Hong Kong must do more for families going through divorce

Moses Mui says a lack of dialogue with the courts means Hong Kong's social services are letting down the many divorcing couples and their children who need mediation and counsel

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 28 May, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 28 May, 2013, 2:08am

Like many other developed urban societies, Hong Kong is facing a growing incidence of family breakdown. Our divorce rate has grown drastically in the past three decades.

In 1991, there were 14.8 divorces per 100 marriages registered in the year; by 2011, that figure had risen to 33.6, which means that for every 10 couples who got married that year, three other couples got divorced.

The Singapore experience highlights gaps in our support for divorcing couples and their children

Last year, the number of divorce cases filed in court reached a record high of 21,125.

In many cases, a divorce is simply a mutual and peaceful choice made between two adults; it is their personal affair, and need not concern the rest of us.

However, if children are involved, the rest of society cannot just look away. If the breakdown of a family relationship is stressful for the adults, it can be traumatising and even permanently damaging for growing children.

It is not uncommon to see children whose parents are getting or have become divorced suffering such feelings as guilt or abandonment.

In Hong Kong, divorcing or divorced families needing support usually obtain social services through the Integrated Family Service Centres run by the Social Welfare Department. Although the government describes them as child-centred, family-focused and community-based, in practice, these centres operate without any links to the court system that deals with many aspects of divorce, such as custody, visiting rights and payments of child maintenance.

To safeguard the best interests of children, some jurisdictions have incorporated child-focused organisations into the judicial system to provide comprehensive support and other services.

Singapore is a good example. Just like Hong Kong, Singapore has traditionally had a strong social ethos of meeting family obligations and preserving family ties, but in recent times has experienced a rising divorce rate.

The difference is that, in Singapore, a family court acts as a key player in offering support to families that are splitting up. For instance, the system can order mandatory counselling for couples with children when divorce is taking place. Mediation, with the judge serving as the mediator, takes place promptly if there are disputes about maintenance. A child-focused resolution centre helps to facilitate co-parenting by divorced couples.

While there are some differences between the two cities' social and political environments, Hong Kong could surely learn from Singapore's determined approach in which family courts and social services act far more seamlessly to help families going through divorce, and particularly to take care of the children's interests.

In addition to family courts, Singapore has voluntary welfare organisations that offer divorced families specialised on- going social services with government support.

One such organisation, the Centre for Family Harmony, was set up to ensure children's right to access their parents in conditions that guarantee the safety of the children, and - in cases that might have involved domestic violence - for the parents. These services include supervised or supported access, child transfers and counselling. Social workers are a neutral third party; they not only carefully assess families' needs before the services start, they also take steps to enhance the parent-child relationship once the services are under way.

The Singapore experience highlights some serious gaps in Hong Kong's support for divorcing and divorced couples and their children. It illustrates the need for a "specialist approach" in providing one-stop multi-disciplinary support in the form of mediation, counselling and support for visitation. It requires multiple and specialised skill sets among the social workers in the service team, and an ability to adopt the role of the neutral third party when working with divorced couples.

In the past decade, Hong Kong has assumed that an integrative service approach is the most effective way to provide social services. Yet a look at Singapore strongly suggests that our Integrated Family Service Centres do not fully meet the special needs of divorced families.

It is time for us to rethink our way, to improve and develop our services. In particular, we need to ask how we can more effectively integrate divorce court processes with social services.

Moses Mui is chief officer of family and community service at the Hong Kong Council of Social Service