Society should prioritise children in divorce and separation

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EACH year more than 13,000 couples across Scotland divorce, a truly appalling statistic. And these figures do not take into account the breakdown of unmarried parents' relationships, with half of all children born last year in Scotland to this group.

This week a group of family lawyers, mediators and leading international divorce coach and parent educator, Christina McGhee, will be calling on Scotland's politicians to focus on the tens of thousands of Scotland's children affected by divorce and separation each year.

And the number of children affected is quite astounding, estimated at 50,000, with one in three likely to experience their parents' separation before the age of 16. Between 25 per cent and 40 per cent of children whose parents separate lose touch with their fathers.

Research indicates that the children whose parents go through divorce and separation have roughly twice the probability of poor outcomes in the long term compared with those of intact families.

Divorce and separation lead to short-term distress for children, and the children of separated parents have a higher probability of being poorer when they are older; suffer behavioural problems, including depression; have lower educational attainment; become sexually active, pregnant, or a parent at an early age, and have high levels of smoking, drinking and drug use. And these effects can last into adulthood.

This is why groups such as the Scottish Collaborative Family Law Group and Relationships Scotland are urging the modernising of the current system and the piloting of a new child-friendly approach to marriage and relationship break-ups, with parent education classes and family mediation replacing the current potentially damaging adversarial system.

Such an approach has a dramatic effect in limiting the effects of divorce and separation on children.

While it may be necessary for court proceedings to take place during divorce or separation, every avenue for mediation and alternative dispute resolution should be explored before going to court, looking at the options and developing arrangements for the children of separating parents.

This would also ascertain the views of the child, often an afterthought in traditional court proceedings, and assist in discussion with parents either to reach agreement about contact arrangements or support court-based arrangements.

And where the case has to go to court, proceedings should be undertaken in an environment that is in the best interests of the child and in which all parties feel they have been heard and understood.

Parent education classes also assist in this process, outlining how parents should deal with each other and the child or children during divorce or separation, reducing conflict and promoting positive parenting behaviour. In addition, ensuring sheriffs and solicitors dealing with family law have the appropriate interpersonal skills to assess the situation properly, and are trained in issues covering child development and understanding a child's reaction to separation, supports this process.

We know from experiences in other parts of the world, such as the United States, that this approach works, and couples and their children benefit from it.

Piloting and testing this approach in Scotland will normalise it and give parents the opportunity to see for themselves the positives that it brings and allow it to be made use of with confidence.

Putting children first during separation or divorce should be an absolute priority for us as a society, reducing any conflict encountered, and certainly helps reduce the risk of children being unnecessarily hurt through being caught in the break-up.

A greater emphasis on mediation and dispute resolution will ensure we can sensitively deal with our young people during what can potentially be a traumatic experience.