By Deborah Alton
How do we define the “authentic” voice of the child AND how do we ensure it is heard? The voice of the child is finally being elevated to its rightful place as an essential aspect of any custody determination. Although children are the focus of any custody dispute, their views and preferences have traditionally been a secondary consideration, if not ignored completely. Since a custody decision will determine the course of the child’s life in many ways, one would expect that the child’s evidence would always be before the court. Yet it is often either not heard or misrepresented.
As a divorce coach and family specialist I am dedicated to an integrated and less adversarial family justice process that guides families towards being happy healthy functioning separated families and well being. The consistent message of research has been that it is the parental conflict, both before and after separation that is the most harmful to the children. Although children are arguably the ones most influenced and affected by custody and access decisions, they are often rendered invisible and voiceless in legal proceedings. It is highly questionable whether parents have the ability to adequately convey children’s views and interests during the custody and access disputes that unfold during the tumultuous time of separation or divorce.
In a study on children’s perspectives of their parents’ separation, children usually receive little support during their parents’ separation and are not given adequate explanations of what was happening to their family, and most had no input into access and custody determinations. Parents, because they are in the midst of pain and upheaval themselves, are unable to attend to their children’s best interests and ignoring the children’s perspectives perpetuates a legal system that gives priority to the interests of adults.
Utilizing a family divorce coach or family specialist, in and out of court, helps the family justice system’s adversarial, litigation-based framework with a comprehensive system of dispute resolution. Many reports indicate that the adversarial system was not designed for family law cases and it does not work well for many. Mediation, settlement conferences and collaborative law are excellent steps in what families need. It allows separating parents to find better ways to communicate, flexible thinking and to work out the arrangements that works best for them. The inclusion of child’s “authentic voice” assists in determining what is in the best interest of the child supports the creation of healthy, happy separated and divorced families. Sounds like a “win-win” opportunity, don’t you think?