Here is a guest post from Austin Chessell who is a mediating family lawyer. He explains how children can benefit from involvement in divorce mediations and provides some useful resources.
New resources and services available to children whose parents are separating
This article was first published by Solicitors Journal (www.solicitorsjournal.com) on 5th February 2013 and is reproduced by kind permission.
In a recent joint family mediation session I held with parents to three children, the parents had agreed to separate but were unsure how to tell the children that they would be divorcing shortly.
Parent One wanted to tell the children with both parents present while the other parent (Parent Two) initially did not want to be present. Parent Two then took some time to reflect during the joint mediation session and agreed that both parents should be present when they spoke to the children. It was agreed that a unified front would be best for the three children to see even though the parents would be living separately. Both parents also wanted to show that they could still communicate to each other so agreed to plan in advance what would be told to the children. It would be an impossible scenario to plan the reaction of the children but they would also think through what questions they may be asked. Exams were going on for the next week so it was agreed that they would both speak to the children after this stressful period when everyone would be calmer.
The parents left the session together talking about what resources and people their children may consult once they had discussed the divorce which prompted me to look into what is currently available.
Resources and Services
The children’s TV programme ‘Sesame Street’ has explored the sensitive topic of divorce in December 2012 for the first time and has posted online videos for its viewers. In one of the videos the scene shows drawings held up by the Sesame Street characters:
“This one is where I live with my mommy. And this is the one where I live with my daddy,” says the Muppet character about the two houses. ‘But, Abby why don’t you all live in one house together?’ ask Elmo. ‘Well, because my parents are divorced,’ says Abby. ‘Divorced? What does divorced mean?’ Elmo asks. Abby then explains to her friends what divorce means.
In contact centre cases I have worked on at Welcare it is not unusual for one child to ask the parent during a session why do the parents no longer live together. By Sesame Street posing these questions for young children this could in some way help.
Also a short film has been created in America called ‘Split: Children’s journey through divorce’ which is available online. The children filmed are aged between 6-12 years old. The film aims to get children talking to each other, to their parents and to other adults in their lives to encourage children to say what they need and want as their family environment changes through divorce.
Children And Family Court Advisory And Support Service ‘CAFCASS’ has used social media through Twitter in January 2013 for young people to voice parental separations impact on Kids. Someone tweeted “I was worried, but it was ok because I went through it with my brother. It was confusing at first, but it slowly made sense.”
‘A Kidspace’ in London has been formed by an experienced drama therapist and counsellor. They run a support programme for children going through family breakdown. I have been fortunate to meet one of the founders twice and she speaks very passionately and knowledgeably about how their programme helps children to cope, manage changes and come to terms with the separation of their parents. A parent has provided feedback on the service on the ‘A Kidspace’ website ‘When my children arrived at your door they had no ‘points of reference’ and absolutely no ‘coping mechanisms’ in place for what was happening to them, and indeed for anything that might be going to happen to them. Within the safety of ‘A Kidspace’ they were able to be quiet, to be angry, to play, draw, listen and talk…..if they wanted to. I know that each of my three girls got something different from the experience’.
When I arrange supervised contact sessions CAFCASS often ask how will the children be prepared when there has been a long gap since the child had contact with one parent so I am pleased to see ‘A Kidspace’ offering this valuable service to children.
Direct Consultation With Children in Mediation
Since training to be a family mediator three years ago, several of my children issue mediation cases have led to the parents deciding that they would like to involve their children as part of the mediation process.
A two day training course needs to be undertaken to carry out Direct Consultations with Children (DCC) and have an enhanced Criminal Records Bureau carried out before you can mediate with children.
How does a DCC work?
During a DCC, the children first have a session with a qualified Direct Child Consultant where the parents are not present and the children are given the time and space in a safe and confidential place to discuss what they would like their wishes and feelings for the future to be.
The wishes and thoughts of the children are then informed to the parents in a separate meeting so that the desires of the children can then be taken into account when making decisions for the child arrangements for the future.
It is important before arranging a DCC session that the parents sign a consent form agreeing for the children to take part in the session.
When might involving children in the mediation process be appropriate?
Both parents may feel that their children should be given the chance to have a voice in the future family structure and can play a part in how new arrangements are going to operate. This may help to allay some of the fears that children have about the parents separating.
Children can be asked to have a session with the mediator at different points of the mediation process.
I have been involved in a case when the father relocated to Japan and the three teenage children and mother remained in London. The three teenage children wanted to find out why the parents’ relationship had broken down as this had not been explained to them. The three children had only been having contact through email and wanted to use the session to arrange when they could have direct contact with their father.
In other mediation cases the parents had previously been litigating in court to decide which A-level school the child should attend. When the child attended the direct consultation a school was proposed that neither parent had considered which helped to decide which school should be applied for and avoided further litigation.
It can also be useful to discuss the children’s on-going relationships with the wider family.
Involving children in mediation will not always be the best option but from my experience of working with children at a contact centre for over ten years most children like to be given the chance to be heard in person.
Parents will be informed before the mediation session with the child that:-
- The children will not be asked to make the decisions and choices;
- The mediators respect their parents’ authority;
- A child will not be seen without both parents’ consent;
- Parents will be briefed clearly how the mediation session with the child works and the purpose of the meeting before asking if the child would like to be part of the process.
The mediator has to respect the confidentially of the information the child shares with the mediator unless there is a risk of harm.
I often get asked at what age children should be mediating. I personally would find it hard to mediate with a child younger than 8 years old. This really is down to the parents’ view on the child’s capacity to use and understand the opportunity. I have not experienced a situation where a child has refused to be part of the mediation process yet.
For cases that have complex issues I would look to co-mediate the children session.
Some children have preferred to come straight after school while other children have expressed a preference to mediate at the weekend. It is also discussed with the children who will bring them to their session and where the person collecting them should wait. The children are also told when the feedback will be given to the parents and what format the feedback will take.
Meeting with the children will not resolve all of the issues but from my experience has in several cases aided communication at a difficult time. The childrens’ needs are given paramount consideration in the process. A lot of children have liked the session with the mediator as they know the mediator is independent from the family and will not take sides to their expressed views.
The child mediation sessions are not therapy as the mediators are not trained for this but children have commented to me that the mediation session helped them to understand the changes that were about to take place, find their own way to cope with the separation when they may feel that they have to take sides and to express their feelings about the separation. It is important to acknowledge how the child feels and have soft drinks available along with time for short breaks if the child wants this.
If the child wants to have support from people other than their family it can be explored if there is someone at the child’s school or a school counselling service who may be of assistance.
I believe that where it is appropriate children should be given the opportunity to be part of the mediation process. From my experience children do not want to be involved in any conflict arising from separation but would like to help shape their future arrangements particularly on shared parenting issues by voicing their views.