THE ADVERSARIAL legal system is no use at all in reaching the best solution for children when their parents separate, according to psychotherapist and author John Sharry.
Judges, caught between two angry parents, think they can become little heroes and sort it out for the children, he says, “but the heroic thing to do would be to try to get the parents to sort it out”.
He believes the courts should make a course on shared parenting mandatory for parents before hearing disputes over custody and access. That would help to impress on parents the need for co-operation for the sake of the children.
Shared parenting, through which children have access to quality contact and care from both parents, has been proven to be the best outcome in most family break-ups, he argues.
The rate of marriage breakdown is on the rise in the Republic, with 6,222 separations and divorces in 2008, an increase of 15.6 per cent from 2001. Parental separation is second only to the death of a parent in the amount of stress it causes children.
“The single biggest factor in whether children will do well is the level of hostility between their parents,” says Sharry, co-author of a new edition of When Parents Separate: Helping Your Children Cope, published by Veritas. “If that is reduced and the parents can co-operate in the best interests of their children, then all the damage is mitigated.”
Working in the Mater Child and Adolescent Mental Health service in Dublin, Sharry says the fallout from parental separation is a significant issue in children’s mental health.
“At the end they usually only have one active parent, who is compromised. Everyone is in a worse situation.”
It does not have to be like that, he stresses, but shared parenting is challenging. He advises parents that going to court only increases the difficulties.
“When you fight your ex-partner over the children, everybody loses. A lot of money is spent and you can aggravate the difficulties for you and your children.”
He has worked with families who have made huge progress in drawing up a mediated agreement. “But when they go to solicitors, their differences are aggravated, their tensions are aggravated and then they all have a go in court.”
He has never seen court action useful in creating shared parenting. “If you impose a judgment, it is always second best to an agreement.”
He acknowledges that if there are power differences, for example where one parent is not letting the other see a child at all, the court can help to rebalance that, but it should then tell the parents to sort the arrangements. He also welcomes the increase in the use of collaborative law outside the court system to help parents reach agreement.
It is often not feasible for two former partners to live separately but nearby, particularly in the current economic climate. If they have to remain under the one roof, some do find ways to make it work for the children.
Sharry worked with one family where the father had moved into a separate part of the house. “It wasn’t great, but I think their children preferred that. The problem is if the partners want new partners, which they tend to do.”
There is an onus on parents to stay close after a break-up, Sharry explains. “Your desire might be to go to a new country and get away from the past. But if you are bringing children with you, you are really depriving them. Children are for life – it means you have a commitment to the place you have them,” he adds. “There are no easy outs.”
A new edition of When Parents Separate: Helping Your Children Cope , written by John Sharry and Eugene Donohoe, is published by Veritas, €8.
A talk of the same title will be given by John Sharry next Tuesday, November 3rd, in Donnycarney Community Centre, Dublin, 8pm-9.30pm, admission €20. To book, or for more information, see www.solutiontalk.ie or tel: 086-7340114.
This article appears in the print edition of the Irish Times