Why should we consider the voice of the child in deciding parenting plans? When I use the pronoun “we”, I refer to parents, the professionals that assist the parents in arriving at a parenting plan, and the courts. On behalf of the many children of separating parents, I ask, “Just whose parenting plan is it, anyways?”
When parents separate, all too often all they tell their children is that they are separating. The children are seldom aware of the reasons for the separation. They have no input as to where they will be living, what schools they will be going to, or whether they will be able to access grandparents, aunts, uncles or other persons they are close to.
Children of separated parents are suffering the same grief as their parents over the loss of their family. Unlike their parents, they don’t have anyone they can talk to about their feelings. They often experience the outward signs of the dispute - the yelling, the nasty phone calls, the burden of carrying messages between hostile parents, but they seldom experience the positive benefits that their parents considered in deciding to separate. All this is why, so often when those of us doing child interviews, ask a child if there is anything in her or his life they would like to change, they will say they wish their parents were back together. I have been told that years after a child’s parents have separated.
Not long ago, I asked an 11 year old girl, whose parents were involved in a protracted dispute over just about everything, her feelings about the dispute. She told me, ”I feel like my parents are in a great tug of war, and I am the mud in the middle that they are trying to drag each other into.”
Dr. Joan Kelly, in her research on the effects of separation on children, found that in 23% of the cases she studied, no one spoke to the children at the time of a separation. In 44% of the cases, only the mother talked to them. My experience would confirm those statistics today in B.C.
In the midst of the conflict arising out of separation, it is difficult, and perhaps asking too much to ask a parent to have an objective discussion with a child about how they are doing with the separation. The discussion inevitably will be tainted by the needs of the parent, who will be tempted to persuade the child to side with his or her view of the conflict. The child, who often feels torn between the needs of each parent, will respond with what she thinks the parent wants to hear. It is not surprising, therefore, that each parent will confidently report that their child tells them that she wants to live with them. And it is probably true – the child wants to live with both parents.
The B.C. Hear the Child Society has developed a list of interviewers who are adept in talking to children about their parents’ separation, and how it is affecting them. The interviewers are lawyers, social workers, counsellors, and psychologists. The interviewer talks to a child one or two times, using a fixed format of questions. The purpose of the interview is not to evaluate the situation of the child or to engage in therapy. The interviewer writes down all the child says, and reports back to the parents or the courts, in as verbatim a manner as possible. Some interviewers will discuss the interview with the parents after it is conducted; some do not.
Interviews are only conducted with the written agreement of both parties, or as a result of a court order. No interview would take place at the request of one parent if the other parent does not agree, unless the court orders the interview.
The time from engagement of the interviewer to the parents or court receiving a report is usually very brief. My experience is that parties want the interview as soon as possible, because of an upcoming court hearing or the needs of one of the parties to change his or her circumstances. Turn- around time from engagement to a finished report can be as short as one week to ten days. I have actually conducted an interview, at the request of a judge, in the middle of a trial, over the noon break, and submitted a hand written report for the afternoon session.
Fees for the preparation of the report vary. I generally charge $550 per child. Usually the parties agree to share the cost of the report. Sometimes the court order deals with who will pay for the report.
My experience is that children between the age of 8 and 16 are most responsive to Voice of the Child interviews. Children less than 8 are less likely to provide accurate information because they have a poor concept of time, and are easily influenced by the last person who talks to them. Children over 16 are more likely to know they can vote with their feet, but if they wish to talk to an independent person, they should be encouraged to do so. If there are several siblings, it is best practice to interview all the children, so all will feel included in the process.
In my experience, the real benefit of a “Voice of the Child” report is to the child. For once, in the noisy, confusing chaos that is home for children of parents in conflict, children are given the opportunity to sit down in a quiet setting, with a caring adult, who is genuinely interested in what they feel and how their new family situation affects them. They are honored by the fact that the interviewer makes it clear that the report is their report, and that the interviewer wants to “get it right”.
While their family situation will certainly change as the family works through the results of the breakup, at least the children have had one chance to express how all the conflict is affecting them.
For more information, and a roster of qualified interviewers in British Columbia, go to the B.C. Hear the Child Society website at www.hearthechildsociety.ca.