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Law

Father’s Day not a happy time for Hong Kong dads, and mums, falling victim to ‘parental alienation’

Support group cites problems with how the system deals with warring former spouses, and decries what it says is an overburdened Family Court

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 16 June, 2018, 9:08pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 03 July, 2018, 5:31pm

Father’s Day is especially upsetting for Mr X. Last year when he asked his son if the gifts he was carrying were for Dad, the boy said no, they were for his grandfather.

“I felt upset but what can I do?” said the psychiatrist, whose access to his two children is now down to a two-hour dinner every two weeks.

He is one of a group of divorced or separated parents in acrimonious custodial battles at the city’s Family Court, many of whom say they will not get a card, much less see their children, this special day. They have started a support group to share comfort and advice and raise awareness of their plight.

People from the group who spoke to the Post claimed their former spouses, who have custody, have been turning their children against them, through keeping them apart and trying to make the other parent look bad in the eyes of the child.

It is a pattern of behaviour widely recognised in the West as “parental alienation”. And Dr Monica Borschel, a clinical psychologist, said it harms children the most.

“They lose a parent and they start to grieve. They also lose grandparents and cousins and aunts and uncles [from the other parents’ side of the family]. It’s like they have lost half of their identity; they have lost half of their family. And it’s not good for them,” Borschel said.

It was a form of emotional abuse and should be defined as such in Hong Kong law, she added.

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All of the parents’ group’s members (who could not be named as court proceedings are ongoing) were educated, well-paid professionals, who claimed the city’s Family Court had not kept up with the times and had not recognised the alienating behaviour of their former partners. They complained that, despite the Law Reform Commission calling for a new “joint parental responsibility model” in March 2005, countless estranged parents are still fighting for co-parenting and equal access, in place of sole custody.

The members all have emotional stories to tell. One man’s divorce was still going through the court and he seldom sees his children. He said his wife regularly fabricated excuses, saying the children did not want to see him. The banker has so far spent nearly HK$8 million (US$1 million) on back-and-forth litigation at the Family Court. He said his mother advised him to give up on his children as he might go bankrupt.

Another man said when social workers stepped in five months ago he was allowed five days with his children and they had a good time. After that his ex-wife called police on him three times in front of the children. He has never been charged with anything.

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A female member said she settled amicably with her husband when they divorced, giving him a lump sum of cash, and the court gave them joint custody. But he started lodging “non-stop court litigation and he has continued to litigate me” over custody.

The group was started by a US Army veteran, who also started a bilingual website to try to educate people about parental alienation.

If we move away from the label of parental alienation syndrome and step back and ask is that behaviour in the best interest of the children, and if the answer is no, that’s sufficient to help the court come to a decision
a Hong Kong barrister

He said the children involved were being brainwashed against one of their parents.

And one of the big problems victims are facing, he said, was that the Family Court, with just nine judges, is overwhelmed every day. Last Thursday, for instance, it handled 44 cases of custody and child maintenance, ancillary relief, variation of custody, and so on.

A Hong Kong barrister, who cannot be named, agreed. He said that if lawyers at the court do not finish by 4.30pm when the session ends, then it can be months before the case is back in court again. He said that, as the Family Court deals with the lives of children, “it is something that needs to be addressed urgently”.

He said the court should “pierce the veil of parental alienation”.

Judges should look into “why children are behaving in a particular way when it comes to parental alienation,” he said.

“If we move away from the label of parental alienation syndrome and step back and ask is that behaviour in the best interest of the children, and if the answer is no, that’s sufficient to help the court come to a decision.”

But a change to the law seems unlikely. The government made clear in a Legislative Council paper in March this year that it was not introducing the proposed legislation contained in the 2005 Law Reform Commission Report on child custody and access.

Instead, it set aside HK$56 million this financial year for the Social Welfare Department to set up five specialised co-parenting support centres to be operated by NGOs.

A spokesman for the bureau did not elaborate on the scheme. The judiciary did not respond to requests for comment.