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寫情寫理

Facing the Challenge of Family Breakdown (Eng version only)

家庭 – 寫情寫理      2019/07/06

Moses Mui

Chief Officer (Family and Community Service)

(Published in ICSW North East Asia Regional Newsletter Issue No. 6, July 2019)

Impact of Divorce on Children

Families in Hong Kong are no exception in facing many challenges like many other developed cities. Growing trend of family breakdown would be the most prominent challenge among all. The divorce rate of Hong Kong has grown drastically in the past three decades. In 1986 there were 9.8 divorces per hundred marriages registered in the year; by 2016, that figure had risen to 34.4, which means for every 10 couples getting married on one hand, another 3 couples divorced on the other hand.

According to the study conducted by the University of Hong Kong in 2014, it is estimated that the proportion of children affected by divorce has risen from 4% in 2001 to 7% in 2011. And the divorced households are found to face higher financial pressure than the general households. Further, the study shows that the impacts of divorce on the emotional health of affected adults and children, as well as academic motivation of children are generally negative.

Under the liberal atmosphere, divorce is regarded as socially acceptable nowadays. Very often, a divorce is simply a mutual and peaceful choice made between two adults. However, if children are involved, the society cannot just look away. If the breakdown of a couple relationship is stressful for the adult, it can be traumatizing and even permanently damaging for a growing child. In many cases, children whose parents are getting or have become divorced would be suffered from feelings as guilt or abandonment. Worse still, for those cases with high conflicts, triangulation of children in the parental conflicts would be another issue. For instance, it is not uncommon to see the child is asked to take side when the parents argue. Or else, the child is asked about things private to another parent. All these factors would be leading to adverse impact on the child’s development. Hence, it is of paramount importance to adopt child-focused perspective in policy formulation and service development to safeguard the well-being of divorced families.

Latest Development in Hong Kong

As recommended by the Law Reform Commission of Hong Kong in 2005, it was suggested to introduce the parental responsibility model into Hong Kong’s family law. Underlying this model is the principle that the best interests of children should guide all proceedings concerning children of divorced families. Specifically, it was recommended to introduce a set of new court orders to govern the arrangement of children when their parent divorce. Further, it was recommended to appoint a separate representative for a child in legal proceedings to ensure the children’s views could be better expressed.

To implement the recommendations, the Hong Kong Government has prepared the draft Children Proceedings (Parental Responsibility) Bill for public consultation in 2015. Not surprisingly, diverse views from the public were collected in the consultation. Particular concern was placed on whether there would be adequate support measures for divorced families to tie in with the proposed legislative reform. On the other hand, it was commonly raised whether the community is ready for such a paradigm shift in parenting concept given that Hong Kong is a Chinese society with a different culture from that of other western countries. Therefore, the proposed legal reform was suspended.

In spite of the suspension of the proposed legislative reform, the genuine need to strengthen support for divorced families has been echoed by the Government. It was proposed to establish 5 Specialized Co-parenting Support Centres in the financial year of 2018-2019. The 5 new centres operated by non-government organization will provide one-stop support services for divorced parents and their children. This is indeed a breakthrough for the service development in which the specialized service needs of divorced families are recognized with child-focused approach being adopted.

Way Forward

As reflected in previous public consultations, one of the majority views is that parental responsibility is an ideal model deserve to strive for as long as the suitable “soil" exist in the society. The “soil”, so to speak is about readiness of the society for the paradigm shift. To create the suitable soil, it takes concerted efforts among different sectors of the society. Among all, there are at least four major areas could be followed through with cross-sector collaboration, which could be denoted by the acronym “CASE”.

Capacity Building – an effective intervention for divorced families requires various specialties such as legal support, mediation, co-parenting counselling, parenting coordination and child psychology. More cross-disciplinary dialogues are needed among social workers, legal practitioners, mediators, psychologists and school personnel for better enhanced professional capacity.

Advocacy – adequate system change is essential to address the challenges facing divorced families in policy level. For instance, in Hong Kong over 40% of the cases could not receive maintenance payment on time in 2016. Over 80% of cases chose not to recover the arrears of maintenance under the existing malfunctioning system which requires the “victim” to take up the sole responsibility to recover the delayed alimony. Hence, it is recommended the Government should set up a designated office with statutory authority to facilitate the enforcement of maintenance orders.

Service Interfacing – collaborative approach has to be adopted for supporting divorced families with children in order to address a wide range of service needs emerged in different stages. The bridging between service units should be ensured in smooth and seamless could make a great difference for the well-being of the service users. Collaboration among service units could be enhanced not only through working out effective protocol, but also genuine communication with the common goal of child-focus mindset.

Education – last but not least continuous education on the concepts of parental responsibility as well as co-parenting should be conducted in a way to enlighten not only the divorced couples but also the general public. As long as the mindset change occurs, it is unrealistic to see the paradigm shift in the society. It is undeniable that legal reform should always follow the social and cultural change. Hence, public perception about divorce matters in determining the readiness towards the proposed legal reform.

- End -

Reference:

(1)The Law Reform Commission of Hong Kong published a series of four reports on the law relating to guardianship and custody of children with recommendations on the appropriate changes to the law. The last one of the series was the Report on Child Custody and Access in which the introduction of “parental responsibility model” was recommended. The full report can be accessed in https://www.hkreform.gov.hk/en/publications/raccess.htm

(2) Before the public consultation conducted in 2015, the HKSAR government has conducted a previous public consultation in 2011 (“Child Custody and Access: Whether to Implement the “Joint Parental Responsibility Model” by Legislative Means). Details can be accessed in https://www.lwb.gov.hk/eng/consult_paper/cca.htm

(3) Similar practices have been adopted in many overseas countries, such as the Child Support Agency in Australia with the legislative back-up of Child Support (Registration and Collection) Act 1988 and Child Support (Assessment) Act 1989.

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