What Hong Kong and Singapore can teach each other about divorce and separation

Singapore takes lead in implementing preventive care for children affected by divorce or separation, with lasting positive results, while Hong Kong courts don’t get involved in such deep issues

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 17 January, 2017, 12:03pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 17 January, 2017, 12:02pm

Divorce and separation are trying for adults, but they can be traumatising and even permanently damaging for children involved. Hong Kong and Singapore have systems in place to help protect families going through this. However, each takes a very different approach and there is much they could learn from each other to further strengthen families that are breaking apart.

Hong Kong has a well-developed social service to deal with the associated societal problems; Singapore, meanwhile, has incorporated child-focused organisations into its judicial system to provide comprehensive support and other services.

In Hong Kong, family courts are obliged to take the best interests of the children as the paramount consideration during a parental split. Traditionally, the judges have not met the children, and the court will often order a social welfare officer to see them. Where there are disagreements concerning the children, the court will invariably order a social investigating officer to prepare a report.

After almost eight weeks of interviewing the parents and children, the social worker will file a report at court with a recommendation on custody, care and control, access arrangements and any other issues the court might have requested, such as relocation. The social investigating officer will sometimes interview teachers and domestic helpers to get a better picture of the family, how they interact with each other, and their interactions with others.

It may also include seeking views from other professionals who may be assisting the family, and the review of court documents and other appropriate written information. Nonetheless, after conducting this investigation, Hong Kong family courts are presented with a recommendation that only scratches the surface of the deeper issues at stake. Where there are more complex problems, the court can order a child psychologist to interview and assess the child.

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Unfortunately, in high-conflict cases, the parties may try to rely on other expert reports to persuade the judge that the children are better with them. However, family courts will discourage the multiple filing of such reports as it is intrusive and often not in the children’s best interests.

Ultimately, the judge will be guided by the social welfare and experts’ reports, but may not necessarily follow the recommendations. There is, however, no follow-up for families post separation or divorce in Hong Kong. Once the case is finished, no one really knows what happens to the family thereafter, or what impact the divorce, separation, and multiple interviews with experts have on the long-term development of the children.

One family programme in Singapore, Functional Family Therapy (FFT), involves targeting the entire family, and the therapists, social workers and psychologists involved often deal with the deeper issues involving the children and their feelings. The programme is “home-based”, meaning therapists visit the family at their home. The programme can last from four to six months with weekly sessions taking place with the whole family. FFT requires mandatory involvement of all family members and this system has proved to be successful, with the family working together to reduce conflict and search for resolution, with positive results.

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FFT was introduced into Singapore in part to address the constantly changing make-up of the Singaporean family. There has been an increase in transnational families: three in 10 of total marriages in 2015 were between a citizen and a non-citizen. Cultural differences bring added complexity when families break apart, so there is a need for the family court to establish a deeper understanding of family functioning, communication and parenting.

In comparison to Hong Kong, Singapore seems to be taking the lead in implementing evidence-based preventative care measures – the FFT model in Singapore has proven to have a lasting positive effect that changes the lives of youths and families, when other services have failed them. In Hong Kong, while there is a system in place that works towards an immediate solution, there is nothing to deal with these deeper issues or the long-term impact on children.

A Hong Kong family is not very different from one from Singapore. Additionally, in Hong Kong, there is a rise in reconstituted families; with children from previous marriages, and the families may have undergone previous family breakdowns and subsequent parental remarriages.

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Hong Kong should learn from the Singaporean model, as there is a pressing need for some form of intervention for these families. This is especially important given the added layer of stress from their past experiences of breakdown, which may differ from those who are experiencing a split for the first time.

Singapore’s determined approach, in which family courts and social services act more seamlessly to help families through divorce and, particularly, take care of the children’s interests, are critical factors in the preservation of families under conflict, which are not being addressed by the Hong Kong system.

While Hong Kong does have professionals who could be trained for this, bearing in mind how long it takes to get any change in the law relating to children, we should not hold out for a wholesale adoption of FFT. As an initial step forward, in addition to the social investigation officer’s report during proceedings, why not add a follow-up report to evaluate the longer-term outcomes to see how the family is coping post-divorce and post-separation? Such a report could address the relational and communication issues within the family, which may in turn assist with achieving longer-term behavioural outcomes for all members of the family.

Anisha Kumar Ramanathan is an associate at law firm Withers Hong Kong