CHILDS (Children in Legal Disputes) was started in 1989, by Ian du Toit and Anne-Marie RenckenWentzel, because they believed that children of divorced parents were victims of circumstances they did not understand, and that one had to work within the system to change it. CHILDS works with parents and families, and with the legal system, to help ensure that when a couple divorce each other they do not “divorce” their children. Part of CHILDS' mission is to assist the Department of Justice to create and implement an infrastructure to deal with and resolve disputes in the family in a healthy, efficient, cost-effective and cohesive manner. This project with the Family Advocate’s Office started in 1992. CHILDS volunteers deliver services at the Office of the Family Advocate and assist in dozens of evaluations each year.
One of the main reasons for the distress suffered by children when parents divorce is that children are usually placed in the custody of one parent and cut off from the non-custodial parent. The parent who has custody may deliberately alienate the other parent so that the children cannot have a meaningful relationship with him or her.
The list below describes some of the signs and symptoms of alienating behaviour. If you recognise them in your ex-spouse’s behaviour, or in your own, or in the behaviour of a parent you are trying to help, you need to review what is being done or said, for the sake of the children.
Signs of alienating behaviour
Inviting children to make choices about visitation or access – when in reality they have no choice;
Telling a child “everything” about the marital relationship or reasons for the divorce – this is destructive and painful for the child;
Refusing to recognise that the children have property and may want to transport their possessions between residences;
Refusing to allow the other parent access to school or medical records;
Blaming the other parent for financial problems, the breakdown of the family;
Scheduling activities with the child in the other parent’s access time;
Raising the question of changing the child's name, or suggesting an adoption;
Reacting with sadness when the child relates a good story about their visit with the other parent;
Asking the child personal questions about the other parent’s life;
Physically or psychologically “rescuing” the child from the other parent when there is no threat to their safety;
Listening in to the child's conversations with the other parent, and sometimes refusing to allow the other parent telephonic access.
A child who is exposed to continual criticism or dismissal of one of their parents and is made to feel guilty for wanting to have a relationship with that parent may reach the point where s/he is unable to remember anything good about the parent, or feels angry at one parent without being able to say why.
CHILDS works with many alienated parents. Some have simply given up trying to see their children after spending hundreds of thousands of rands – they choose to walk away and hope that one day the child will come to look for them. CHILDS aims to protect children by reducing the risk of parental alienation. It does this through mediation and through family support groups. It helps parents learn different ways to communicate with their ex-partners, how to handle conflict and how to communicate with their children. The organisation has discovered very specific ways to help combat alienation and has made some progress.
My own personal situation can be used as an example. My ex- and I now share parenting 50/50. We went from a highly conflictual situation where everyone was unhappy, to a situation where our two children have the best of both worlds. If it wasn’t for the support and advice I got from CHILDS, we would not have been able to achieve this.
Support groups operate in Durban, Cape Town and Johannesburg. These groups were started in May of 2002 following a programme on parental alienation on the television series Carte Blanche. Coverage on a range of radio and television programmes, and in national newspapers and magazines, has brought many more families into touch with CHILDS.
The CHILDS network now includes more than 200 men and women from all walks of life. Many of these are active members of the support groups, some, including journalists, are interested in receiving information on CHILDS” activities and others are members of overseas organisations working on similar issues. CHILDS has worked hard to create awareness among the legal fraternity of the plight of children in divorce; it advocates around issues related to joint custody, the suitability of fathers as custodial parents and related issues. Trained and accredited members of CHILDS, in conjunction with the South African Mediators” Association of South Africa, provides divorce mediation services.
CHILDS encourages parents to mediate rather than litigate and its experience has revealed much about what works and what does not. Its achievements include:
Getting mediation accepted as a way of dealing with family disputes;
Running a crisis clinic in Roodepoort for families dealing with problems involving children in legal disputes;
Offering supervisory services to children who were allegedly sexually abused and/or to fathers accused of sexual abuse;
Developing and producing a programme for Parents and Children at the time of Divorce that is being translated into Afrikaans, Zulu and Sepedi;
Drafting a proposal for legislation to form the basis of “In the Best Interest of the Child Act";
Initiating the drafting of the so-called “Blue Print” that formed the basis of the proposal for a Family Court in Gauteng;
Involvement in the submissions to the Children's Bill, 2002;
Spreading awareness of the provisions of the Children's Bill and their implications for unmarried fathers and people who will get divorced once the law has been promulgated;
Networking locally and overseas;
Assisting the organisers of the Fourth World Congress on Children's Rights to help organise the conference for 2005 (see http://www.lawrights.asn.au)
Supporting the international Equal Parents Week that happens every year in September;
Working with other organisations to promote the interests of children who go through divorce.
Although CHILDS' interests are primarily child-focused, it assists parents, both men and women, who wish to play a positive role in their children's lives. The Fatherhood Project has provided a golden opportunity to create awareness among men about what being a Dad means in different cultures.
Plans are in the pipeline to establish a working relationship with both the Academy of Family Mediators and Association of Family and Conciliation Courts overseas. CHILDS will also be assisting with accreditation of professionals.
It will also be launching monthly discussion topics and programmes focused on divorce and how to assist parents and children who go through this traumatic event. Because The Best Parent is Both Parents.
For more information visit the website at www.childs.co.za
This feature: Dodds, A. (2004) Beyond conflict, custody and alienation. ChildrenFIRST, November/December 2004 Vol: 8 No. 58. pp 67-68