases about them. The issues they could be asked to discuss include which parent they should live with and how much contact they should have with the other parent.

In 2003 the NSPCC in the ‘Your Shout’ project found that when asked whether they were listened to and their rights respected, nearly 60% of those interviewed said that either they were not or they did not know.

In Jersey, the court system is similar to that in the UK in that the judge will not speak directly to the child. I have only known this to happen in one case in the Island and still feel that the judge was right to speak to the teenage children concerned with an extremely difficult case.

The rights of the child have long been recognised by the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. Since August 2005, this right has been recognised in the Children Law. At the moment, the child’s voice is only heard through the Court Welfare Officer. However, this service is hard pressed and given its current funding cannot deal with all cases in a way that ensures that the child’s voice is always heard before the court in cases that affect that child. Nor in Jersey is it usual to appoint a lawyer to represent the child (as it is in many jurisdictions).

Divorce and separation has a profound effect on children. Many years after the breakdown they are often still suffering the effects of things that have been decided by adults. All investigations show that what is most important to a child being affected by relationship breakdown is the fact that their views are heard. If our children are ignored, is it surprising that they will become dysfunctional and in return bring all the problems of their childhood into their adult relationships? We cannot go on ignoring this issue. A debate needs to take place here as in the UK. I hope therefore that this article can start that debate for the benefit of all children who are currently left without a voice in our legal system.

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